Sisters doing it for themselves: Rachel Adams and The Modern Lesbian

Jenny White
'Vee, Piccadilly Gardens'photographer Rachel Adams

A new photography exhibition profiles the most influential women in gay Manchester – and beyond.

“We look for reassurance around us, and I think it’s important for people to know what has come before them,” says Rachel Adams, a photographer who has carved out a career documenting marginalised or overlooked communities. She has captured the lives of Tutsi rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egyptian Coptic Christians and has even found herself arrested in Uganda, but the project Adams is speaking about today has its roots closer to home. The Modern Lesbian focuses on the experience of the female movers and shakers who have shaped British gay culture.

Adams began working on The Modern Lesbian – which is on show now at Contact as part of the Queer Contact season – back in 2010, working with the then-Urbis curator, Andy Brydon. She argued that most LGBT arts and heritage projects focused on the gay male experience. Her portrait-based project was an attempt to help redress the balance by celebrating the lesbian, bi-female and trans contribution to gay culture. “With LGBT lives having been closeted for so long, it’s sometimes difficult to know how you fit into society,” says Adams. “There has been so little visual representation of LGBT women that I wanted to address that. As a lesbian myself, I suppose in a way I was using my subjects to explore my own personal history within our collective history.”

Adams and Brydon found suitably inspiring subjects from Manchester and Birmingham via word of mouth, local LGBT organisations and Pride events. “I interviewed about 60 people, from teenagers to octogenarians about their experience of LGBT life in the two cities. I then wrote up their biographies in such a way that, collectively, their stories tell this hidden history.” The location for each portrait shot was carefully selected, the place itself carrying either personal or political meaning. “So Jayne Compton we shot in the legendary Star and Garter, where she held her first Club Brenda,” says Adams, “and Jenny-Anne Bishop we shot at Manchester Community Church [where her civil partnership was blessed], and specifically outside the vestry as a tongue-in-cheek nod to her cross-dressing past.”

As with any social group, fractures and fissures appear and people re-coalesce in different ways

The project title itself aims to provoke debate about what lesbian identity means and whether a single lesbian community or culture actually exists. “It’s probably more accurate to talk about lesbian communities now,” says Adams. “There isn’t a political force bringing people together like the women’s movement in the 1960s, or HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, so I think people probably find themselves part of lots of different groups. And as with any social group, with time, fractures and fissures appear and people re-coalesce in different ways. And then queer theory comes in, and says that even the notion of identity itself is an invention.”

Last year Adams became part of the story she was documenting when she was arrested by Ugandan police for attending the country’s first ever gay pride. “I was scared of going to Uganda because it had been deemed ‘the world’s worst place to be gay,’ by the Scott Mills documentary made there. But I know how the media can sensationalise things, and I thought it would be an interesting addition to the work I’ve done in the UK. I was arrested but released, along with about 12 other members of the parade. It was an eye-opening experience, and I was made aware of what a precarious position these people are in. But they keep fighting court cases against human rights abusers and winning them, so progress is being made.”

While The Modern Lesbian continues, Adams is back in Uganda, eager to follow up on the story. “The religious side of life here is very strong, and is one of the driving forces fuelling anti-gay feeling. The anti-homosexuality bill could still be tabled in February, so there is a huge amount of work to be done by the handful of activists here. Re-educating the public about sexuality and gender will take many years.” Until then, perhaps, The Modern Lesbian fills the gap in highlighting the positives of lesbian culture.

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