An interview and thoughts with Lisa-Marie Taylor from Feminism in London

by Christopher Spring

“I will put barbed wire up your arse and pull it out with your intestines.”

When you are faced with messages like this on a daily basis you know you are facing a tough battle, but to meet Lisa-Marie Taylor you wouldn’t realise she’s received these messages. That same person is still waiting for police action to be taken after standing outside a police station with a t-shirt reading “C****** G******* wanted for harassment”. The same human being that shouldered the burden of responsibility along with Julian Norman the co-chair, when the 2014 Feminism in London conference was a victim of a bomb threat, who had to decide if the conference should close for the year or trust the plain clothed police officers.

Meeting her the mix of activism, single mindedness and strength of will combined with a dollop of humour was instantly recognisable: “Ah yes! I love this place! I didn’t realise it was twinned with [another coffee shop]. I saw one of their signs that said ‘Our coffee is better than porn!’ thought it was a bit inappropriate and wiped it off, getting me in loads of trouble with the manager.”

This is reminiscent of the power that she plays in policing the people and environment around her. No one is exempt including me, an admittedly slightly clumsy and awkward individual, correcting any linguistic slip ups on my part, explaining patiently the connotations of those slip ups and repeatedly questioning my behaviour and the impact that it has. One of the main conversations we had was about how embedded the patriarchal and sexist culture is in all facets of society, one that was expressed repeatedly (unintentionally) by me in my language. For example: Why do we refer to women as girls in everyday life?

We started by talking about an artistic activist that has particularly attracted her attention and this person’s targets. Amnesty International, Lust, She Said and Ann Summers have all been targeted as points of contention and subsequent action, asking the basic question as to why we constantly objectify women in our society. Amnesty International’s targeting particularly intrigued me; surely they constantly promote human rights, a good thing?

In 2014 Amnesty International called for the legalisation of the sex trade, a call that angered many people including Lisa Marie. And stood at odds with Feminism in London’s two basic principles:

·         Everyone is welcome.

·         Feminism In London is critical of the sex trade, but never of the women within it.

Ninety percent of women in the sex industry would like to leave but are unable to do so and, as Lisa-Marie explained, though the conference is great at awakening people she didn’t feel it was enough. As such, Feminism in London joined with Resist Porn Culture to attain charity status in 2015. Their objective was to increase the focus on women trapped in the sex industry and "agitate for" a fully funded way out of it and supporting people who would like to do projects related to the feminist cause.

This means even people like me who used to watch porn (since the meeting with Lisa Marie I have not) are directly contributing to this industry and are increasing demand on one element of one of the most humanely destructive industries in the world. That will include many of you reading this too.

One should point out here that Amnesty International have written a blog post defending their position in 2014: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/

Feminism in London, the conference that Lisa-Marie helps to organise, was set up in 2008 as a place for feminists to come together talk and trade ideas. Lisa Marie took over as the main coordinator in 2013 and save a few hiccoughs and with a fantastic team has been running since. There was no budget so all speakers have to fund themselves to attend and speak at the conferences, which makes the fact that she has attracted speakers from Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Palestine and Peru to speak at the conference even more impressive.

Feminism in London came to my attention last year (2015) when my fiancé was asked to show in the art exhibition section. Turning up as one of the few men – let alone white men – meant I had to experience for the first time what it was like to be a definitive minority, an experience that I learnt quickly from.

Asking Lisa-Marie what the conference was designed to do she said: “Feminism is something that you have to become aware of, I didn’t become a feminist until my mid-late 30s. Once you’ve had your eyes open you start to look at everything through the prism of feminism. I used to put on films and love them, now I just think it’s awful. It can be tough at times but once you’ve had that awakening you think ‘What can I do about it?’ Feminism in London is designed to be that spark for others.”

For me, this acted as a spark is something that introduced me to Feminism as more than just an academic intellectualism but as a reaction to something that happens to people every single day. To say I was affected by this is an understatement.

This is taken from a Facebook comment in a conversation with my brother: “So in October last year Holly [Rozier] showed her work at the Feminism in London conference and I was lucky enough to be invited along. Walking in I saw thousands of people (predominantly women) talking about issues that affect them every single day. Things like street harassment, being victimised for being female, having children and the implications of this on their career - e.g. wanting to work but also having to be primary care giver in the eyes of society too and the stress it places them under.

For the very first time in my life I was in a room and conference where I was the minority. Being lauded and picked on in equal measure depending on if they approved of a man being there or not.

It was here that I realised the subconscious "mansplain" for the first time is bred into us as men. I realised I was disagreeing and wanting to vocalise my disagreement with women whose experience was reflected in the faces and actions of every single woman at that conference. Me. A man, a single individual thought he knew better in some situations than the 2 or 3000 people sat there agreeing and recognising these experiences.

So, for the rest of the day I listened. Whether it be someone I agreed with or not I would listen in its’ entirety to their point even if I disagreed with it, I would think on it and reflect on what the person expressing it has gone through and understand that is their experience, not a distant or intellectual understanding of prejudice. My role that day was to listen and understand, not to criticise or attempt to correct because they too will listen to others' viewpoints and come to an understanding of what their own world is like.

All from personal experience, but it's the reason I think like I do. Not everything is a discussion to "win" but a story of their life, a reflection of the path they have taken. It also made me realise that men, especially white men, have to listen more, not just blindly believe that they are right.”

This conference clearly had an impact on my psychological state and awareness of society generally and actually brought such a weight of realisation that it drove me into a bit of a downward spiral as I became overwhelmed at how more than half of the human population is treated all day, every day.

The quote at the very beginning might be implemented as a “clickbait” mechanism at the start to grab your attention but things are said like that on a daily basis to highly visible women in our society. It is a call for silence, for obedience, that if the people commenting got what they wanted women would be unheard members of society like they were in the 19th century before the suffrage movement really took hold.

One such story that Lisa Marie told was about Kate Smurthwaite, comedian and compere at last year’s Feminism in London conference. Smurthwaite has to trawl through Twitter and Facebook and work out what death threats are serious, and which are just off hand hyperbole thrown at her, before sending the more serious threats to the police.

“However, nothing ever happens, there are so many threats mainly versus women, that the police are overstretched and unable to act.”

A final story that readjusted and changed the importance of the Feminism in London event, and pushed Lisa Marie to provide a change of the format from just an event to an overall charity was her story about a female Turkish MP. She is a member of parliament in opposition to Erdogan, due to speak at Feminism in London, and just a few weeks before the event there was a peaceful march taking place in Ankara against Erdogan’s policies on women amongst others. During the march bombs went off in the protest and members of her party were arrested meaning that she was unable to talk at the event.

Though there were serious issues talked about at the event, it was the first time that Lisa Marie thought she wasn’t doing enough and provoked a serious change to the organisation. This year (2016) there is no conference, instead an art exhibition taking place in London to raise money for the conference next year (details to come).

For me as a white male writer, communicating these stories, writing up the interview and, in particular creating a structure for this piece it has been a challenge. The strength that Lisa Marie and other women possess to stand up against the constant prejudice present in the world today, to be undermined at every turn and told that it doesn’t exist must be exhausting. But, ultimately, her good work and the work of the feminist movement is starting to bear fruit, every day the awareness of the movement is increasing. Preferring to stand in the background and provide a platform for women to speak up and highlight their own experiences is a role that rarely gets the plaudits it deserves. But here’s to you, Lisa Marie Taylor, you are providing a vital role and has changed at least one person’s life so far, and I’m sure you will continue to do so.