Born: 4th of August 1956
Identifies as Lesbian Woman.
Occupation: Personnel Coordinator for RISC
Work with the LGBT Community: Section 28 review in Reading, WOW (Women only Wednesday), Dorothy’s Daughters, ReachOUT, Reading Pride founder
Leslee came to Reading in April 1989. She had been unemployed for a couple of years in Sunderland. The only way Leslee was going to get work was if she was prepared to move out of the area. So she ended up in Theale, managing a small hotel and restaurant.
Here is the section from Leslee’s own words about her time in Reading.
I’d like to tell you about a couple of things that I’ve done in Reading that I’m quite proud of – one took place around about 2000, 2001, when there was a letter that appeared on the front page of the Chronicle against the repeal of Section 28 signed by 39 church leaders. At the time, the Reading Chronicle was like a broadsheet, do you remember? It was quite a big paper. I responded to that letter in the letters page and then people responded to that: people that were for the repeal, people that were against. These letters about Section 28 were getting two full pages in the Chronicle, and I decided that, because I worked for RISC whose ethos is of social justice and human rights, I asked them if I could go ahead and organise a Question Time-type debate. They were very supportive so I invited Angela Mason, director from Stonewall and Penny (3.15) Wallace/Wallis, who was the chair of the helpline OutRage! Aid/Outreach Aid. She is lesbian, a teacher and she is also a Christian. I organised for it to happen in RISC’s main halls, which is quite a big hall. I prepared some photocopies outlining what Section 28 was plus the original letter that featured on the front page of the paper, some other letters, key letters that I thought were interesting, and the agenda. My colleague Dave Richards chaired the meeting. I’d prepared about 40 lots of the photocopies and before long we needed another 20 – I was saying to my colleague, “Go photocopy another 20!” [laughs] We did that about three times, so there were well over 120 people. It soon packed out the hall, they were spilling out into the hallway and I thought, “we’ve hit a nerve here”. We had two of the church ladies on the panel as well as Angela Mason, Penny Wallace/Wallis and my colleague Dave chairing. We set ground rules: let people finish what they’re saying, don’t talk over them, respect each other’s opinions, things like that. It was a great debate and at the end, this one guy – I was just quietly stood at the back – and this one guy stood up and he said, “My name is so-and-so, I was one of the church leaders who signed that letter. After hearing what I’ve heard tonight, I’m taking my name off that letter”. I just felt like punching the air. I thought, if he was brave enough to stand up in front of all of his peers and say that, I’m sure there’d be a hell of a lot more people in the audience who were feeling the same. Then I just started thinking about positive visibility – because he’d had a positive experience, he’d changed his mind. So that led onto doing something bigger which that was the start of Pride, really, the start of thinking about Pride.
We asked about her family and coming out.
Initially I didn’t come out to them, but my sister, who was two years older than me, found out and used it as blackmail against me. We didn’t have a great relationship anyway – a lot of sisters hate each other. She couldn’t understand what I was and I couldn’t understand what I was, to be honest. There were absolutely no role models then in the late sixties, early seventies. She used to ask me for money and if I refused she would say, “Mum, Leslee’s a lesbian” – loud enough for me to hear, not loud enough for my mum to hear, so I had to give her the money. She’s totally different now, she would walk on broken glass for me now, but we were very young at the time. I didn’t come out to my mother, I think it would have broken her heart. My dad died when I was twenty and… yeah. I came out to my eldest sister, she was fourteen years older than me when I was eighteen, but I was able to do that because I’d met other people. I’d finally met some other lesbians and I realised I’m not this freak, there’s lots of people like me out there. So I told her and she said, “Well, I’ve never come across a gay person before, but if you want me to take you to the doctor’s, I will, I’ll come with you.” And I said “no, that’s not needed.”
We then asked her if meeting other lesbians, actually encouraged her to be a little bit more free and open, be more herself.
Well, for the first fifteen years of my life I thought I was in the wrong body, and that worries me a bit today when you hear about young people having sex reassignments. If somebody had come to me and said, “We can make you into a boy,” I would have said, “Yes please, I’ll have that,” because there wasn’t anybody like me, who had the same situation as me. It was always guys – if you read anything in the newspaper, it was always men, and it was always in London, and London was like Mars to me then, a sheltered little girl in a council estate.
Do you think coming out and being open about your sexuality has had a positive or negative effect on your life?
Once I found friends and realised that I wasn’t abnormal, [laughs] it was a great relief, like a massive chip off your shoulder. You could start living your life because up until then you were this sheltered little girl who was very confused about a lot of things. When I started meeting other women who were lesbians I thought they were great, I thought, “oh, I can’t believe it” – they were telling me their stories, which were similar to my story – you just start to live.
What was the scene like in Reading over 10 years ago?
So I’m going to go back 22 years ago now – that’s well before internet, social media, anything like that – and I hadn’t found a gay bar in place in Reading. I thought, well, where else can I hunt down these lesbians, they’ve got to be here somewhere. I knew that the Women’s Information Centre in Sunderland was a place that some women went to socialise so I got out the Yellow Pages, the thick yellow book that you don’t see any more, and I looked for the Women’s Information Centre in Reading.
I rang up and pretended I was interested in volunteering – I wasn’t because I didn’t have any time – but they said “come along on a Tuesday afternoon.” So I went and this lovely young woman answered the door with the most beautiful smile and I thought, yes, if they’ll all be like this, great! She showed me around and I started going there regularly, just for a coffee, just hanging out. That soon created friendships, in particular with Ruth and Jill Potter. Of course, it was Karen that opened the door and here we are, 23 years later – we’ve had our civil partnership, we’re still together.
There used to be a WOW disco, which was the acronym for “Women of Wonga” – I don’t know why! That was Brenda, Suard and Jess – a crew of people who used to put on these monthly women-only discos at the Park Hall at Palmer Park. We used to take our own booze in a carrier bag, pay a pound or two to get in towards the hire of the room and we’d have a brilliant night. Although there were groups of people there was never that clique-y feeling. It wasn’t all lesbians, it was also women who just wanted to be in a women-only space. That was great, we had a great time. After that finished I started working with RISC. We had the café downstairs so we started “Women Only Wednesdays”, so that was WOW as well.
The licensee at the time, John, allowed it – But he could not get the concept of why women would want women-only spaces, and at the end of the night he would come in with his entourage of mates, drunk, and spoil the atmosphere. So that didn’t work. Going back to the Women’s Information Centre, I remember going there one day and ringing the bell. Ruth opened the door and said, “Are you a friend of Dorothy’s?” – that used to be something people used to say as a code – and I said, “Yes, I am, actually,” and she said, “I knew you would know what that meant!” There were one or two younger women going to the Women’s Information Centre, so we thought about a group, a group of their own called “Dorothy’s Granddaughters”. That took off a little bit: I can’t remember everything about it, but it was a young woman called Jo who was very key, very involved in that. That developed into Reach Out – Reach Out was an LGBT youth group, and I worked there part-time. I remember one year we were getting ready to go to Pride in London, and how excited these young people were. It reminded me of how excited I was when I went to Pride in ’85, when the miners started the procession, which is in the film that’s out at the moment. I’d never… felt I’d been in a majority before. That was the most empowering feeling I’ve ever had in my life, when I went on that Pride march in 1985. I thought Pride was getting a bit commercial, you had to pay for certain things. I thought, hmm, maybe we should have a Pride in Reading. So I went to RISC in a meeting and said, “I’m thinking about organising a Pride festival, what do you think?” and they said, “Yeah, we think it’s a great idea.” They gave me the thumbs up and left me to it, really, and let me have time off to get involved in it.