Fifteen Years of Change

Fifteen Years of Change

I’ve had someone shout "dyke" at me in the street twice in my life. The first was in the late 1990s. The second was a couple of years ago.

The first time, I was walking across town holding hands with a woman. Two men yelled at us from across the street. I stopped and asked them what they were saying. They continued to be abusive until two policemen turned up and the men ran away. 

I tried to insist the police went after the men. They wouldn’t. I continued to insist, until the police had had enough and ended up dragging me off to their van and taking me and my friend to the cells overnight. It was one of the scariest things that has ever happened to me. Mostly my fear came from the way the police had acted (I had cuts and bruises from the way they manhandled me). But my fear also came from the way the men had casually shouted their abuse at two women, just because we were holding hands.

This incident inspired a scene in my first YA novel, Read Me Like A Book, which I started writing a few years later. A novel about a 17-year-old girl coming to terms with her emerging lesbian identity. 

My book was rejected by everyone at that time and went into a drawer for over a decade.

When I dusted it down and sent it back to my publisher a couple of years ago, they said straight away that they wanted to publish it: "Times have changed and we’re ready to move with them" my publisher said. And she was right – in so many ways. 

Take the scene above. When I wrote it, it was a fair reflection of what had happened not only to me, but to other people I knew. My editor (and others who read it) said this scene didn’t feel right any more. Yes, of course, homophobic abuse still happens way more than it should be doing. But there was something about the flavour of this incident that no longer reflected the times. So the men were toned down, the police were removed and it became more a joke from a stupid boy, rather than a heavy threat involving the law.

As I changed this scene, I felt deeply conscious of how much things really had changed. 

The second time I was called a dyke, it was by kids, hiding out of sight, probably shouting it for a dare. I was walking down the road, holding hands with my girlfriend (who, incidentally, is now my wife - who would have thought I’d be saying that 15 years ago?). As we walked towards them, they scattered. They were scared. We weren’t. Annoyed, yes, but not threatened. And today’s police force would certainly not have backed them and locked us up.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a popular slogan amongst feminists: "The personal is political". Here’s what I understand by that: everything that happens around us is linked and interdependent – whether it is a law made by politicians whose names we don’t even know or how we act towards the person sitting next to us on a bus. 

The political bit means a law now allows me to marry the person I love. The personal side is that I now feel more confident walking down the road holding her hand – something that most people take for granted but gay people never have.

Politics means it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of sexuality. Personal means that my wife and I are not given strange looks when we book a double room at a hotel. 

Politics mean that the insidious Section 28 (a law that made it illegal to "promote homosexuality" in schools and libraries) no longer exists. Personal means that I can stand proudly with my publisher, my book in my hands, 15 years after I wrote it.

Another expression that I love – this time I believe from Mahatma Gandhi – is: "Be the change you wish to see in the world". Publishing Read Me Like A Book is my way of doing that. 

So yes, I am celebrating, I am shouting about it, and I am grateful to everyone who is doing that with me. But my biggest hope right now is that my book might play a part in helping other young people come to a point of strength and happiness about who they are. We’re not there yet for everyone. So after the celebrating, it’s time to take stock, see where we are in the world, where we’ve come from, where we still have to go, and do our bit to help times continue to change.

Read Me Like a Book by Liz Kessler is out on 14th May for £10.99 from Orion Children's.