I persist because I choose to. These are some of Neo’s final words to Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions. They are also an excellently defiant cry for the LGBT+ Community in times of hardship and ones that I have carried with me through my own battles. These hardships have a long and often brutal history, part of which is explored in Rebel Dykes, a documentary that follows a group of S&M lesbians. Interviews from the present day explore the group’s formation in 1970s London, their acts of revolution through the decades, and how they stuck together through it all. The prudishness and brutality of the time is balanced with the copious amounts of lovemaking and laughs in between. Some of these tales are told through rough 2D paper animation whilst others, like the infiltration of a news station, are reconstructed with actors.
At times, Rebel Dykes can be harrowing. These women had a choice: sacrifice their identities in the hopes of fitting in, or sacrifice their safety in favour of freedom. They chose the latter, but it takes several decades before attitudes towards them improve. The 1980s are a particularly unpleasant era, with the AIDS epidemic and Section 28 banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools. There are beatings, bar invasions, and losses, but this is balanced by the moments of humour. Sir Ian McKellan licking a female condom at the first Stonewall meeting, and a story of the Christmas turkey being fisted stand out, whilst the knowledge that the interviewees made it to the present day provides somewhat of a safety barrier. There is sadness, as with all documentaries about queer history, but the knowledge that there are people with us today who remember these events provides a glimmer of hope.
The great tragedy of queer history is that much of it wasn’t just lost; t was destroyed. When books were being burned by Nazis during the Second World War, there was a focus on destroying books by and about queer people, as well as trans healthcare research. After the war, recollections were written about queer life in Europe in books like Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood but the loss of contemporary works is keenly felt. History should be preserved for future generations to learn from, it contains lessons on life and details of the people who sacrificed everything so that to make our lives better.
Rebel Dykes demonstrates life as it was, and as it continues to be. It never shies away from the harsh realities of being a lesbian in the late 20th Century. The inclusion of trans women like Roz Kaveney, who currently works as a Trans activist, demonstrates the community as it should be - a community. Films like this push back against the hateful ideologies of those across the world who want to pretend there is no "T" in "LGBT". It proves that the community is still here and that it will keep fighting to exist just like it always has. Roz herself is not overly present in the film, and it is briefly mentioned that she left for a short period of time. This would have been a great thread to unravel, but she is still a part of the group, the community, and the documentary. Her inclusion is representation at a time when it is so desperately needed.
The representation of the LGBT+ community in film has an awkward history. For the longest time, if you wanted to see yourself on a screen, there were only a few options: Gay BFF (Damien in Mean Girls), murderous pervert (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs), or dead (Gordon Dietrich in V For Vendetta). In recent years there has been more of an effort to portray gay people as regular people, such as 2019 coming-of-age comedy Booksmart, but the voices of queer writers are still rarely heard. Documentaries by the community have a great history but only Paris is Burning and Disclosure have made it close to the mainstream. Films about moments in queer history, like Pride and Milk, are valuable but it’s the documentation of events like Rebel Dykes that paint the most honest picture.
Rebel Dykes is a beautiful film that explores an important and often forgotten part of the queer story. Expertly crafted by those who created it and has the benefit of an amazing punk soundtrack. Everyone, gay and straight, should watch it and learn from it. It demonstrates that history can’t be changed but it can, and should, be preserved.