Jennie Wilson: “When we spoke about starting Stonewall, it came out of anger, frustration and a growing feeling that change was needed”

WORDS & PHOTOS: JENNIE WILSON.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what you did last week, or last year, let alone 30 years ago. Where was I 30 years ago and what was I doing?

Well, I was your average out and proud dyke, most likely found listening to Madonna’s Like A Prayer, watching Out On Tuesday, or selling lesbian sex toys from my East End flat with my partner, Lisa. 

The fact that Stonewall turns 30 this year is fantastic, it’s incredible. When we spoke about starting Stonewall, it came out of anger, frustration and a growing feeling that change was needed.

We wanted to start a new way of thinking, a new way of organising. And in the living room of our East End flat, amongst the vibrators and dildos, a group of us came together to create a new organisation with a new way of lobbying to get the equality we knew we deserved.  

Jennifer (Jennie) Wilson, along with Lisa Power, Michael Cashman and Ian McKellen, was one of the four core founders of the Stonewall Group.

Section 28 was passed into law on 24 May 1988 and we were angry. The law had passed despite one of the biggest marches that London had seen up until that time, despite a group of courageous lesbian activists abseiling into the House of Lords on 2 February, and despite four of them subsequently invading the BBC studios and taking over the 6 o’clock news. 

Being LGBT meant we had daily worries, like losing a job – yes, you could be sacked for your sexuality; worries about being thrown out of our homes – yes, you could be refused tenancy if you were gay; hiding your sexuality for fear of being thrown out of the armed forces; knowing your relationship wasn’t recognised; or the more down-to-earth, day-to-day concern over lesbian attacks and gay-bashing.

We might have lost the battle, but we were determined to win the war. We’d learnt lessons from our defeat over Section 28 – lessons that underpinned our thinking when we created Stonewall.

We’d learnt that lesbians and gay men really can come together and work for shared goals. We’d learnt that political activists need more recognisable faces to appeal to the broader straight community. We’d learnt that we were stronger when we were different – including politically different. And we knew that we needed to change hearts and minds as much as we needed to change laws. 

We wanted to be effective and we expected to be successful. That meant we had to think and act differently – use the same tools and sharp focus that had defeated the push for equality in the past: solidly structured, well-funded, professionally staffed and targeting decision makers and those with the power to make change. And that’s what we did – 12 months to the day after Section became law.

You don’t take action based on how history will remember you – you do what seems right at the time. 

There’s still change to be fought for, and the divisive debates surrounding trans rights are a worrying mirror of what we heard 30 years ago surrounding Section 28, as well as what we’re seeing in the media around LGBT-inclusive education in schools.

We must make sure that the progress we’ve fought so hard for is protected. 

But it is incredibly exciting to see just how effective we have been and what the organisation will continue to achieve. While the battle that was ignited by Section 28 is definitely not over, we’ve come a long way with regard to equality and legal protection for LGBTI people in the last thirty years – and Stonewall has been a huge part of this.

So what happened to the Jennie Wilson of 30 years ago? Now, the hot-blooded pushy political activist dyke I was in my 20s and 30s has mellowed somewhat, and the world has moved and changed.

But she’s still there and ready to pull out a bit of the familiar political pushiness when it’s called for… 

A little history of Jennie…

Jennie (left) on a houseboat in the 1980s

Jennifer (Jennie) Wilson, along with Lisa Power, Michael Cashman and Ian McKellen, was one of the four core founders of the Stonewall Group. She had previous been Chair of the London Lesbian and Gay Centre, was involved with the Legislation for Lesbian and Gay Rights movement, was a co-founder of OLGA, the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action and organiser of the January 1988 march that rioted at Downing Street.

She went on to become Secretary General of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, Director of The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in Sydney was on the Board of Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras.

She doesn’t believe the sex toy industry is all that interesting. 

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