(Updated February 2006)
Australia has, arguably, the widest range of gay culture of any country in the world. From disenfranchised homeless youth living in shelters to lesbian in vitro rights; from homophobic church bishops to 38,000 participants in Gay Games VI Ceremonies; from a small cadre of LGBT human rights activists in conservative Perth to bold Melbourne’s vibrant gay neighborhoods; and from closeted Aboriginal lesbians to the Australian supreme court justice Michael Kirby; this great continent celebrates the restless energy of a democracy wrestling with the unavoidable reality of homosexuality.
This continent-country is a beefy, drinking, boisterous culture where ‘poofters’ are generally not highly regarded by churchy types or cow herders. Homophobia is one of the legacies of Australia’s European heterosexist and religious heritage. But here is also a certain rough and ready respect for common sense since Australia started out as a jailhouse in the 18th century, and foolish injustice is no longer tolerated as evidenced in the defiant nature the LGBT human rights struggle. Queer culture, once hidden in social shadows until the 70’s has stepped forward and noisily, demanding and mostly achieving full access and treatment by federal and state laws.
Gay Games VI Opening Ceremony Spectacle
The gay energy that today charges through the major cities has created decent laws as well as dynamic gay events such as the enormous annual Mardi Gras and 2002 Gay Games VI in Sydney plus the boisterous Midsumma and Winterdaze festivals in fashionable Melbourne. The three-week long LGBT Feast cultural festival is a major event in Adelaide. Brisbane has its Pride march in chilly June and a hotter Sleaze Ball in October. In modest and tidy Perth there is also a three-week cultural fest culminating with a nighttime Pride Parade (which one local claimed was actually bigger than Sydney’s Pride parade, drawing crowds second only to the Mardi Gras). And as for Alice Springs in the middle of the outback, yes there are enough of us to mount a post Gay Games dance party this year called Spin F-X. That leaves isolated Tasmania sporty enough to host a Queen’s Ball in Hobart each June (indoors of course). There is also lambda life in hot and humid Darwin way up north near the equator, but I didn’t hear any one urging me to go and explore it.
Gay Games Sydney 2002
From November 2-9, 2002 I was one of 13,000 athletes (and 1,300 swimmers) who entered the great Aussie Stadium to the cheers of 25,000 spectators and another thousand performers and volunteers gathered for the dynamic and stylishly choreographed opening ceremony of Gay Games VI. Equal in quality and visual style to any Olympic ceremony the evening’s performance art, dance, music, singing and theatrics all expressed the show’s six themes. These were the Struggle for Equality, the Indigenous Dreamtime, the Convict Era, the Liberation Struggle, the Devastation of AIDS and the Victory of Pride.
The Dutch athletes, sporting big balloon crowns, were dressed in bright Orange and huge oversized ‘wooden’ shoes; the South Africans wore zebra; the Palm Springs team (including a wheelchair member) wore bright floral shirts and carried their own palm tree; the Singaporeans wore slinky red briefs; touchingly athletes from Pakistan and India walked in together to great applause. Tthe usual huge teams from New York, San Francisco, London were noisy and energized. Australia’s combined contingent numbered more than 3000 which dwarfed my own modest team from Orange County, California with our eight bowlers, one tennis player and three swimmers who won 8 medals. (Our swimming venue was the Sydney Aquatic Center built for the 2000 Olympics with 5 pools inside one enormous building.)
The highly creative ceremony was the most beautiful of any Games I have seen since my first Games in ’84. It was a class act over two hours long that included enormous musical sounds, fantastic swirling dancing, choral singing from a huge combined LGBT choir and solo numbers from k.d.lang, Jimmy Somerville, and Judy Connelli.
At end of the music and dance performances, which included a sort of dikes-on-bikes ballet, Australia’s Chief Justice Michael Kirby stood tall on the podium with his partner and declared: “Little did my partner Johan and I think,30 years ago…that we would be at the opening of the Gay Games with the Queen’s representative and all of you to bear witness to such a social revolution. The changes over 30 years would not have happened if it had not been for people of courage who rejected the ignorant denials about their sexuality.” (Full text of speech at http://www.sydney2002.org.au/frameset.asp)
Standing at his side was also the Governor of the state of New South Wales (where Sydney is located) the Hon. Marie Bashir who officially opened the Games. Founder Tom Waddell’s widow, Sara Waddell Lewinstein, also stood with them.
From my view of the Games, the Sydney LGBT community appeared as a highly coordinated and integrated unity that had done a great deal of learning from the previous Games and went on to surpass them, thanks in great part to the thousands of volunteers who set up and helped manage the staging, props, food, crowd control, security, lighting and sound.
In the Streets and On TV
For a week Sydney came alive—at least gay Sydney did. The city is a huge place that feels bigger than it 2.4 million residents. The hub of the Games energy was mostly in the Hyde Park-Oxford Street area, which sported colorful street banners, food stalls, free musical performances and a huge painted rainbow on the street in Taylor Square in front of the most popular bar The Oxford Hotel. Cafes and bars along Oxford Street were energized and swollen with drinkers and diners day and night.
It all melded into a resplendent downtown ambience of cheerful volunteers, good food, buoyant athletes, dedicated artists and ebullient visitors from 75 countries around the world.
The sports venues, however, were spread out across the suburbs so many native Sydneysiders didn’t see much of the Games live. Nor did they see much in the newspapers as the coverage was minimal. I was told the state government in New South Wales was conservative so the official level of enthusiasm was not high. The Fairfax-owned (not gay friendly) Sydney Morning Herald had minimal coverage. But the LGBT community hardly noticed this slight as they sprinted, danced, bowled, cycled swam, posed or aerobicized in a thousand competitions in 32 sports for six days. Our registration packets included a transportation pass what gave us free access to trams, trains, buses and ferries that made getting around a breeze.
There was some TV reportage of the Games, but it was hard for a visitor to know which channel or when. Aussie TV appears to me a bit piecemeal and with minimal station breaks to bookend programs. There are only five broadcast channels. One of these is SBS (from Sydney) which has a pro-gay attitude. Several times I briefly flipped on this channel to see gay-theme programs or announcements. One was a 30-second anti-homophobia ad showing lovers kissing that cuts to a trio of blurred but hostile faces making threatening moves. The kissers suddenly fight back and throw things at the phobes who run away and a spoken and text ad appears showing phone numbers and web site for the Greater Sydney Anti-homophobia Campaign (ACON). (www.acon.org.au).
Another evening I caught some tail-end coverage, on the non-cable SBS, of the GG physique competition with muscular bodies posing and preening. The announcer, in signing off, said he had been reporting all week. Not surprisingly on this channel I also saw some previews for Queer as Folk (American version). The preview aired nightly; it consisted of short same-sex kissing and fluffing scenes from the show and was shown nicely without any ‘forewarning’ to viewers. All of a sudden two men or two women were smooching and carressing onscreen. Nice to see but still a bit startling for this Yankee viewer accustomed to prudent American ‘family’ prime time TV and where Q as F is only shown on a for-pay channel.
A Comment on Gay Rights in Australia
One night 10 PM I caught a full ‘unexpurgated’ episode of Queer as Folk with its usual amount of soap opera drama and steamy soft porn. It’s easy to make too much of this but I couldn’t help wondering just how conservative was the state government in New South Wales if something as homoerotic as Q as F could be shown on public television so close to prime time and unshielded by pay TV. I think it reflects a difference between American and Australian conservatism and may partly explain why Australia has leaped forward of the USA in delivering LGBT human rights and protections in recent years.
Although our issues are similar in both countries—gay unions, adoptions, age of consent and anti-discrimination legislation—Australia’s individual states (without needed approval or interference at the federal level) have lately been approving positively revised statutes. Instead of the guerilla cultural warfare–in hundreds of cities, in dozens of states–so common in the USA, Australian state governments (there are only eight, four of which almost include the entire country) have revised their laws. Change has thus come in huge sweeping areas instead of piecemeal local bits.
But that delivery has not always come so willingly as the forces of homophobia and sterile morality persist in both countries. As a signifiacnt example, activists Rodney Croome and Nick Toonen had to take Australia to the United Nations Human Rights Commisssion (1992-94) to get rid of the last criminal laws against gay men in Tasmania. It took another five years, May 1997, for the Tasmanian state government to finally make the revisions. Read more about this case at:http://www.tased.edu.au/tasonline/tasqueer/un_case/un_case3.html
More recently, in November 2002, www.365.com News reported this: “in a surprise announcement the state government of Tasmania said it will recognize domestic partnerships. The government said it would amend 120 pieces of legislation covering property rights child maintenance, organ donation, guardianship, access to a partner in hospital, pensions, funerals, wills, and various parenting, family and work leave entitlements. The changes would make Tasmania, one of the country’s most conservative states, the most progressive in gay family law.”
GG Cultural Feast
The Gay Games arts and cultural festival that accompanied the sports event was an enormous feast—and feat–of visual and auditory delight. There were over a hundred performances of theater, dance, music, gallery showings, choral concerts, drag acts and poetry readings; the AIDS quilt was shown in portion; several LGBT history exhibitions were mounted. Coincidentally, on the night before opening ceremony, the Sydney Orchestra and chorus performed the sublime Brahms Requiem in the famous Opera House on the famous harbor. For me it was the musical highlight of my week.(with apologies to k.d.lang, Shauna and Jimmy Somerville).
There was so much to do in addition to my competitions that I felt overwhelmed and frustrated at not seeing more other sports and arts. I did manage to see an innovative program by the Bondi Ballet Company, a music concert performed by Indigenous performers (including the impressive Kerrianne Cox) and a fine photgraphy exhibit at the Maritime Museum.
In sports, I attended (my first time) an evening of competitive ballroom dancing. I had not realized what a difficult sport this is, equally as demanding as figure skating. One afternoon I saw some volleyball and track which were also held at Olympic venues, adjacent to the Aquatics Center.
Further, there were the streets, harbors and beaches of Sydney. A requisite trip to Bondi Beach under clear azure skies found a near perfect crescent of sandy paradise with countless bodies of all shapes and ages. Returning by ferryboat (along with several other fairies), I approached the operas house and bridge by water from the west, offering the most exciting views of the skyscrapers, the famous tower, church steeples, parks and countless waterside cafes.
Gay Sydney is a mixed bag of proud achievement and in-house squabbles—as might be expected of any large city LGBT community trying to pull together such enormous events as the Games and Mardi Gras. I learned about the ‘inside’ of gay Sydney from a most unusual source when I signed on for one of the daily tours of downtown Sydney conducted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I found myself with a dozen others in the presence of several articulate and knowledgeable men in black habits. The theme of the walk was ‘historical beats of the Sydney central business district’. Beats are cruising places.
As we made our way past various historic T-rooms, cafes, parks, train station, malls and other ‘chapels of love’ our leader, Sister Salome of the Mystical Rhinestone, told campy anecdotes about each place.
For example, one of Australia’s most honored explorers is Matthew Flinders, a 19th navigator. Countless streets and parks all over the country are named after him. As we paused in front of the Flinders statue in central Sydney, Sister Rhinestone read aloud one of Flinders flourishingly affected and floridly romantic letters to his best friend, a Lieutenant in the Navy. We can’t be sure exactly what he meant since language was used differently then, but the letter didn’t leave much to the imagination.
Some of the privy places were not longer active, but the route took us past a number of the more standard mom-and-pop sites tour such as the Hyde Park fountain, old Mint, NSW State Library (which contains every Australian printed book and publication including all the porno—it’s the “best” collection we were told) and ornate Town Hall among others.
As we continued our tour (the Botanical Gardens remain a favorite beat) I talked with other Sisters. Sister Pearl and Sister Pre, about their organization’s purpose. They don’t label their costumes as ‘drag’ but rather ‘combat uniforms’ in protest against religious bigotry, religious sexism and religious homophobia. In addition to their shock tactics, they raise money for charity and perform rituals such as union blessings. They support several youth-in-crisis centers around Sydney. By the end of our tour I came to admire their integrity and courage.
Sister Rhinestone also told me that each state in Australia, all seven of them, (Victoria is as large as all of England) is sovereign and creates their own separate laws and social infrastructure regarding civil and legal matters. The federal government only has sovereignty regarding foreign affairs, defense and finance This insular system, for better or worse, separates and disequalizes the progress of human rights reform.
Curiously, the state of NSW, of which Sydney is the capital, now lags behind other more progressive states such as Tasmania (capital, Hobart) and Western Australia (Perth). The current government of NSW only reluctantly allotted some funding for the Gay Games after it was reminded about the financial windfall from 38,000 visitors coming into Sydney. “The current government of this state is ironically more conservative than the traditionally conservative states to the south and west,” one Sister said.
They also informed me that Sydney does not have a single leading LGBT organization that leads the community. Rather there are numerous large and small organizations that focus on specific areas of interest such as health, human rights, festivals, youth, lesbian issues and others. Many of these have an office at the Sydney Pride Center near Oxford Street (www.pridecenter.com.au). The Center is a beehive of activity as numerous activities happen throughout the week ranging from transgenders to sports clubs to legal aid to youth meetings.
In fact, there are so many LGBT organizations in and around Sydney that a new 56-page Pink Directory was recently published that lists several hundreds of venues, organizations and services that offer LGBT referrals in Sydney as well as across the country. From accommodations to tattoos, it’s all here. (www.thepinkdirectory.com.au). Another useful LGBT guide is the Gay Australia Guide (www.gayaustraliaguide.com), which also covers the whole country. Another, the Guide to Gay Sydney can be found at (www.guidetogaysydney.com)
The largest and most visible organization is the Sydney Mardi Gras (www.mardigras.org.au) that mounts the huge annual event each February. This ‘party’ association is really a charity that uses the parade and festival to raise money which is then distributed to needy LGBT related organizations. Mardi Gras recently went through serious financial and organizational crisis that threatened to shut it down (not unlike Auckland’s celebrated Hero parade which collapsed earlier this year). The feuding was political as well as financial with some people feeling Mardi Gras had sold out to big commercial corporations in return for sponsorships. Others felt that sponsorship was important to produce a dynamic show that in turn raises a lot of money for gay related charities. But these differences and conflicts seem to have been resolved and Mardi Gras will go on as scheduled.
However, as I write, a news release from Sydney has reported that the Gay Games 2002 organization is 1.4 million dollars (US) in debt and has entered into bankruptcy. Officials said that revenues fell short partly due to the general tourism scare since the Bali bombing in October 2002. See my story on Gay Bali for further reading. See the news release at: http://365gay.com/NewsContent/120402gamesBust.htm.
For more comprehensive insight into Australia’s lesbigay life in the 20th century read Graham Willett’s ‘Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia, 1958-1998’ (http://www.australian.unimelb.edu.au/)
West of Sydney: Melbourne
But Sydney is only the (large) tip of the gay Australia scene. After the Gay Games, I took a 10-hour train to Melbourne, then drove a car for two days to Adelaide and then flew three hours to Perth. At each of these major places, all with over a million folks, I looked briefly inside their lively gay communities.
Melbourne queers like to think they are the equal of Sydney—and more fashionable. Indeed, the most famous horse race in Australia is the Melbourne Cup for which virtually everyone dresses very up. Men in tuxes and top hats and women in outlandishly huge and flowery hats are seen at parties and events for the days leading up to race day in early November.
The LGBT scene is spread out across the city especially in the nearby precincts of Fitzroy and St. Kilda where rainbow shops and cafes, bars, saunas and clubs are plentiful. It’s a big sprawling casual scene here that mobilizesto produc its own version of Mardi Gras with two popular festivals, the colorful and cultural 3-week Midsumma Carnival and Red Raw party (www.midsumma.org.au) in January and another bash in June called Winterdaze staged by the ALSO Foundation (www.also.org.au). The annual Queer Film Festival mounted in association with these festivals is touted as the best in the country.
Appealing and wonderful as the scene was, the folks I wanted to interview in Melbourne were rather unique: Indigenous Aboriginal homosexuals. Prior to arriving for the Games, I hadn’t thought much about this segment of our community. Then at the opening ceremony I saw a contingent of dark-skinned athletes walking and dancing behind their scrawled ‘Indigenous Australians’ banner. A few days later at the Olympic Aquatics Center I met three Indigenous team members, and they happened to be from Melbourne. So a week later on a sunny (85 degrees F) afternoon I sat in Melbourne’s sylvan Victoria Park with Ronald and Grant, partners for four years. Ronald is an out and outspoken Indigenous gay professor of Indigenous Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He also recently ran for election to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as the first openly gay candidate.(See more about this campaign at: http://www.eniar.org/news/Johnson.html)
Under the shade of a huge eucalyptus tree we spoke about being gay in the Aboriginal culture—or what was left of it.
The white history of Australia began with invasion and became theft. The Aboriginal culture that had developed for eons in pre-Australia was declared barbaric by the invading British who almost succeeded in a malicious intention to eliminate the black face from the new colony–thanks to the invention of fast loading rifles.
For much longer than the British Empire had developed in Europe these native people had populated the continent, developing rituals, communities, beliefs, language and food gathering methods. Although diverse and separate tribes (families) were scattered across the land, there were common elements such as respect for the inherent nature of the land and human life as it was expressed in each individual. A dual revered spirit, one immortal one mortal, dwelled in human and non-human alike, in the forests, rivers, sky, animals and seasons.
“The history of Australia Aborigines flies very far back into history—60.000 years. But that history was interrupted with the invasion of the white Europeans starting in 1788 with their prisoners and guns and fear and ignorance,” said Ronald looking up at a nearby giant tree as if to contemplate the age of things. “Then everything changed for the worse. Native black people were considered savages to be overruled. At first they tried annihilation which didn’t work—but almost did.
Then came the apartheid of segregation for a few generations as natives were herded into Christian missions or onto confined reservations. When that broke down the government tried assimilation for half of the twentieth century. Starting 1918 and lasting until the 1960’s, the white government gave itself the authority to remove Aboriginal children from their mothers if they suspected the father was not also Aborigine. They took thousands of these young children away from their homes, put them in foster homes or institutions and refused to let them learn their native language and culture. We call them the ‘Stolen Generation’ who grew up separated from their heritage.”
It was not until Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970’s finally realized the great offense they were committing. He was the first head of the white government to show some respect for the culture that had preceded him. Money was allotted for Indigenous law and land reforms. Clumsy and inadequate attempts were made to establish Indigenous governing organizations but they were wasteful since only a few privileged Indigenous clans benefited and most others remained poor and destitute. “These anointed few were even appointed ‘kings’ or ‘queens’ in an effort to build a hierarchy of community but it was also disastrous. These were phony ‘Oreo’ leaders,” Grant added with a smirk of disdain toward such callous and inappropriate policies.
Today the legal situation is better, but only for some: the unemployment rate for Aborigines is still 38% The overall result of white rule has been the decemation of Indigenous culture, language and their family-clan way of life. “Our history was wiped out along with so many of our rituals and ceremonies. All-important connections between clans have been broken. So reconstructing this history is very difficult. There are no written documents since ours was a story telling culture.”
Not surprising is that any stories of native homoerotic or homo-themed rituals were wiped out by the moral Christian rulers who saw any kind of male-male intimacy as abnormal. “We have only some glimpses of pre-Christian clan rites of passage where young men (13 years old) ‘slept with uncle’ (teachers, mentors) the night before initiation/circumcision rites of passage into manhood. Such a gathering was called a ‘corraboree’. I suspect there was a physical or sexual component to this ceremony by which manhood was passed on from older to younger men,” said Ronald.
Any written or oral Aboriginal history was voided by the invaders so we will never know for sure how a native tribe or clan member was treated who was attracted to their own gender. (One can only guess that, similar to the Native American tribes, an androgynous role was allowed for such unique members. The term ‘berdache’ allowed for an effeminate Native American male to be raised as a girl and to perform female roles–or (?) a tomboy girl to move among the men.)
Another (unclear) tradition is reported from the Palm Island cultures on the north coast where Indigenous communities allowed for ‘sister girls’, an affectionate term among women for men who lived as (transvestite) women in the larger tribe. Ronald said they were called ‘Fahafines’, but he was not sure. There seems not to have been a single term within Aboriginal communities, past or present, which covered lesbians, gay men and sistergirls. Some communities are reported to have used terms like ‘Two-one’ to show their view that two spirits (both male and female) lived within one person.
As a result of this multigenerational cultural genocide, today Aboriginal families react to homosexuality like their Christian overlords conditioned them. Ron went on: “It is seen as a moral deviation and many of us are afraid to come out to our families. It’s painful to be separated from your family, but many of them don’t understand. I think that pre-1788, when the first white people came, that homosexual feelings and activity were simply seen as another form of nature, as something that was there from the beginning of the Dreaming. Every member of the clan had spiritual being and queer members may have had some special spiritual role, but that’s lost.”
Kerrianne Cox, Indigenous Lesbian Spirit
In addition to Ronald’s comments about homosexuality and the Aboriginal tradition, I spoke to the well-known Indigenous singer-songwriter Kerrianne Cox who performed numerous concerts during the Gay Games and several festivals across Australia afterwards. I met up with her in Adelaide where I asked her similar questions about the role of the homosexual inIndigenous clan life. She also agreed that so much destruction of her culture makes it hard to be sure if there was a special role for our people.
But Kerrianne is an intuitive woman who feels her culture within her heart; she feels her lesbian self in her soul. It’s from this deep source that she composes her music. “We have been separated from our ‘Dreaming’, our history. But I think gay then was a normal thing. There was Man’s Law and Woman’s Law and there were roles for each person with spiritual connections to the Dreamland of our ancestors.
In my songs, as a Native woman, a lesbian, I feel I am delivering my ancient culture to modern life. I don’t know exactly how that works, but I can feel this connection. You know in our culture these connections are very important. They are the life-blood that gives us a meaning, a history and a future… I feel a joy in my heart, from my being, my clan to the world. We have been pushed to the curb but I tell people in my music that we can be strong, we can be black, we can be women and proud…”
And before long she was off, with her lover Dorothy, to another concert in another city.
Adelaide was an unexpected surprise. I arrived during the second week of their three-week ‘Feast’, a cultural festival (www.feast.org.au) which the producers proudly claim is the largest LGBT cultural celebration in the southern hemisphere. It’s hard to dispute this after a scrutiny of the 40-page catalogue of events. Now in its 6th year, the annual event in is character with Adelaide’s reputation as a major cultural hub in Australia. In the state of South Australia (Adelaide is the capital) there are some 500 festivals every year ranging from international art to local fests.
Every two years in March a major arts biennale, the world class Adelaide Festival of Arts, is mounted and the whole city becomes a performance stage. Not surprising, an alternative Fringe Festival has sprung up with its own menu of quirky and offbeat presentations.
With some financial help from the state of South Australia, the Adelaide City Council and several major businesses and corporations, Charles Bracewell (Executive Producer), Margie Fischer (Artistic Director) and Neil Clegg (Executive Assistant) along with a cadre of dedicated volunteers, put together a impressive program. Virtually non-stop are dance, drama, museum exhibits (HIV, Aboriginal, photography, modern expressionism) musical concerts, parties, a film festival, beach parties, theme seminars (bigotry, coming out, gender, etc), drag shows, and even a food festival with cooking classes, wine tasting and find dining events. There were also “free wisdom” symposia that happened at numerous venues across the city.
In the course of one day I went to five separate presentations that showcased the variety of the festival. A museum exhibition of Indigenous art, a free wisdom symposium about transgender life, an improv youth theatre piece, a professionally staged drama and finally a playful drag performance by none other than Charles Bramwell himself as Ima Diva Live!
The most surprising aspect of this festival is that it happens at all. Adelaide’s LGBT community is not large or visible or highly activist. This ‘overgrown cowboy town’ of 1.2 million has been the conservative stepchild of the brassier Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane LGBT scene. “Adelaide has been through some difficult economic times and there is not a lot of money to spend so we’ve done nearly everything ourselves rather than hiring out the work for Feast. Most of the time we live rather quietly in the burbs and gather as a few places,” explained Neil as he stood in front of the Queen’s Theatre, the main hub for many of Feast’s performances.
Several forums were presented as part of Feast under the category of ‘Free Wisdom’, a very apt title given he serious nature of these events. I attended the forum about Transgender life by accident since it happened in the same space as the café in the Queens Theatre where I was having a drink with Neil. Half an hour before the presentation, I noticed there were numerous TGs gathering and chatting around the café. Most of the folks were in their forties and fifties and dressed in conservative (‘70s) women’s outfits and sporting a variety of wigs and long hair. Little did I know that I was about to have an in-depth appreciation of transgender life as I chatted with one woman, Jenny Scott, a library archivist, about her work at the state library and about the gathering audience around us.
When the symposium started Jenny got up and walked to the stage with a dozen others and began to present their testimonies of life. She was the lead speaker of the group and read a very touching long poem about breaking through her pain, shame and fear and coming into the truth of her true gender.
An excerpt from her ‘Transwisdom’:
“I am transgender. Doesn’t that give me insight? Haven’t I been where so few fear to tread? Down that long corridor- to the theatre. Not the theatre where we act out our lives. The theatre where they come with sharp instruments And prescription drugs to kill the pain While they cut away the offending parts And make me new or at least in the image of my god.Would you do that? Could you do that? Could you–imagine–giving yourself to the surgeon’s knife? Trust–that is what you must have. Trust in me because I am wise.”
(Full text of poem at Australia News #17)
This was the significant theme for the next hour as each of these male-to-female women read or spoke of their journeys through enormous confusion, agony, criticism, trauma and final difficult transformation into their present authentic selves. Equally poignant were two ex-wives who also gave testimony about the great upheaval in their lives when their husbands revealed their shocking truth and went through the change. The heavy silence in the room was palpable as each presenter—including one bearded female-to-male man–opened their most private secrets to the assembled small audience. I was deeply moved by the courage, pain and redemption that each speaker shared, sometimes boldly, sometimes tearfully. And, importantly, here they were as part of this Feast of LGBT life in downtown Adelaide.
Adelaide’s LGBT community is able to support several gay venues such as the popular disco Mars Bar, the smaller Loft bar, the busy Edinburgh Castle Hotel bar and the big Queens Arms Hotel bar/café/gaming hall/disco/lounge. The Queens is impressive for its size and variety of activity it offers. On a daytime visit there I met the owner and manager who were pleased to show me around. The two-story traditional Aussie style building—with a balcony and gingerbread ironwork–had been opened less than a year and is one of Adelaide’s most popular watering holes. In this moderate city it doesn’t take long for word to get around.
In addition to these social places, Adelaide has Cheltenham Place for the HIV positive community. Its not a hospital, not a hospice, but a place to hang our for support and information and making new friends. Bfriends is a local support program for youth who are coming out or wondering. It offers free confidential advice live or by phone. (www.acm.asn.au)
In keeping with South Australia’s recent progressive attitude toward the LGBT community, the Feast program booklet opened with greetings from several state and local officials welcoming the festival. The SA Premier (who is also Minister for the Arts), the Minister for Social Justice, the Minister for Tourism and the Lord Mayor of Adelaide (of Asian origin) each made an opening welcoming statement. Said the Minister for Social Justice: “…And while as South Australians we celebrate and acknowledge all that is cultural, artistic, intellectual, visual and social about Feast let’s also recognize and think about discrimination and inequality that our LGBTQ communities still endure today. We need to work together to end this social injustice.” This year’s Feast was making a mighty effort to do just that.
Prior to the Games, Amnesty International Australia sponsored a human rights conference that gathered a hundred or so human rights activist from all over Asia, and some from Europe, Africa and the Americas. For three days participants reported on their political, legislative and social work from China to India, from Philippines to Zimbabwe. As is often the case the war stories of persecution and discrimination outweighed the smaller victories for legislative reform. But it was clear that over recent years patient persistence had paid off, in varying degrees, in such places as India, Philippines. Canada, HK, Ireland, as well as Australia for gaining recognition, equal access to the law, health services and family rights.
At the conference I met Daniel, a banker who, as part of the modest Perth LGBT community, was pleased to report recent important gains in pro-gay legislation in the state of Western Australia. From being one of the most retarded states about sexual rights, WA has recently leaped forward as one of the most progressive areas of the country.
When I met up with Daniel a couple of weeks later in Perth, he reported that the new legislative reforms did not come from highly active LGBT lobbyists in Perth. Rather, the major effort came as a result of statewide election which brought the more liberal Labor Party to power in Perth and with it a new Attorney General who saw the inequalities in the laws and persuaded his party to pass revised statutes. The new anti-discrimination legislation now includes protections from harm based on actual or perceived sexuality. The changes also include equal age of consent regardless of sexual orientation.
In June of 2005 Rod Swift of the Gay and Lesbian Equality activist organization sent the following update about GLE: “The GLBTI lobby group Gay and Lesbian Equality dates back over 30 years to nearly Stonewall days. We’ve attempted law reform legislation on seven occasions over three decades. The GLBTI lobby in Perth did quite a bit of hard work and stacked the public gallery of parliament on many occasions both before and after the election of the Labor government in 2001.
“In fact, it was Gay and Lesbian Equality (WA) that got the ball rolling on a ministerial advisory committee to report on ALL laws that required changing. The groundwork for this ministerial advisory committee was from work in 1999 and 2000 to get key commitments from our socially progressive Labor Party. Similarly, we do have a large number of out members of parliament. Notably, one of these members is a former media spokesperson for GALE.
“Most recently in December 2004-February 2005, we brought about a campaign to highlight our conservative party’s anti-gay stance which had them flummoxed and looking like they were in the 1950s. So much so their junior conservative coalition partner (a rural-focused party) distanced themselves a number of times from the people they were seeking to form government with if elected. We are now running a broad anti-homophobia campaign and continue to lobby the Labor Party that has been reelected in 2005 in the areas of laws that have been not worked through. This effort has been a concerted effort from a large number of GLBTI activists that helped the government push through law reforms. If we had not shown this support, we may have only received minimal law reforms and not the wide-ranging reforms like adoption, parenting and partnership rights that we now have.” (End of report from Rod Swift.)
Western Australia is reported to have more out gay and lesbian parliamentarians than any other state in the union.
Perth is the climate gem of Australia. Despite its out of the way location—2500 miles (4000 km) west of Sydney—Perth is a modern, clean, colorful waterfront city surrounded by tidy burbs and estimable wineries. The city has a modest but energetic gay community that succeeds in mounting an annual Pride parade and festival.There is only one full time LGBT bar, The Court Hotel (in Australia, most ‘hotels’ are bars), and one disco, Connections, which comes alive after 11 PM. There is one sauna, Perth Steamworks, and one bookshop, Arcane Bookshop. All of these places are in the Northbridge district a short walk from downtown.
I walked past the Court one Sunday evening about nine and was pleasantly surprised to see the busy venue had large street-level clear glass windows through which I could see into all the rooms. In my experience it’s rare to see a LBGT bar or disco with such visible openness. From the dj in the back dance room to the leather sofas in the front lounge, it was happily all there and all very visible.
At the Beach
Perth is situated a few miles upriver from the coast. At the mouth of the Swan River is the resort holiday town of Fremantle packed with cafes, restaurants, shops and waterfront activity. Freemantle is also the deep cargo port for Perth. It seems that half of Perth migrates there on weekends for a good time, although I don’t know of any exclusively lesbigay spots.
The beaches are long and white and, with some diligence, so I read, naturists can find a clothing-optional stretch of sand north of Swanbourne Beach. Floreat Beach does offer great expanses of azure water and white sand and reportedly a gay café. I went to Cottesloe Beach, which is easily accessible by train from central Perth. It’s part of a very long beach that runs for miles along the ocean coast and provides plenty of room for countless swimmers and surfers. As for those famous sparsely-clad lifeguards, despite the picture on the left which I did not take, I noticed only two and they wore long T-shirts. The populace here are overwhelmingly non-gay, so a day at this beach is best for a swim and a book.
Pride Western Australia (www.wapride.asn.au)happens in September and October each year. It started as recently a s 1990 but has grown significantly. Like Adelaide, it also sports a three-week cultural festival of theatre, art and performance. The parade happens at night and is reported to be second only to the Sydney Mardi Gras in the numbers it attracts. I read, however, that in 2000 the conservative mayor of Perth tried to reign the party and parade but he was outvoted by the populace and so the party goes on.
As pleasant as Perth appears, there is not a large LGBT community because, as Daniel surmised, so many gay people migrate to the larger eastern cities where there is more support, activity and less conservative constraint on being out. Daniel, too, is making plans to pursue another career in Melbourne in the near future since he comes from a very traditional Korean family who would have a hard time accepting his sexual orientation.
We talked at a trendy restaurant in Northbridge where many outdoor cafes and fashionable restaurants are also located in addition to the few gays venues. I could sense the constraint in his life as we talked about the narrow and heavy expectations he felt from his family’s Asian traditions. At the same time he also felt the strong pull of a liberated gay community further east that could allow him to live with the personal freedom he desires as a gay man.
After dinner one night we went to the Subiaco district Performance Space to see a play called ‘Savage Grace’ in which a gay doctor and a gay medical ethicist argue (when they ae not seducing each other) about the place of voluntary euthanasia as the ultimate treatment for people with AIDS. The theater was filled to about one third capacity for this rather academic play. As drama, it had an anemic force, but I allowed it some significance for being here at all in this quiescent city. A live play about homosexuality with a bit of man-to-man kissing–a controversial topic with two controversial figures, yet openly staged and publicly advertised and wholly within the statutes and rights granted to LGBT citizens. Gay Perth, it seemed, was simultaneously being reborn and already mature.
Finally, the west coast of Australia is the outer limit of Australia’s unusually vibrant, driving, feast-making LGBT population. Standing at land’s end on the western shores of Cottesloe Beach, on the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean, I reflected back at this vast continent and what I had seen in the past three weeks. Although suffering a serious drought for it crops and cattle, the country is politically fertile for social, legal, artistic, athletic and spiritual life of its LGBT citizens.
The ‘Twelve Apostles’ rocks along Victoria south coast
My apologies to Brisbane, Cairns , Canberra, Darwin and Tasmania which I didn’t visit this time and who also harbor thriving lesbigay lives.