Paula Smith: Full Interview
Interviewed by Gill Crawshaw
3rd April 2019
PS: I'm Paula Smith. I currently live in Sheffield but I was asked to do an interview because of my links with Leeds so I'm here to talk about that, yeah? So, we'll start with my coming out story.
GC: That's great, yeah, go ahead...
PS: So, I came out when I was 17. I knew a long time before that, I knew when I was round about eight year-old, I kind of knew that, you know, I was attracted to women. I came out when I was 17 when I left home. I was brought up in County Durham, which is in the north east. I moved out when I was 16 and then came out when I was 17 when I was living in Sheffield. *And then I applied for university and I moved to Leeds, and that's how I ended up in Leeds.
When I came out I was struggling a bit with my identity, obviously a lot of us do. So, to kind of, to kind of find myself and find that confidence that I needed to be able to like navigate society with the way that I identified, I decided to change how I looked and kind of, just blend in with the community, made me feel like part of the community by looking a certain way, feeling a certain way. So I had all my hair cut off. My mother was devastated! It was very long, it was down to the bottom of my back. It was very thick, very big, and – yeah – I had it all cut off, it was short. So, she wasn't very happy about that. But from then on I had a lot of confidence, it completely changed the way that I viewed myself and viewed – felt like I was being viewed – because I felt a bit more confident than I did before, and yeah, it kind of helped me understand my own identity. Which was nice! Yeah.
GC: Do you think it changed how other people saw you?
PS: Yes, definitely. So, I think people then always assume I'm a lesbian now. I always find it strange when somebody assumes I'm straight now, coz I'm just like, are you looking at the same person?! Coz I describe myself as a soft butch. I do – I like wearing male, kind of male attire. It's not – all clothes are for all people – but I like to wear trousers, T-shirt and a jumper or something similar to that effect. And I like having short hair. And I don't really wear dresses and I don't, I don't even wear makeup, I haven't work make up in, oh, ten years, maybe ten years, yeah. I just didn't see the point, there's no point wearing makeup and I chose not to. So that's why I fall into this soft butch, coz I garden a lot, I go out a lot, I walk a lot, I am very hands-on, I'm always doing something, which is kind of physical but not physical. And it's, I think my dress, the way that I dress has to kind of go in line with that, there's no point in going out in a frilly dress to do gardening so... I feel like my personality, which is outdoors, you know, being out in the Peak District, being out in the garden, walking the dog – whatever I'm doing, kind of has to fit with the way that I, my personality, fit with the way that I dress. So wearing trousers and T-shirts and jumpers works for my lifestyle. So I kind of accidentally fell into being a soft butch, but I'm actually really happy with it because I am my most comfortable. And I very rarely have anyone comment on the way that I look or make me feel bad about the way that I look. They just, they just know that's me, and they're really comfortable with it and I'm really comfortable with it so I, I kind of like having the soft butch identity, actually. I never really thought about it until today.
GC: Let me just go back, you came out while you were at university in Leeds...?
PS: Oh no, I came out before I went.
GC: OK, OK…
PS: I came out when I was 17 and yeah, went out on the gay scene a lot [laughs]. A lot! Went drinking a lot and partying a lot. And it wasn't until I met my first partner, that I ended up moving to Sheffield actually. Then I moved, split up with my partner, then we broke up. I was in Sheffield for a while. Then I met my second partner and I was with her for seven years and we moved to Leeds together, we both went to university together. And that's how it kind of ended up. Never really expected to go to university, so it was quite a surprise to me, but, yeah, when I got to Leeds I was with my partner again for about a year and a half, when we moved to Leeds, and then we broke up.
And then I really got into, like, LGBT activism, feminist activism, and just getting involved with local community really. Before then, I hadn’t ever, I'd kind of partied more than anything, I was out on the scene a lot, yeah.
GC: Was that in Leeds, then?
GC: So, what sort of year would this have been?
PS: So, I moved to Leeds in 2009, so yeah, 2009. So I'd come out in 2005? Yeah, that's about right. And then, when I moved to Leeds, yeah, it was different, because when I was living in Sheffield, and I was coming from a small town, which had very small links to the LGBT community. Then I went to Sheffield and had a very, I'd like to say strained relationship with the LGBT community. Because there wasn't very many bars and very many clubs, or there was about one monthly student night and a lot of people would go over to, like, Leeds or Manchester instead of staying in Sheffield. So, although I was in the community it wasn't a huge community.
And then I moved to Leeds and it just kind of blew up because there was so many LGBT people in Leeds, I ended up being president of the LGBT Society at Leeds Beckett (then Leeds Metropolitan). I was also Women's Officer. I was Lesbian rep for the NUS Women's Campaign for a year. So my activism spread quite a lot, in both LGBT and feminist activism. And I really, yeah, I really enjoyed the student side of activism for a while. And then it got a bit strained, so I kind of went out into the community a bit more.
And then I ended up running the Reclaim the Night marches for a few years, which was, yeah, I really enjoyed. It was difficult, there was a lot of controversy within the organising of the Reclaim the Night because it was about women and women's rights to walk the streets, to feel safe and free from fear of violence and sexual violence. And we struggled quite a lot because when we, when we decided to make it women only, I feel that trans people and non-binary people felt like they didn't have a place in the march, although they always did. I think they took their frustrations out on us and the organisers - like me and the organisers. And it could be quite malicious sometimes coz sometimes I've felt like it's affecting the community coz of the way that they react to something that they don't like. And I find that quite difficult sometimes. But I'm always there and I always come back to the community coz it's a safe place to be.
GC: Do you think, for yourself, has any of that been resolved?
PS: Yeah, I think it's still quite up in the air at the moment coz, you know, I still volunteer at a lot of different places and a lot of places that I do volunteer at, some of them have quite, understandably, concerned views about how the LGBT community is now and how it, how it navigates itself politically. And one of the things that I really struggle with is kind of being in the middle of a) being from the community and b) protecting the community from outsiders as well, and kind of rationalise why we're asking for certain things or doing certain things when you know, I care about some people in one part of the community who don't agree with the other part of the community.
So I do feel quite often that I'm trapped in the middle because I identify as a lesbian, I identify as a dyke and, but, it is a cis woman position to be in. And to protect women's services as well from, you know, malicious people is also to question same sex spaces. And that's really difficult as well, I kind of understand it from both sides, but I also understand that everybody has a right to be where they want to be. And I do find it difficult when I volunteer with some people who have really opposing views, and then I'm volunteering with other people who have really strong opposing views as well. And then you're kind of in the middle a lot. So I do struggle with LGBT activism at the moment because I don't really know where I as a lesbian, and many lesbians, stand any more. And I do feel that we don't have a permanent place coz we're kind of chastised from either side really. It's like, you're either for this or you're against it and you can't be in the middle and go: I understand both sides. So, I find that difficult. But....
GC: Well, I was going to ask, now, though, you're still involved with organisations in Leeds?
[Interruption, recording paused.]
GC: So, you're still involved in activism and organisations in Leeds now?
PS: Yeah yeah yeah, I still volunteer for Feminist Archive North. A few years ago I was diagnosed with a auto-immune disease and couldn't really go on marches any more or organise marches, because it's quite physically demanding, so I was looking for something that, I could still be an activist and still be contributing to the, you know, ending patriarchy and kind of like helping feminism in a way, and I thought, what better way than to preserve our history. So I got involved in the Feminist Archive for that, you know, yes, so I could help preserve what we've done and what we've been doing. And I think that in a way is a very mild form of activism, but it's still radical and it supports the goal of what you're doing which is trying to change the education system as well and trying to say that women's history is important, and especially lesbian, black, disabled women's histories. So yes, I still am involved in activism. I do, mainly do, archiving now and obviously West Yorkshire Queer Stories as well so - yes.
GC: I'm just going to change the subject and go back a bit, you know, to that time when you were in Leeds, about socialising, where you would go out, did you go out much, where did you go, what was that like?
PS: Yeah, Queen's Court, Viaduct, Mission when it used to be not straight, back in the day. Yeah, I used to go out a lot. I used to go on LGBT-organised nights at the student union as well, so you'd have socials and things like that. Then we'd have non-alcoholic events as well, so I used to go to a lot of them, you used to make a lot of friends, actually.
GC: Yeah, yeah. Any stories you want to share? [laughs]
PS: [laughs] I don't know. I'll tell you how I met my current partner coz I think you know, she's had a huge impact on my life and I met her just as I was getting my diagnosis, but it was also just as I was graduating from university. So within the first few months I'd graduated, been diagnosed and got a new partner. And, we met in Leeds, actually, it was on the Headrow? yeah, it was on the Headrow at Starbucks, we met there and we were on a date and everything. We've been together for six years now.
And, yeah, she's, she's an interesting person. She really does understand what it is living with someone with a disability and also someone who's very active in the, you know, activism circles and things like that. Because she's a police officer. She works as an investigations officer for the police. So her job is very non-political. So, she shares a lot of her views at home with me, and we talk about politics, but she can't be openly public about hers, at all. So that's quite an interesting dynamic in our home. But it keeps me from [indistinct] as well, it reminds me of the things I should and shouldn't be doing, coz I'm passionate, sometimes it's silly passion, sometimes you can get a bit over the top and go, "No, no, no, I want to do this" and, "That shouldn't be happening", kind of thing. So it is interesting. And then seeing things from her side of things as well, from a police officer, you know, side. It's - I never used to really like the police, for obvious reasons, you know. They used to beat gay people and they used to beat, you know, black people and they're not the nicest people. But I understand now how difficult and how stressful their jobs are. And I think, her as a lesbian trying to navigate her way through the police as well is quite interesting. it's always intriguing to see how she deals with those things. Yeah, I've learned a lot from her. She's a good person, a very good person. And she still comes on marches with me. She doesn't do anything publicly but she'll still go on marches and support me, and that's fine, so. And we still go to Pride every year. It doesn't matter where we are, we'll go to Pride. Not that pleased that it's very commercialised, but, you know, it will get back there one day.
GC: I just wanted to ask, so activism's clearly been a big part of your life. What is it that you've drawn from that, yourself?
PS: It's funny you should say this, I think I was talking to you earlier on about a friend that I had that passed away and before I'd met her I wasn't really interested in the community. Like, it wasn't like a disinterest, it was just a, it didn't kind of come on my radar. And then, when I met her and I kind of started to realise, just in terms of life, and how unfair some people have it, not just myself, but everybody, like there was so many different people. So I was like, I kinda wanted to do something about this but I'm not sure what to do. So then I fell into activism quite naturally at university, which most people do.
I think, my favourite type of activism is grassroots, it's about helping people directly. I get frustrated with fighting the government. I get frustrated with fighting theory and overall banner groups of people and, you know, fascism as a whole, it's so difficult and hard, it is really hard. What I like to do is help an individual, help a person, one on one kind of human contact type activism. Because I think, selfishly, it's more rewarding for me. whether it's the smaller things like giving somebody a lift, to actively going out and helping them with their benefit claim or, you know, whatever, like any kind of activism, it's all activism in the long run. Yeah, I - it's very rewarding but it's also very frustrating. You often feel like there's this huge barrier in front of you that you can't get over and I feel a lot of people now, in the UK, especially with LGBT rights, what's happening in Chechnya and other countries where they're introducing stoning and all - you just feel like it's slightly hopeless and that you don't really have any power to do anything about it because it just, you're just one person. And collectively you feel like you could do something, but it's about having enough collectively to do something about it. So, yeah, I think it's rewarding but it's also really, really frustrating. It is very frustrating, it's very tiring. It's exhausting work.
People think that you know, activists are just some hippies who go out and chain themselves to fences and protest at Greenham Common - which was difficult, Greenham Common was difficult, but (I wasn't there), but that was difficult. But, you know, people often think that we're just hippies and it's like, in actual fact, we're the most frustrated bunch of people trying to achieve something that so basic, basic human rights. So it is frustrating, but it is very rewarding because, like I say, selfishly, you get so much from it, so much happiness from it, but it is frustrating, like anything, there's always a balance with other...
GC: Great, thanks. Is there anything else you want to tell us before we finish?
PS: No, I just think that, you know, this way of recording history and making sure - and archiving LGBT voices is incredible. I think, an oral history, in 20, 30 years' time when people are listening to these back, I think it's really a unique way of, you know, archiving the community. It's so important, especially considering it's so specific to West Yorkshire, despite me not being born there and not living there forever, my connection to West Yorkshire is huge. It gave me my feminism, it gave me my LGBT activism, it gave me my politics, it gave me my degree, it gave me my partner and it gave me this kind of community, so I have a huge connection to Leeds and West Yorkshire as a whole, and I'm glad to be part of it - despite being from the north east!
GC: OK, that was great. Thank you, Paula.