Lockdown Inspired Me to Start a Lesbian Book Group

Lockdown changed my life in lots of different ways. The government decreeing that people should stay in our homes, stop going out, and cut off in-person social contact beyond our immediate households undid much of the progress I’d made through my early twenties in managing agoraphobia. I agree that lockdowns were a necessary measure to minimise the spread of a deadly virus. But as the world opens back up, I’m still struggling to participate in it. Though it’s now an option, there are still many days where I can’t – or won’t – leave the house.

That being said, lockdown also brought about positive change in my life. Without a wide range of distractions, I quickly ran out of excuses not to work on my novel. I have a complete first draft, which I’m now editing, and I’m halfway through writing a second novel. The focus and commitment I found during lockdown – the realisation that I’m terrified of dying without ever having told those stories – these lessons have stayed with me.

But writing a book is a lonely process. There are no colleagues to chat with, beyond the cast of characters in my mind; no necessary meetings, outside the odd check in with my (wonderful) agent. Only me and a Word Document, alone in my office for hundreds of hours.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Above my desk hangs a purple print of that book’s cover. But both the money and the room are an immense privilege. And plenty of brilliant authors have neither. Countless more never got to write their books at all. Which means I’m very lucky to have a sanctuary in which to craft stories, and the financial safety net my grandmother provides (without which my writing career would simply not be possible). With this in mind, I decided to try and give something back to the community that offered me a spiritual home and cultural heritage.

Lesbian stories are what I’m most passionate about writing and reading. And lesbian community was what I missed the most, all those months where my world ended at the front door. Lesbian writers are marginalised by the publishing industry – our stories are positioned as niche, whereas heterosexual stories are marketed with an assumed universality. Moreover, women-only and lesbian spaces face an existential threat as campaigners and powerful lobby groups push for gender identity to replace biological sex.

For all these reasons and more, I knew that I wanted to build a lesbian space celebrating a distinctly lesbian culture. And so, Labrys Lit was born. It’s run in partnership with FiLiA, a woman-led volunteer collective that’s part of the women’s liberation movement.

I announced the lesbian book group in February 2021. Our mission statement? We read lesbian books. The first was a remarkable short story collection – Oh You Pretty Thing, by V.G. Lee, who came along to discuss her work that March. And from there we’ve gone from strength to strength. So far we’ve had fifteen meetings and one Sapphic Solstice Party, which will become an annual tradition. We’ve also welcomed some of the greatest living lesbian authors, including Scotland’s former Poet Makar Jackie Kay.

Labrys Lit meets on the last Sunday of every month Zoom, which has enabled us to grow an international membership of more than 250 women. It’s a diverse community, encompassing a broad range of nationalities, ethnicities, faiths, class backgrounds, and generations. Connecting with these remarkable women, bonding over our shared lesbian culture, is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given.

The phrase “Zoom fatigue” has been bandied about a lot, but for me that platform is a lifeline. And the stories we read together act as springboards to discussion about lesbian life, love, politics, and community – conversations that many of our members, me included, don’t have access to in our everyday lives.

Running Labrys Lit in partnership with FiLiA has made a world of difference. FiLiA is committed to amplifying the voices of women – particularly those less often heard or purposefully silenced. And this perfectly aligns with Labrys Lit’s core objective: of celebrating lesbian stories and voices. At Labrys Lit we prioritise stories by women from marginalised backgrounds, reading a minimum of three books by women of colour and three books by working class women annually.

Like me, the wider FiLiA team are all proud champions of women-only space. And that was important for making Labrys Lit sustainable over the long-term. There have been persistent efforts to de-platform women’s speech, de-fund women’s spaces, and otherwise suppress organising that is woman-centric – which has cost me more than I’ve ever publicly acknowledged. Losing Labrys Lit too would have crushed me. So, I had to think quite carefully about the foundation on which to build. And I have no regrets.

Thanks to women of the FiLiA collective, Labrys Lit has: a mailing list, a gorgeous website, a page on Bookshop where people can buy our reading lists, promotional images to advertise each meeting, a functional Zoom room, and a gorgeous logo. I couldn’t have done any of this alone. Especially the logo; though I came up with the concept, my Microsoft Paint skills leave a lot to be desired.

The Labrys – a double-bitted axe – is a lesbian symbol. And on our logo the blades of the axe have been replaced with open books. This perfectly represents who and what our group is about.

Labrys Lit has big plans. I’ve drawn up a provisional reading list for the next five years. A panel of our authors and members was the first event to be announced for this year’s FiLiA conference – a huge honour. We’ll also be having a meet-up for members, and I am overjoyed at the prospect of seeing these women in person.

If you’re a lesbian looking to connect with our community and culture, sign up here.

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