New research finds community is vital for lesbian people in Southampton

New research finds community is vital for lesbian people in Southampton

by Dr Elizabeth Reed.

Following a five month project in Southampton, researchers at the University of Southampton have learnt that, for lesbian people in the city, community is vital in navigating the city.

We spoke to lesbian people aged between 22 and 58 who lived within 45 minutes of Southampton city centre, and we met with organisers of social groups aimed at lesbian people and business owners who offer space to lesbian events or groups, or aim to be welcoming to LGBTQ people. We wanted to know how these people felt it was possible to build community, where they felt community happened, and what challenges there were to finding – and creating – spaces for people to meet and build a sense of belonging.  

This project focused on only the experiences of lesbian people because we knew from existing research that lesbians are more likely to feel isolated, and have less dedicated social spaces than gay men, we also knew that LGBTQ people are more likely to feel isolated or unsafe than their heterosexual neighbours. We used a broad definition of lesbian, inviting anyone who was a non-heterosexual woman, or a non-binary person who described themselves as a lesbian to take part. This proved important because it meant we heard how ‘lesbian’ was a really important label for lots of people who use it to find groups of likeminded people and spaces they feel safe in. This included bisexual women, and nonbinary people who were often perceived as women. ‘Lesbian’ was a term people used to come together, but often people used more words, or different words, to describe their personal identity or sexuality. 

Participants were generally very positive about Southampton and the opportunities it offered. Some people had moved to Southampton from other parts of the UK and found the busy (but small and friendly) city a breath of fresh air after living in small rural towns and villages with few social opportunities. Other people had moved to Southampton from other countries and spoke about how safe it felt to live in the UK, as a lesbian, knowing there were legal protections against discrimination. People repeatedly said that although they valued the diversity of opportunity in Southampton that comes from it being a city, they were glad it retained a sense of being a small, close knit community. It was this which made them feel at home. Being able to visit local businesses, owned by local people was one thing which helped people feel safe, at home, and part of a community. 

It is perhaps for this reason that everyone we spoke to felt that covid, and the lockdowns which closed shops, cafes, bars and other venues, had a huge impact on their social lives and sense of belonging. Although lots of different online platforms (Facebook, Discord, Zoom – you name it!) were used to stay in touch during lockdowns, nothing compared to being in a room together with people with shared interests, or just dropping in for a coffee at a café where the staff always greet you warmly. The business owners we spoke to were keenly aware of the role they played in supporting community and connecting with people. One person said: “we’re a part of people’s emotion journey…you are part of their life and they wanna share it…sometimes people might not have spoken to someone all day, we might be the first person they have a conversation with, so I think it’s really important that we make an effort, and we take that time.”

Everyone we spoke to noted the health impacts of isolation and loneliness and having lots of different kinds of activities on offer through social groups, or knowing there were spaces and places in the city which were explicitly welcoming for lesbians (or LGBTQ people generally) was hugely important in making people feel part of a community and at home in Southampton. Across all the participants, people noted their sense of commitment to offer mutual support by making an effort to participate in events, stay in touch and stay connected. This was most often noted when people talked about using online platforms when face to face meeting is not possible; “whatever we do, we have to keep talking online because we don’t want people to feel like it’s come to nothing, that it doesn’t exist, that there’s no one there, so online events [can be valuable].”

One less positive finding was that many of the people we spoke to had experienced violence, fear, or exclusion because of their sexuality or gender presentation. People spoke to us about the strategies they used to stay safe and manage their fears. One person said this was key in what they sought out in the city: “ I continue to look for is that somewhere where you go where you know you will always feel safe, where you feel like you belong”. 

Strategies people told us about included seeking out venues with explicitly inclusive policies for LGBTQ people, looking for lesbian only events or spaces, and avoiding spaces and venues associated with drinking culture. It was important to everyone we spoke to that there wasn’t a policy of isolationism: meaning people did not want to socialise exclusively in women only, lesbian only, or even LGBTQ only spaces. People sought out spaces which were affirmative in their policies (posted door policies, statements on websites or identifiable people running events who can be trusted to exclude threatening or violent people). Safety wasn’t just something people felt was up to business owners or event organisers though: we heard how everyone – including straight friends and family – could act to make the city feel safer for lesbian people by making clear they would not tolerate hateful and discriminatory speech or actions.  We asked people to tell us where they felt safe in the city, and where they liked spending time. We recorded all these places in Google Maps and you can view the resulting map here

Ultimately everyone we spoke to – business owners, events organisers, and lesbian people – were looking for a sense of community. As one person said, feeling part of a community can be life-changing: “if you can just meet one person that you get on with or feel comfortable with it will change your life…I feel like you need someone to hang out with or to talk with, you know to feel like you’re part of something…part of a community.”

We learnt that the people who had the strongest sense of having achieved or found community were the people who ran businesses or organised community or social groups. These people had often felt there was a gap for social groups or friendly local businesses which they were trying to fill. These participants told us sometimes moving stories of the transformation which organising events or groups had had on them: “what it turned out to be was a complete life changer for both of us. We never thought that our lives would change, we just thought we would meet some people, we both kind of were like ‘wow this is amazing we’ve benefited so much out of this.”

You can read the full summary of findings, which includes action points and recommendations for venues or community organisers looking to improve access or develop their offerings to support lesbian community, on this link.

Some of these recommendations can be adapted to support other minority communities and the researchers are happy to talk about what this may mean for you, or opportunities for future collaboration on related research topics. Just drop the lead researcher, Lizzie Reed

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