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Rebel Dykes: From activism to politics and sex, unheard lesbian stories hit the screen

Documentary Rebel Dykes shows the 1980s lesbian community in a way it’s never before been seen. It’s been captivating queer audiences since its release, and is available to watch online and in selected cinemas now.

Fetish, kink, queer nightlife and LGBTQ+ activism are just a sample of the themes explored in Rebel Dykes, the ground-breaking documentary currently screening in select cinemas across the UK.

Described as “an evocative time capsule” by The Queer Review, the film tells the unheard story of a community of lesbians in 1980s London who went on to radically change the world. The documentary, released last month, follows the Rebel Dykes, the eponymous lesbian collective, in their pursuit of art, music, politics, sex and a mission for LGBTQ+ equality.  

A combination of archival footage, animation and interviews, the film draws attention to lesbian life in post-punk London in all its rebellious leather-clad glory. Its 92-minute runtime offers a radical insight into an underrepresented community during a tense political climate for queer people.  

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It was during this era that the LGBTQ+ community faced threats to their rights, with HIV/AIDS censorship and the introduction of Section 28 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. This British legislation prohibited the so-called “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. 

Siobhan Fahey, originally from Liverpool, is the film’s producer. A Rebel Dyke herself during the 1980s, the film is largely inspired by her lived experience after she ran away to London to start a new life in her teens.   

The idea for the documentary initially came out of a history project Fahey started back in 2014. With the help of queer directors Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams, it later evolved into a feature film. 

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Rebel Dykes creative team L to R, Harri Shanahan (director), Siobhan Fahey (producer), Siân A. Williams (director). Image: Riot Productions

“After the ‘80s finished, things moved on really quickly. It seemed like Rebel Dykes were written out of history, like we didn’t exist. You couldn’t really find out anything about us, even though at the time we were really culturally important,” Fahey said.  

The documentary includes several first-hand accounts of pivotal movements for the LGBTQ+ community, including protests demanding action around AIDS, anti-Thatcher rallies and the fight to keep Chain Reaction, the first lesbian fetish club in the world, open.  

Using film to retell these moments in history, many of which have paved the way for queer equality today, ensures that they are not overlooked or forgotten in history.  

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“Sometimes the lesbian experience is the least heard from in the community and will take up the least space on screen in theatres, in books and in clubs,” Fahey said. “There’s two ways we can deal with this. One is to get really sulky, shout and blame other people. The other is to go out and do something about it.” 

Fahey’s proactive approach, one that ensures lesbian visibility on screen, offers a new generation of queer people the chance to learn about their history through a unique lens — one that isn’t taught in school or mainstream media. As a result, Fahey said that audience response to the documentary is often emotional, particularly for LGBTQ+ people who aren’t used to seeing themselves accurately represented in film.  

“People need to understand what we have been through to get to this point in LGBT liberation,” the film producer said. “It’s caused a lot of fights and trauma for older generations, including losing lots of people through HIV, mental health, addiction and all the other reasons why queer people die young.” 

Still from the documentary. Image: Riot Productions
Still from the documentary. Image: Riot Productions

The LGBTQ+ community of present day continues to be disproportionately affected by mental health problems and suicide. NHS research suggests that 44 per cent of LGBTQ+ youth have experienced suicidal thoughts, compared to 26 pe cent of cisgender, heterosexual respondents. As a result, issues with substance abuse are reportedly still more likely for those who identify as being LGBTQ+. 

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Fahey is hopeful that Rebel Dykes will encourage intergenerational debate and a sense of community between people who identify as queer. 

“The best way to make community is to do things with each other — activism, art or anything really. To take up actual space in the world,” Fahey said. “That’s what we had back then. We might not have had money, we might have gone through a lot of homophobia, but what we did always have was each other.” 

Rebel Dykes  is out now in selected  cinemas  and online on  BFI Player  and  Bohemia Euphoria.

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