On October 29th, Clare Dimyon, a lesbian activist from Brighton, was presented with an MBE at Buckingham Palace for "services to promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Central and Eastern Europe". She went to the ceremony with three lesbians of three generations, from Britain, Poland and Hungary. One of them was Gaby Charing. For Yagg, she describes that day, what it meant to her and what it will mean for the future.
"THE DAY CLARE DIMYON WAS DECORATED BY THE PRINCE OF WALES", BY GABY CHARING
I am a lesbian, I am 66 years old, and I never thought I would hear the word ‘lesbian’ used, approvingly, by our most senior courtier, on an occasion of high ceremonial in Buckingham Palace. But that is what happened last Friday when my very dear friend, Clare Dimyon, was “decorated” by the Prince of Wales with an honour awarded to her “for services to promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Central and Eastern Europe”. And no one fainted, no one had a heart attack - not even the Lord Chamberlain himself, whose task it was to read out the citation.
A long journey has led us to this point. You know the big story - Stonewall, Gay Liberation, and the rest - but our private journey begins early on Friday morning, in a taxi (a proper London black cab, no expense spared) which conveys us from my house in suburbia to the grandest address in London. “Cabbie! Take us to Buckingham Palace, south entrance”. There are four of us: Clare herself, and three generations and nationalities of lesbians to accompany her: British, Polish and Hungarian (Agnès, a 24-year-old student from Budapest). All of us are in our very best clothes. I am in the coat I wore for my civil partnership ceremony in December 2005.
At the Palace, we are whisked through the gate, past the clusters of gawping tourists, and are shown where to go by smiling, friendly English bobbies. I spot some Scots guards - they are changing the guard especially for us! Once through the security check, we enter the building itself. In truth, Buck House (as we Londoners like to call it) is not a great piece of architecture, and the lavatories (our first port of call, naturally) are grand but utterly antiquated: is this the sort of thing the Queen uses every day?
But goodness, the Royals know how to put on a show! We proceed up a magnificent staircase, past a guard of honour from the UK’s smartest cavalry regiment, sabres raised in salute. Clare is led away to be briefed on the etiquette of meeting royalty (on this occasion, Prince Charles). The rest of us mill about, talking awkwardly (“What are you here for? Ooh, a knighthood? How posh!). Then something magical starts to happen: the awkwardness begins to be forgotten. That young man in the dress uniform of the Royal Marines: what is he here for, I ask his mother? A medal for conspicuous gallantry in Afghanistan. Suddenly we are serious. I tell her about Clare. She is enthusiastic!
The ceremony is held in the Ballroom, used for state banquets. I admire the magnificent coffered ceiling. The men in military uniform (they are all men) showing us to our seats are senior members of the royal household - the grandest ushers ever seen! A military band plays in the gallery. The brass and woodwind are excellent, but the strings are not so good. You don’t go into battle to the sound of violins.
Then Prince Charles enters with his entourage, and we stand for the National Anthem. The honours are given out in strict precedence; I amuse myself working out the rules. Many are for very ordinary people, who are being recognised for doing simple things in an exceptional way: people’s honours. Everyone is grinning with pride. The joy is infectious.
Then it is Clare’s turn. She looks wonderful, but she also looks terrified. I don’t think she is scared of meeting the Prince; she is overwhelmed by the enormous symbolism of the occasion. In 1999 Angela Mason of Stonewall received an honour “for services to homosexual rights”. But today there will be no such polite language. The Lord Chamberlain, the 4th Earl Peel, clears his throat and speaks the momentous words: “for services to promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Central and Eastern Europe”. And no one titters, no one even shifts awkwardly in their seat. They have seen the wording in the programme; they are prepared; and they acquit themselves magnificently - as does Clare. She has her few words with the Prince, then takes a seat a few rows behind me. She looks pensive. It is taking time to sink in.
Outside, it’s photos, photos, photos (none were allowed inside). We mingle, and everyone is friendly. I joke about being a lesbian with a man I have never met before and shall never see again. And then we meet the brave young marine, and I take a photograph of him and Clare with their arms round each other. I am in tears. We are normal people, just like everyone else in that courtyard. Truly, the world has changed.
Agnès, the young woman from Hungary, is grinning from ear to ear. She understands she has seen something momentous. She is still not entirely sure she would have chosen to be a lesbian; but by the time she boards her plane on Monday, to return to Budapest, she looks happier in her skin. The future belongs to your generation, Agnès: what will you do with it?
Photo PRIDE Solidarity