Badges Badges Badges!
Long ago, when dinosaurs danced to Motown and disco…when discrimination of all kinds was perfectly legal, nobody was listening to us. We had (still do) plenty to say We wanted (still do) to change the world completely. For starters, yes, we wanted equality, but we were dreaming of much more. On top of that there was – sharp intake of breath, oh the shock! – no such thing as social media. No one had profiles, timelines, accounts. So if you wanted to organise a protest or direct action you called the first woman on the telephone tree who then passed the information on to three others who did the same in turn & so on. I say woman because it was mainly women I was involved with, but of course other groups were doing similar things.
In the absence of social media, your body, your clothes became your profile statement. Badges, visible on a coat, jacket, jumper defined your tribe, who you were, what you believed in. (T shirts with slogans came later and did the same.) As well as asserting identity, badges were a way of confronting/questioning society (for instance badges that said things like How dare you presume I’m heterosexual? or No to male violence!). There was humour too. As well as wearing badges we fly-posted, scrawled graffiti and defaced billboards subverting capitalist, sexist advertising. One badge for example beautifully reproduced the Coca Cola logo and phrasing to say: Gay love it’s the real thing.
Badges were also a way of communicating to like-minded travellers. Two, sometimes three, women's symbols linked together told other women you were a lesbian (or bisexual and/or feminist but certainly open to sisters doing it for themselves). The double-headed axe or labrys, (originally found in Crete, representing Amazons in Greek mythology), was another symbol lesbian feminists could recognise each other by. It worked as code since not everyone knew what it meant. Not all badges were political or feminist. People wore school badges ironically, Captain, Prefect, 1st VII Netball etc. There was a whole cottage industry of badge making. (Along with home-made ones.) Bands promoted their music by producing badges. Deb, my partner, who has always been really cool, has several obscure band badges in her collection.
The risks you took wearing your badge/s depended on where you lived. When I visited Poland in the 1980’s I was a lot less brave than when I was walking round Brighton, (or Islington and Hackney). Communism still held Poland in its grip and even forming a women's group was prohibited, (after all there was the Party-run League of Women; anything else was outlawed). Polish Pride badges didn’t come till much, much later. But in the late 1980’s I got given a badge that said Kino Kobiet (Cinema of Women/Women’s Cinema) which I proudly wore in the UK to celebrate my (often invisible) Polishness.
I’ll finish this post by telling you a bit more about some badges in my collection which resonate personally for me:
I Love Sober Dykes was brought over from the States and given to me by a girlfriend. Alcohol had been a big part of my life. I loved drinking! When I was first coming out it felt scary as hell to acknowledge lesbian feelings. I needed a lot of alcohol in order to approach women I liked or fancied. Also many political meetings took place or ended up in pubs. But in my late twenties I started having some health issues which made me decide to stop drinking. It was very validating to be given this badge. I’d had no idea there might be other women giving up alcohol too and that not drinking could be seen as cool.
There has always been that tension between wanting wide and inclusive community (like the present umbrella alphabet of our LGBT+ identities) and wanting to break away to articulate the needs and interests of a particular group. For example now in addition to Pride celebrations there’s Black Pride, more recently Trans Pride. Back in 1977 women who'd been involved with Gay Switchboard and the befriending organisation Icebreakers felt that women's needs weren't being met by those phonelines and decided to set up a separate organisation, Lesbian Line. I went along to their first meeting and joined up. It was an exciting and affirming time, which included Lesbian Strength marches which began in the early 1980’s. We started Lesbian Line in London and then one was also set up in Brighton in the 1980’s. Socials were held in various locations including the Women’s Centre then in St. George’s Street, also in Boyce’s St, off West St. When I moved back to Brighton, I was no longer volunteering for Lesbian Line but enjoyed going to its friendly socials at The Only Alternative Left, a women’s B&B and bar in St. Aubyn’s, Hove run by Monica Crowe. It was a great way of meeting other women.
Does Yes I'm homosexual too seem quaint or funny now? At the time I wore that badge (early 1970’s) ‘homosexual’ was a creepy, clinical, already then, old-fashioned word. The sort of word that came up in medical journals discussing our ‘pathology’. You have to remember that until 1973 homosexuality was classed as a mental illness, then as a ‘sexual orientation disturbance’ – and what that carried with it in terms of appalling, demeaning, cruel psychiatric practices… (‘Queer’ at that time was also used very negatively. Both words suggested older men to me, and being older then was considered (still is) pretty unwelcome.) People mistakenly thought ‘homo’ meant man too, whereas in ‘homosexual’ it means same. But also gayness, generally, was seen as something that men did. Women's sexuality, desire - unless obediently heterosexual (today we’d say heteronormative) was hugely invisible. So this badge was a playful flip of the word ‘homosexual’. It was an expression for me not only of solidarity with my gay brothers but a way of simply saying that women could love other women.
There are lots more badges I could tell you about, but I’ll just mention one more, last but not least, Gays Against Fascism (circulated in the late 70’s, early 80’s). This badge felt problematic for the reasons I've just mentioned that although some of us used the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ interchangeably we also felt that as an umbrella word ‘gay’ didn’t make women visible or visible enough. But it was a badge which had (still has) a strong emotional charge for me as well. The image on it is the pink triangle which the Nazis made ‘male homosexuals’, as they would have been known, wear in concentration camps. Later on badges - and jewellery - were also made with the black triangle, which was what women deemed socially deviant, including prostitutes and lesbians, were forced to wear. I can't stress enough how important it felt to me (still does) to link every struggle for what today are called queer rights with wider struggles – whether we were supporting the miners’ strike, fighting for women’s reproductive rights, fighting for disability rights, for the environment or fighting against racism, fighting fascism.
Image 1. Maria Jastrzębska 1973: Maria Jastrzębska Personal Collection
Image 2. Gay Love Is The Real Thing badge: Maria Jastrzębska Personal Collection
Image 3. Assorted badges: Maria Jastrzębska Personal Collection
Image 4. I Love Sober Dykes badge: Maria Jastrzębska Personal Collection
Image 5. Lesbian Line badge: Maria Jastrzębska Personal Collection
Image 6. Gays Against Facism badge: Maria Jastrzębska Personal Collection