As a child I was always bringing animals home. I remember turning up with three chickens and my mum was like, ‘What on earth is this?!’ I think I’ve always been a repressed farmer.
I came out as a lesbian when I was 20, I fell in love with a woman who moved to Open Women’s Land in Wales. I left my job to go there. There were 27 of us including a lot of German lesbians (someone had put an advertisement in a German magazine) but there were also women from other parts of the world. It was all very anarchic. God, I think we took a different drug every week. What I came to realise was many of those women had quite a lot of money that they kept in their bank accounts. So they were free to experiment. It was like they were playing at rebellion.
I was signing on, living on a Giro which I would cash every week in the nearest town. That Giro was feeding 27 women. One woman and I would go to the supermarket together. I would be pushing the shopping trolley, filling that up with things and the woman I was with would be filling up the rucksack on my back. We would buy the things in the trolley and shop-lift the rest. When we got home all of the women would fall on the food we had bought, we would eat it all in about three days, and then for the rest of the week we would live on tea.
With Open Women’s Land, eventually everyone decided that they were going to South America. The other women could all just get out their cheque books, or dip into their savings and buy a plane ticket. I didn’t have that option. I ended up going back to London, getting a job to save for my ticket.
That’s how I ended up squatting in Vauxhall in the 70s living with other women in collective houses. We were political, which seemed to mean we went on a lot of demonstrations: Reclaim the Night, Pride marches, anti-racism marches. Being political also meant trying to live authentic lives as “out lesbians”. Being a dyke was about being able to live fully, to be really you. There were “gay ladies” who liked to play cricket and golf and who hung out with other ladies. Then there were us, the dykes. We would go to the disco at Venus Rising in Brixton every Wednesday then Fridays and Saturdays we would go to Rackets at the Pied Bull in Islington, just hanging out with other dykes.
I went and got a job at a Turkish baths in Islington called Ironmonger Row Baths. Nowadays it has been made into a spa but back then it was one of the last remaining Turkish bath houses in London. The manager warned me that there were lesbians who came into the baths; to watch out for their “goings on”. The fact that he had employed two dykes to work there, went right over his head.
I had become very disillusioned with those women in Open Women’s Land. I had the burning desire to buy a bit of land for myself, it was doable in those days. Instead of flying off to South America, I carried on scrubbing women at Iron Monger Row Baths, saving up my money to buy land in Wales. Eventually I was able to buy a smallholding, to go and live there and start working the land.
The woman I bought the land from was working for Women’s Aid, in refuges for what was then called ‘battered’ women. She told me about taking children from the refuge on a trip to the zoo, driving there in the van, going past a field of sheep and some of the children said, ‘Oh look, there’s a load of cows!’ They didn’t know the difference between a sheep and a cow.
The children had witnessed very violent scenes in their homes, terrible, awful things. But in the refuges, it was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. The refuges were overcrowded. Children and their mothers were jammed in with a load of other women and children, who were all having major breakdowns. There was no way to settle and recover from the experiences they had had. I thought if I could just take those children and give them time away from it all then maybe that could help.
I started a summer holiday program for the children on my bit of land. Kitted the place out with bunk beds, so there was room for ten children. I would move out of the house for the summer months, and workers from the refuge would bring groups of children up from London. They would stay for a week at a time.
At first when the children arrived they were very wound up, running around the place, throwing stones at the goats and all that. As the week went on, they would calm down. That was the first time they were away from being in a pressurised environment. We would take the children over to a neighbouring farm, where they had 200 organic Ayrshire cows and the children would help out with the milking. By the end of the week the children’s faces looked totally different. They had chilled out because they had a week of respite from the intensity of their situation.
I was 23 when I started the holiday project, I suppose that’s young but I had the energy for it. I did that for seven years.
I think separatism has its value, it was very useful for me to be a separatist, I learned a lot of things about being a woman. Separatism can be useful for all different kinds of groups, to have their own space for a while, but for a limited amount of time. There was also a lot of weird stuff around separatism in the women’s community: women not wanting you to have male animals around the place, all of that.
I had heard that sometimes people who had previously only been interested in women sexually, suddenly became attracted to men when they transitioned. I had been a dyke for 30 years so I was sure that would never happen to me. I was a very confirmed lesbian, I was pretty sure I was done with men. Then, as soon as I started to take testosterone, all I could think about was cock!
When my voice broke, I lost my singing voice. Not that I was much of a singer but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I started to find my new voice by singing along to pop songs I liked. Then an email came around at work asking if I wanted to join a choir. We ended up singing three very religious songs in a church – not my thing – but hey it was singing.
Then I found the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus, they were so warm in the way they welcomed me in. I’m not sure I even looked that much like a man, I had only been on testosterone for six months, I was in an in-between place, but they welcomed me with open arms. My voice was all over the place, they were very patient with me. I’ve been with the choir for 12 years now. The choir helped me through my voice breaking and it helped put me in touch with the gay male population. It was like going to Gay School. The men in the choir taught me a lot about being a gay man.
At Dukes Mound down by the sea, there’s a popular gay cruising place. There’s the temple, where you can shelter if it is raining. If you wait in the temple long enough, then sooner or later a man will invite you to have sex with him.
Cruising, getting involved sexually with men, I had a lot of ideas about how that would be as a gay man. I somehow imagined that men would be all rough and violent, quite sort of ‘Raarr’. Except what I found was that men could be so gentle, caring, soft and tender. In fact many of them were even gentler than the lesbians! I had all of those preconceived ideas about how men were and how they would behave, or how women were, but in reality I’ve had a lot of very intimate relationships with PEOPLE.
My allotment up on Tenantry Downs, I was on the waiting list for years before I got it. I love going there. The allotment is high up, looking out over churchyards and their cemeteries and the woods below. Bright green in spring, some dark purple reds, then golden yellows and orange glowing as the autumn comes around. I can watch the seasons change, I can see the sea.
Some people make their allotments very fancy, but mine is pretty straight forward, it’s functional. Over the years I’ve put a lot of manure on the soil and now it is dark and rich. It’s great to be able to grow a lot of the food that I eat. I think food is very political, how food is produced, what we have access to.
I have a big herb garden, every week I cut the herbs to supply ‘Lunch Positive’. A local organisation that provides a space for men and women living with HIV to meet. In the growing season if I have a glut of potatoes, or courgettes or rhubarb then that goes to them too.
Last season I learned how to net the strawberries properly, there were so many! I would come up to the allotment on a summers’ evening with a tub of clotted cream, pick them fresh and sit eat them as I watched the sunset and admired the view. I guess you could say I’m an urban farmer now.