I knew I was different when I was sixteen, but couldn’t put my finger on it, metaphorically speaking. Dusty Springfield was the only person I’d ever heard of who was a lesbian. I couldn’t do the big hair…
These days, I’m a retired lesbian. Women have been the focus of my life, but I’ve got to the point where I think, ‘that will do’. I have a wide circle of friends and I never really was the domestic or couple type.
I’m sixty years old – I never thought I’d use that number in the same sentence as me.
I have an anti-style which hasn’t changed since I was a child. There’s a photo of me in Trafalgar Square when I was about five, wearing a pair of jeans and a little shirt, with hands in pockets and staring at the camera defiantly. That’s essentially still how I am. If I have any style at all, it’s my friend’s style, because I always wear hand-me-downs. I’m most comfortable on the farm in a pair of jeans and my Blunnies and a smelly old jumper, dusty old Akubra pulled around my ears.
I spent a few years sitting on a horse or a tractor when I first came to Australia. I was a Jillaroo. I’d grown up on a farm in northeast Yorkshire and always hated industrial farming practices. The first paddock we went into here was bigger than our family farm. You could spend the whole day on a horse, with a dog, chasing cattle, in glorious weather. I’d died and gone to heaven! But after a couple of years we were losing our minds, so my girlfriend and I came to Sydney.
I started working at Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1978. There was a Labor state government, and a real sense that if we worked with the great feminists in the bureaucracy we could achieve a lot. We could be a pretty scary and angry lot and looked quite feral. We wouldn’t accept representation, so everybody came to every meeting, there was this tradition of women calling themselves Egg…so-and-so Egg. These pollies must have thought we were completely mad.
In 1979 I was in a relationship with a woman who was a musician, and she said to me; “If you could be an instrument, what would you be?’ And I thought I’d be a saxophone. Punk culture said you can do it – you just pick it up and blow it. So I got one and started playing, though after a while another musician friend said to me, “Not bad, but you’ve got the mouthpiece upside down!” I improved after that. Then the Women’sWarehouse happened. We rented a five-story warehouse in Haymarket, Sydney, with a printing press, a café, filmmakers, and a music co-op. It was all so flaming political. We thought that access to instruments and music lessons was privileged. So we pooled them, so that anyone could use them. Once a month we’d put on an event and anyone could play. Robin Archer might drop in. I’ll never forget the first time our band, The Stray Dags, played there. The audience started getting agitated, then getting up and I thought, oh no, we’re so bad they’re leaving, but then they started coming towards us, and I thought, we’re so bad they’re going to take the instruments off us, but then they started dancing! That was it – we became a dance band.
I knew I was different when I was sixteen, but couldn’t put my finger on it, metaphorically speaking. Dusty Springfield was the only person I’d ever heard of who was a lesbian. I couldn’t do the big hair, but when I went to Kent University in 1971 I hoped some gorgeous woman professor would sweep me off my feet. Unfortunately not, so with a gay bloke I met we decided to come out. We went to the new Gay Liberation office in London and got tutored in coming out – we got the badges and the t-shirts and the odd pamphlet. At a synchronised time both of us walked out onto campus with all our gear on, and no one took a blind bit of notice. So we invented an article for the student newspaper from a ‘John Smith’ saying that it was an abomination to see these gay people at the university. We were overnight celebrities, and accepted everywhere.
I did this before I’d actually done the deed, but by now I was convinced. So I had to invent a fictitious German girlfriend. My credibility was at stake. Luckily I was playing hockey for the university, met a fabulously good-looking woman and one thing lead to another. I’m still friends with her, forty years later, she lives just down the road from me.
We had a terrific womens group at the university and organised the first national lesbian feminist conference. At that time the women’s movement had a set of political demands, I proposed the sixth, the sexual choice demand, at the 1974 Women’s Liberation Conference in Edinburgh. The first part was reformist – An end to all discrimination against lesbians – and then I think this great woman called Margaret Coulson came up with the revolutionary part – and the right of all women to a self-defined sexuality. I’m really glad to have lived to see many young women now claiming this second right.
I’ve continued to work on domestic violence issues for more than thirty years. I now work for the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse. I like this work because it’s practical, and goes to the heart of feminism.
It’s about economic independence for women. It’s the caring for everyone that keeps women trapped in violent relationships. Domestic violence challenges all of us about how we construct our relationships, the romantic ideals that most of us will fail.
My most recent work has been on establishing industrial protections for workers experiencing domestic violence. We want to support women to stay in their own homes and in their jobs. To reduce the violence and disruption in women and children’s lives.
I’ve also done some work recently with the Older Women’s Network NSW, some great women, producing two reports, It Could be You; female, single, older and homeless and The disappearing age: a strategy to address violence against older women. We are now seeing the pointy end of a wave of women who were married in the 1980s, had children, divorced, dropped out of home ownership, have worked part time and accumulated little super. Having a job has kept their head above water, but losing the job through a health crisis or age discrimination means they can’t afford the roof over their heads and become homeless.
My next goal is that by the middle of next year I’m off to live in my little Paris studio. And yes, I am very, very lucky to have one. But I will stay anactivist. I am interested in a new architecture of older women living singly. The single person household is the fastest growing household in Australia, and yet our architecture in no way reflects that. There’s a real opportunity to come up with a different way of living for us in independent clusters. Older women don’t want McMansions, they want a little space that is theirs, living with women of their own age nearby.
And I want to work towards the notion of dying at a time of our own choosing. When it’s no fun anymore. I think we should have that right, negotiated with friends and family. Our generation is about quality and control, and I couldn’t bear anyone else telling me what to do with my finances for instance. We’re far too bossy, and we’ve been far too independent, to let others choose our time of dying. I want life to be amazing to the very last minute.
These days, I’m a retired lesbian. Women have been the focus of my life, but I’ve got to the point where I think, ‘that will do’. I have a wide circle of friends and I never really was the domestic or couple type. My work is intense, and I need and enjoy time on my own. I also take my responsibilities as an aunt very seriously, and so many of my friends have children. They all need a good aunt or two.
I had cancer twelve years ago but am really well now. I took up indoor rock climbing recently – its challenging both physically and intellectually. I like surfing. I ride horses. I like riding around on my scooter.
I seem to have a different relationship to time than many other people. My life seems to have gone on forever, not rushed, just endless. It was a good time to be born. Lucky to have been part of all this.
Photography by Viv McGregor