Polly Shute (she/her) is founder and director of Out & About LGBTQ and the Out & Wild Festival which takes place in Wales, UK for the first time this summer. She was previously a director of Pride in London. We talk to Polly for the fifth of our Lesbian Visibility Week interviews.
What does ‘lesbian visibility’ mean to you, and why is it important?
I did not come out until I was 41. Growing up I saw very little focus on lesbian or any LGBTQIA women in the media, and what I did see tended to focus on unhelpful stereotypes. At work, especially in my 20s and 30s, there were virtually no open LGBTQIA women in leadership positions. It’s hard to want to be something that you cannot see. Recent research by charity Just Like Us, shows that more than two thirds of lesbians delay coming out, because a lot of those unhelpful stereotypes still exist. Lesbian visibility for me, is all about providing year-round platforms to elevate and celebrate LGBTQIA women, whether they be bi, lesbian, trans or come from different ethnic backrounds. It’s about showing diversity and helping those who want to come out feel that they can, however they identify and wherever they live.
Have you, personally, experienced exclusion as a lesbian? What happened?
I have not experienced direct exclusion, but a lot of ‘queer’ events are not designed for lesbian or other LGBTQIA women. I guess one example is turning up at an event I was invited to, and being given a goody bag that contained gifts solely for men. I also have experienced cat-calling by men when I walk holding my girlfriend’s hand. This happens far too much.
Lesbians often feel that they are excluded at Pride events. Have you experienced this? Why do you think this happens?
Yes! I joined the board of Pride in London in 2013 and really saw how male-focused Pride events were. This was not often purposeful, but just because women were not appointed to senior positions. What LGBTQIA women want from events often differs from men. The only way to address this is to get them involved. But just putting an advert out is not enough, you need to create a safe and supportive space for LGBTQIA women to be involved, and then go and find them! We can lack the confidence that men have to put ourselves forward for roles.
What does your Pride do to ensure lesbians are visible and an integral part of your events?
I run an event called Out & Wild, it’s not a Pride, it’s a three day wellness and experience festival. We thought long and hard about making it a Pride, but our audience told us that was not what they wanted. They wanted an event where they could just be a LGBTQIA women, or someone who is non-binary, in a fun, safe and supportive space with others. They wanted a festival that was about connections and experiences, not activism and campaigning – Prides do the latter really well. The team on Out & Wild are all LGBTQIA women and those who are non-binary and we make sure we consult with groups who represent different parts of the community. It’s our first year, and as we grow, we want to focus more on ensuring we are inclusive and listening to the community.
What would you like to see Pride and LGBTI+ organisations around the world do to increase lesbian visibility?
Get more women on their boards! Really, it is that simple. It will take work, and you will need to work hard to attract and retain LGBTQIA women. Also really invest in community engagement with a diverse group of women. And lastly LGBTQIA men have the ability to be great allies. I am always disappointed how few of the latter really get involved in weeks like Lesbian Visibility Week.
What’s your most cherished ‘lesbian moment’ at a Pride?
Being part of the team that launched the Women’s Stage in 2017 in Leicester Square as part of Pride in London. I actually was recovering from cancer surgery at the time, and having something to focus on like this was really empowering. Sitting in a room of Leicester Square businesses and persuading why the stage was a good idea, was challenging but also so rewarding when we got the ok.
And finally, many lesbians are at the forefront of efforts to support the LGBTI+ community in Ukraine. What is your message to them?
Just remember, although you may not see it, we are with you, thinking of you and, where we can, supporting you. We cannot ever understand how hard or terrifying life is for you, but please keep on talking when it’s safe to do so, and know great organisations like EPOA will support you.
Out & Wild Festival is the UK’s first wellness festival designed for queer, questioning and curious women and those who are non-binary. It takes place 10-13 June in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK, and tickets are on sale now.
Pride in London celebrates 50 years since the first march, and this year the Parade is on 2 July. This year also marks 30 years since London hosted the first EuroPride.