Not blokes (Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

June 26, 2023   4 mins

Of all the footnotes to Kathleen Stock’s recent trip to Oxford, perhaps the most unedifying was the sight of me and my friends — ranging in age from 30 to 70 — exclaiming “Phwoar!” in private chat groups. But as Joe Orton memorably said, “anything that is worth doing is worth doing in public”, so I came straight out with it in The Sun, calling her “the love child of Greta Garbo and Gandhi”. We knew she was clever, but walking to the Union, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses and surrounded by security detail, she looked astonishingly cool — “Reservoir Terfs”, as one meme put it.

But enough of my mash note. Dr Stock is such a fascinating figure because she represents everything about being a lesbian that men — no matter how much they stamp their massive feet in their stripper heels — can never possess. It’s nothing to do with pornography and lipstick, the twin pillars of this strange new faith; she highlights the profound emptiness of their performative fantasy of femininity.

Where once society was defined by Penis Envy, Lesbian Envy is today’s driving force. So much performative thespian-lesbianism has taken place in popular culture that you’d think every woman was at it, but if we regard the history of lesbianism, most of it has gone on in secret.

Many lesbians point out that, historically, there has been little overlap between the problems and pleasures of lesbians and homosexual men. Men are reviled for it in the Scriptures and have had laws passed against them, while women are more likely to simply be ignored, culminating in Queen’s Victoria’s refusal to believe that lesbianism existed. Yet, at the same time, homosexuals had great power in the Greek and Roman empires, while lesbians certainly didn’t. While Oscar Wilde could be a tragic martyr to The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, lesbianism has long been easy to reduce to titillation and entertainment. If you admire the female form, the onanist logic goes, why not admire it times-two? And, unlike with straight porn, there won’t be any well-hung male hanging around to make you feel bad about yourself.

This can lead a certain type of man to feel that, even for them, lesbianism can be a little something on the side, even something which adds to their own appeal. In the Nineties, I had an idea for a Bateman-style cartoon that portrayed a man being shunned by his contemporaries: The Man Whose Wife Wouldn’t Do Girl-On-Girl. It was around this time, during my second marriage, when I fell for a woman and my second husband gave me “permission” to see her, even doing a humorous routine for his friends: “Lesbians make such fascinating wives!” He wasn’t laughing when I left him for her, whereupon I uttered the classic line to the Evening Standard gossip column: “Miss Raven and I are not lesbians — we are simply in love.”

I wasn’t being super-straight or shy in saying this. Rather, I was aware that being the capricious creature I am, I didn’t feel morally worthy of bearing a name which brave women had suffered for, simply because I was following a whim which I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be indulging in for long. (Sure enough, I soon ran off with her brother.) Today, by contrast, straight people stampede to call themselves queer, so prevalent is the idea that “heterosexual equals bad” and “homosexual equals good”. There are so many young women holding up their baby boys on social media and pronouncing them “Gay!” that I’ve often thought that if a certain sort of young woman could be guaranteed to have a gay baby, the moribund birthrate of the West would shoot up.

But lesbianism has been ditched by those with the most claim to it and who could be most inspired by its history — a dirty word among young girls who prefer to be acceptably queer or trans. As the young American pop and reality TV star JoJo Siwa said last year: “I don’t like the word [lesbian] itself. It’s just like a lot. At the end of the day, that’s what I am… but it’s like the word moist. It’s just like… ugh!”

Meanwhile, contemporary gender activists do their very best to make lesbianism sound not “sexy fun”, as it was from Tallulah to Tatu, but just another workaday drudgery of dealing with the worst sort of pervy, grope men. As no less than John Hopkins University this month noted in its online glossary of LGTBQ terms, a “lesbian” is someone who is a “non-man attracted to non-men”.

Amid this erasure of women from lesbianism, there was something particularly lovely — and not just for lechers — about the case of the lesbian beauty queens Miss Argentina Mariana Varela and Miss Puerto Rico Fabiola Valentin who met at the Miss Grand International pageant in 2020 and married last year; supernaturally beautiful, both had surveyed the men of the entire planet and found them inadequate. And yes, of course it’s a proper pay-day for capitalism when two brides decide to outdo each other in the grandeur of their marital meringues — but it’s also gorgeous to see femininity unbound.

It confirmed that modern lesbianism, far from being the furtive trauma of the past, has the potential to be a hen-night that never ends, avoiding that morning-after let-down when one of the giddy girls is given away by one sober suit to another and must now knuckle down to the humdrum habits of adult life. Even when lesbianism begins as little more than a cheap thrill or a style tip, it has the power to bring down worthless heterosexual unions, which can only be a relief all round. All that disposable income and free time can’t help but give a happy couple a head start when it comes to fun — and, of course, the unshakeable advantage of doing something that society doesn’t really approve of, which has a way of keeping people young like nothing else. Which is all the more reason why it must be guarded from incursion from the male sex. When I was a youngster, the sure sign of a creepy man was that he would refer to himself as a lesbian trapped in a man’s body; it still is, only this time they don’t slink away nursing their semi when you laugh at them, but call you a fascist.

So, back to my adored Doc Stock, hated so often not for her words but because she shows what a woman is; not the way you dress, or sit, or present. It can’t be bought. A woman is whatever a woman wants to be — and what a man cannot be. And, most of all, what a man cannot be is a lesbian.

Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.