A WONTHAGGI acquaintance recently commented to me “I have bouts of frustration from living in a straight world”.
I knew what she meant. I, too, sometimes feel like the only gay in the village, although there must be at least two of us. Don’t get me wrong – some of my best friends are heterosexuals, but there’s also something liberating about being with our own kind, whether that’s Islamic State, Rotarians or gays.
In 2001 when I went to work for a gay newspaper, my mother was horrified. “You know what they’re like,” she said.
I didn’t have to say “But Mum, I’m one of them.” I did know what they were like. Whinge, whinge, whinge. “My parents chucked me out when they found I was gay.” “The cops belted me.” “Jason Akermanis called us faggots.” What the hell had I let myself in for?
In fact I had the most interesting and enjoyable year of my working life on that newspaper. My mind was prised open. I met drag queens, transvestites, a frottage activist (you look it up, I had to), women transitioning into men, men transitioning into women. I met people who belonged to neither sex, and didn't mind. I met a former priest who’d taken on the Catholic Church. I didn’t meet many victims, contrary to my mother’s and my own expectations.
I was staggered by the courage of people who had endured hatred and ridicule and had to go back to first principles to work out who they were and how to live.
I interviewed a couple of men who had met in Melbourne in the 1940s when the only people who would mix with gays were criminals and they shared an underworld that few “decent” people knew about. They’d been in a loving and sexually open relationship for more than 60 years. Now in their 80s, there wasn’t too much sex going on but the love was still going strong.
The hedonism and promiscuity of gay men forced me to question a lot of things I’d taken for granted: fun is meaningless; promiscuous sex is bad; party drugs are bad. When you get down to it, who says so, and why?
Officially MCV was the newspaper of the “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex” community. Unofficially we divided the world into “queer” and “straight”, which was less about sexual orientation than about outlook: since society despised you, you were more than a little sceptical about society. My main memory of that year is of laughing. It was a lot of fun being on the outer when you were with your own kind. I realised that this was my tribe, or at least one of them.
Suddenly, in this office, I was part of the mainstream and it was unexpectedly liberating. But if I felt liberated, surely that meant I’d felt oppressed before. How much of myself had I suppressed? How much evasion was there in my life? How many times had I not said something because it was “too gay”?
I thought of this in connection with the Adam Goodes furore. It seems to me that he generously invited us to share some of his other world, the indigenous one, only to have the door slammed in his face and be accused of being “too Aborigine”. Why couldn’t he just play football and shut up about the other stuff? Who wanted to know?
Some people can’t envisage another way of living or being. They don’t understand that they themselves are a product of their nationality, culture, class, surroundings. Our Prime Minister talks about “Australian values” and “decent ordinary Australians” and I know he’s not talking about me. People from the dominant culture have no idea how loaded our language is against minorities, whether they are Aboriginal, gay, Muslim, disabled, elderly or boat people.
In New Zealand, I grew up learning about the Maori Wars, which made it sound like a few misguided natives on a rampage. These days NZ students learn about the Land Wars. Of course the “old white guys” said it was political correctness gone mad, but how obvious it seems now.
In class one day when I was 10, I repeated the well-known historical fact that Abel Tasman had discovered New Zealand. “And who do you think was here before that?” my Maori teacher asked me. That was one lesson I never forgot.
More than 500 Australian soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War. Visitors to Vietnam are surprised to find the Vietnamese have never heard of that war. But they do know a lot about the American War.
Imaginatively entering someone else’s world forces us to question our own world, re-examine our beliefs and use of language, open our hearts and minds. It’s not comfortable, but there is that sudden dizzying, exhilarating moment when your perspective changes, old assumptions fall away and you have a glimpse of things as they really are.
It’s never too late to learn. This week I visited the Drouin Men’s Shed, which a year ago set aside one day a week for Aboriginal men from the local Kurnai community. For the first few weeks, the young Aboriginal men and the old white fellas circled one another warily. Polite words were exchanged. Everyone was walking on eggshells.
Working together changed that. A year later, the jokes and insults were flying both ways and the atmosphere was warm and comfortable.
“I hated Aborigines,” one of the old guys told me. “When I was a kid, I saw them begging and then they’d go into the grog shop. Then I came to live in Drouin, in the middle of them. They were loud and they drank and then my car got stolen.”
He indicated the three young Aboriginal men sitting at the table. “These guys have changed my views. They can’t do enough for you. I’ve learnt so much in the past year from working with them.” His voice caught and there were tears in his eyes as he said this.
Recently he read Jacksons Track, the seminal work about the Kurnai by Carolyn Landon and Daryl Tonkin, and discovered what the local Aboriginal community had endured. The more he learned, the more he understood, not just about the Kurnai and Aborigines but about himself. This bigoted old whitefella had been on an extraordinary journey, and he hadn’t even left Drouin.
True empathy means you are both the victim and oppressor. It doesn’t mean self-flagellation but it does mean acknowledging the past and the damage still being done to Australia’s indigenous people. Perhaps we can then start to move on to embrace our shared indigenous heritage, as many other countries do.
The All Blacks’ haka before a rugby game is a matter of huge national pride and emotion for all New Zealanders. Perhaps one day we’ll see the Wallabies respond with an Aboriginal war dance that arouses the same emotion in “decent ordinary Australians”.
August 18, 2015
Thank you for your reflections, Catherine, on encountering other worlds and perspectives and finding your tribe.
It reminded me of my schoolgirl outrage on discovering that the French didn’t call the English Channel by that name but know it as La Manche. How could this be? It wasn’t right, even if the English and the Frogs had been at loggerheads for centuries. However, I also remember feeling pride on learning that the North American continent was ‘discovered’ by Vikings/Scandinavians (our first cousins) in the first millennium, long before Columbus set sail.
Growing up Catholic in a small, predominantly Protestant market town meant feeling outside the mainstream. Even worse, I was the ‘product of a mixed marriage’ with a Protestant father and Catholic mother so had to listen to a letter from the bishop, read out every month from the pulpit, on the dangers of mixed marriages and how the ‘products’ ie me, were inherently weaker in their faith and needed extra prayers from the rest of the faithful. Imagine how good that felt! I left both the town and the church as soon as I could and spent many years looking for my place, my clan.
When I arrived in Australia, I realised pretty quickly that this felt more like my place than anywhere else had done. When I finally moved to Bass Coast, almost fourteen years ago, there was a sense of coming ‘home’, of belonging, which I hadn’t experienced before. I can’t explain it rationally, although there are some similarities with the area in which I grew up. As a non- indigenous migrant I’ve struggled a bit with whether I can really ‘belong’ and feel a deep connection with this area. The reality is that the heart doesn’t seem to recognise such distinctions and, like it or not, I do feel a sense of belonging and connection. I’ve also made connections with some wonderful, diverse people who have welcomed me into a loose clan of connections which nourish my heart, soul and spirit. Many of them read the Bass Coast Post – you know who you are - and I thank you all.
Anne Heath Mennell, Tenby Point
August 13, 2015
Congratulations on your excellent article. You had the guts to express in such a wonderful way so many different issues related to discrimination and equality: these include racism, homophobia, equal rights, sexism, misogynism, ageism, equal opportunity ... and the list is endless
Since moving to Phillip Island in 2001 it surprised me that there were no gay bars, gay cafes, being able to buy gay books, magazines etc. Phillip island (and no doubt many other places in country areas) reminds me of the 1970s pre the gay liberation and women's liberation era.
Francesca and I don't talk much about our private lives, but we have had an exciting life dating back to 1970 when we became gay activists. This was just before the beginnings of the gay liberation and women's liberation movements.
Since then we have become "gay icons" (reluctantly) because there is a resurgence of interest by the younger generation in the history and culture of the LBGTI community. We have been interviewed on many occasions, had chapters in books and journal articles written about us. Recently I edited another chapter about us in a book that is to be published soon called 'Gay and Grey'.
However it is Francesca who is the real hero in this story because she was the first person in Australia to appear on television "full face" and declare she was a homosexual in June 1970 on a program called The Bailey File. That's how I met her - on television.
After I joined the organisation called Australasian Lesbian Movement (ALM) we appeared together in October 1970 on Channel 2 in the program called 'This Day Tonight.' At this stage Francesca was President and I was Secretary of ALM and we lived in Acland Street St Kilda in the clubrooms of ALM. So our "coming out" was very dramatic and had a great impact on our lives and many, many other people's lives. 1970 was a "turning point" in Australian gay history.
Phyllis Papps, Rhyll
August 13, 2015
Thank you for this article so full of insight. I dream of and work towards a truly inclusive society.
Robin Dzedins, Lynbrook
August 12, 2015
Brilliant article - thank you.
Fran Carroll, San Remo