Brixton in the ’80s was home to a group of radical lesbians who mixed sexual politics with squat culture. Meet the group calling themselves the ‘Rebel Dykes’
In the early 1980s, young gay women, many still teenagers, gravitated to London, attracted by its diversity and experimentation. A lesbian subculture grew up around the squats of Brixton and Hackney. ‘You could tell which houses were squats by the painted doors and blankets in the windows,’ Siobhan Fahey remembers. ‘I wanted to live in Brixton, so all I did was walk around the streets asking if I could move in.’
Fahey had come to London from Liverpool as a teenager. At the time being gay could be dangerous. It had only just become legal for gay men to have sex, and in 1988 Margaret Thatcher brought in Section 28, legislation which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality as ‘a pretend family relationship’. The capital’s empty buildings offered safe spaces for sexual openness, creativity and activism, and so the Rebel Dykes – as Fahey later christened them – were born. Dressed in biker jackets and chains, their hair sculpted, shaved and rainbow-coloured, the Rebel Dykes were the antithesis of ’80s conservatism. They helped establish women-only squats across the city and opened London’s first lesbian fetish club.
‘There have been no books or articles. It’s like it never happened’ - Siobhan Fahey
Now, though, these pioneering women feel like they’ve been written out of history. ‘There have been no books or articles. It’s like it never happened,’ Fahey says, explaining that their ‘punky intersectional feminism’ was attributed to ’90s movements like Riot Grrrl, while stories about 1980s squat culture often focused on men. Eventually, she set up a Facebook group to find former Rebel Dykes and nearly 200 people joined. Now she’s producing a documentary to tell their story.
The roots of the Rebel Dykes can be chased back to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, the female-only protest which campaigned against US nuclear weapons being sited at an RAF base in Berkshire. It was a feminist hub and, according to many of the women I spoke to, a hot spot for coming out and hooking up.
‘ I was young, I was cute – why not?’ - Karen Fischer
Rebel Dyke Karen Fischer, known as Fisch, explains that, for many lesbian women, heading to Greenham was liberating. ‘It was like being alone on a desert island, then suddenly there were loads of you,’ she says. ‘It was like being a kid in a candy store. I was young, I was cute – why not?’
There was more at stake, though. ‘If people found out you were gay, you could lose your job, you could get your kids taken away,’ says Fisch. ‘Our lives were made political by the lifestyles we had.’ One Rebel Dyke told me how a Lesbian Strength March was followed by neo-fascists.
Two women kiss at Pride (from Pink Paper)
A major component of the Rebel Dykes’ ‘political lives’ was London’s squat culture. Squatting became a criminal offence in 2012, but in the ’80s it was a basic lifestyle option for
struggling young people. More than 30,000 people were reported to be living in squats in London at the start of the decade. With 3 million Brits out of work, a scene of artists, activists and musicians grew in our city’s squats. As women from Greenham drifted to London, a radical group formed among them.
Fahey ended up living – ironically – in a disused housing benefits office as well as sharing a room at a well-known house on Brailsford Road. ‘We lived in one street that was full of squats where we all took turns cooking at each other’s houses,’ she says, describing how there was a band practice room downstairs .‘There were lots of people in open relationships,’ says Fahey. ‘We had parties that would go on for days.’ It wasn’t all fun, though: drugs, Aids and homelessness affected the community.
The back page of ’80s squatters' zine Crowbar
The Rebel Dykes were known for their liberal attitude towards sex . They launched London’s first lesbian fetish club, Chain Reactions, which caused uproar among other lesbian groups who were more conservative. Fahey says that the complaints only fuelled the night’s success. It was always packed out, with a different ‘sex cabaret’ each week. ‘Groups of women would come together to put it on and fall in and out of love while making it,’ she laughs. ‘We had pickets outside from other lesbians who thought that lesbians shouldn’t be doing this thing as it “wasn’t quite right”.’
Another popular night was Systematic at Brixton's Women's Centre, run by promoter Yvonne Taylor. ‘It was different to other club nights at the time,' she says. 'Because it brought in a whole range of different types of women: black, white, young, old, butch and femme.’ Taylor still hosts a monthly night - Supersonic - and says she's enjoyed watching London's nightlife become more inclusive in recent years. She's not the only Rebel Dyke still involved with London's LGBT+ nightlife, Fisch still performs as drag king Frankie Sinatra.
‘I would climb into first-storey windows, take parts of security doors off and change locks’ - Atalanta Kernick
Beyond clubbing the Rebel Dykes’ lives were centred on punk bands and protests. They took part in anti-apartheid, Stop the Bomb and Support the Miners demos as well as early Pride marches. ‘I’ve got a photo of me carrying a banner that reads: “Brixton Dykes Demand Wages for Bashing Bailiffs”,’ says Rebel Dyke Atalanta Kernick. ‘It’s a play on a campaign for women demanding wages for housework. Another was made out of pink mesh and had cats embroidered on it. It said: “Brixton Dykes Make Pussies Purr”.’
T-shirt made to promote fetish night Chain Reactions
As a teenager with an acid-green mohican, Kernick moved into her first squat in 1985 with a woman she met at Greenham Common. ‘I would climb into first-storey windows, take parts of security doors off and change locks,’ she says. ‘I did a building maintenance course, then carpentry, electrics and plumbing.’ She was one of a number of women who used the skills they learned squatting to take cash-in-hand trade jobs.
Rebel Dykes now: Kernick, Fisch (left), Fahey, Taylor (right)
Eventually Kernick left London, but the era remains a key part of who she is. After living up north for 15 years, she returned to the city after reconnecting with another Rebel Dyke. ‘We used to flirt in the squats when we were 18,’ Kernick smiles. ‘We’ve been together five years now.’
For Fahey, the Rebel Dyke years are still relevant. She sees her film as a way to connect with today’s queer activists. ‘Sometimes young people look at us like: “You’re so brave”,’ she says. ‘But we had the dole, squats and no CCTV. I look at them in awe.’