Seen as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival
Britain in the 1980s was not exactly the best place to be openly gay, indeed it was one fraught with difficulty that would culminate in the introduction of Section 28 in 1988, a law that banned the “Promotion of homosexuality” which is basically legal jargon for “Get back in the closet, you queers!”. One group that was not about to take this lying down was a commune of leather-clad lesbians known as Rebel Dykes. They were already a group that was at the forefront of sexual liberation and self-expression but when the time came to fight for their rights, the Rebel Dykes got on their bikes and showed the world that they weren’t going to let something like Section 28 hold them back. This film is all about their gloriously hilarious and dramatic story.
Rebel Dykes is told through a combination of archival footage, cartoon recreations and interviews with just a handful of the titular Rebel Dykes who were there during the height of the movement. The film tracks the group’s origins, slowly showing the growth of the community and their transformation into some of the earliest and most effective activists fighting for queer liberation. Their stories are funny, emotional, a little dirty at times and all tinged with a sense that what they were doing carried the risk of being arrested at any moment and it is truly a miracle that someone thought to record these important stories for the history books since this is absolutely an essential piece of the community’s history.
Right from the start, you can tell that Rebel Dykes was made with absolute love for its subjects. It shows them in the best possible light, letting the inherent cool badassery of the Rebel Dykes shine in all its glory. It’d almost impossible not to immediately fall in love with this litany of lesbians as they slowly let you into their group with stories of what they were doing back in a time when just being alive as a queer person came with a risk of jail time or being beaten to a pulp. It’s like being let in on a great secret and every single element of every little story is so fascinating that you almost want a documentary for each one. Sure, I love hearing about the overall history of the Rebel Dykes but I’d also listen to just an hour and a half of these women talking about the underground S&M clubs they founded among the many other topics covered.
While a lot of the stories that make up the runtime of Rebel Dykes are a lot of fun, either being just silly or raunchy or filled with a sense of ‘we somehow got away with that’, it never forgets that all this was risky due to the politics of the time and very deftly weaves in the harsh reality of what this could mean. You’ll spend one minute giggling about how they got a lesbian night started at a local bar, the next being reminded that there were certain areas where they weren’t able to hold hands for fear of assault or worse. It’s so carefully told in a way that really paints a perfect picture of what it was like to live during a time when the laws of the country were actively being changed to make your existence illegal.
Where Rebel Dykes really kicks into high gear is when they start talking about the important activism that the group was doing. Sure it’s fantastic to learn about the more fun edgy elements of the lifestyle, again I could listen to them talk about that stuff for hours because it’s just fascinating, but it’s when we learn about how they basically perfected the art of the demonstration where the film becomes truly special. Hearing how they snuck onto news sets or into the House of Lords, demanding the right to exist in a society that wanted to pretend that they didn’t is some of the best documentary filmmaking I’ve seen in a while. It’s the reminder that while there was a lot of wild times and fun to be had, it was all in the service of something truly bigger than just the Rebel Dyke movement.
Hell, the information on how to protest in a way that gets noticed that you will find here in Rebel Dykes is information that a lot of modern groups might want to learn so they can use it themselves. I’m just saying, if the Rebel Dykes could do this back in the 80s then there might be some trans people in Britain who might want to copy their methods because the sad thing about these movements is we always need them, and this is a great film to use as a blueprint for how to make a statement that might change things (But seriously, if Britain could just stop being shitty towards queer people for 5 goddamn minutes that would be fantastic. You did it to the gays and lesbians for decades, you’re currently doing this to trans people for no reason, could Britain just try not sucking for a minute?)
Rebel Dykes is another one of those glorious queer documentaries that documents a forgotten element of queer history that we should never forget. Sure, every Mardi Gras in Australia we cheer for the dykes on bikes but frankly, we should always be cheering for the Rebel Dykes of Britain who were fighting for their rights when it was the riskiest thing to do and they did it while being the most badass human beings you’ve ever had the honour of meeting. Just getting to spend an hour and a half listening to their wild and fascinating stories feels like an absolute honour and I’m glad that Rebel Dykes gave me the chance to get to know these wonderful women.