I have always been open about my age, but I am particularly comfortable, and proud, to say that I am eighty.
When I was about three, I can remember having a sense of another presence around me, a comforting presence. I always felt there was something beyond me. I was brought up a Methodist, and then the Methodist church became part of the Uniting Church.
I am so glad I had a father who was a radical thinker. I never had to unlearn anything he taught me. When I told him I was very worried about hell, he asked why. I told him I thought it was so cruel, people burning in hell, and he said, Well Dorothy, if you were a loving parent, and your children did the wrong thing, would you do that to them? I said No. And he said, Well if you ever think you are more loving than God you are on the wrong track. I don’t believe in hell.
I was a very shy nervous child, the eldest of five children. One day, when I was fifteen, our teacher organised a debate on the White Australia policy. I said to Dad, I wish I could speak against the White Australia policy but I’m too nervous. He said, When you care enough, Dorothy, you’ll find a voice. So, for the first time I spoke publicly – my knees were shaking and my voice was shaking – and that was the beginning of finding a voice to say what I believed in. My father was very much against racism and prejudice. When he went to the war he stood his three daughters in front of him and he said, I want you to remember, firstly not to shout out horrible things to the Chinese bottle-o, like everyone else does, and also not to shout out horrible things to the Catholic kids.
I didn’t train for ordination until I was almost fifty. I have four children, and I had given sixteen years of my life, twenty-four hours a day, to our son, who was brain damaged by his polio vaccine. But it’s important to say that I believe in vaccination.
When I finished training, some very brave friends came to me and said, Dorothy, don’t go to ordination because your ego is very high now, and you think you are fighting for others, and you are, but you are also accruing power to yourself. I knew they were right. So I went to this great nun, Betty Kennedy, and asked for spiritual direction, and the first thing she asked was whether I had ever reflected on power. Oh dear. For two years I put myself under spiritual direction. One day I felt very sad, and I went to St James Anglican Church and went up to the communion rail. When the priest put the chalice in my hand there was a light around it, and when he took the chalice away, the light stayed in my hands, and an inner voice said, I now call you. So I knew I was ready. But I do still encourage my brave friends to tell me when my ego is getting away from me. Being clergy is a dangerous occupation because it’s so easy to think you are God.
I have always felt strongly about human rights. I was part of a lot of big movements, because of the era that I have lived in – the anti-white Australia movement, the peace movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the women’s movement. I feel very privileged to have lived through those times, to have been very active politically, and to see change happening.
I was at Pitt Street Uniting Church for ten years, from 1983 to 1993. It was the time when I faced my sexuality, and I told the people of my church. For a few years there we were being attacked by the neo-Nazis, firstly because they found out about my sexuality – they had a mole in the congregation – and the second reason was that we were very actively supporting the anti-apartheid movement and the African National Congress. And also they found out that we were the people who were wiping out their racist graffiti all around the city, which said “Kill an Asian”.
There was terrible racist graffiti in the pedestrian tunnel in Stanmore, and a group of us went to the Railway authorities and asked them to wipe it out, and they agreed but said it would take six months. We thought we couldn’t leave it there, so four of us went one night, and we started painting it out, but the Railway Police came. They asked us our names and occupations. We had a young man who was a student at the Conservatorium of Music, then there was a woman who was a piano teacher, then a leading member of the health commission, and then me, clergy. They thought we were a very unusual graffiti team. They let us go, but they told the media, and it was splashed across the papers.
The most painful time for me was when the neo-Nazis found out where I lived, and I lived by myself, and they were stalking me. They painted Lesbian Slut across my front fence. They threw faeces and vomit at my door. They rang up in the middle of the night and threatened my life, and played the Nazi anthem, which happens to be a hymn. They burned an effigy of me on my doorstep. The special branch were colluding with them. The neo-Nazi group were disbanded shortly afterwards. The man who lit the fire outside my house had many prohibited weapons, and was eventually murdered by another member of the group. Indeed I was scared. But it taught me to be vulnerable. I’d been taught to be stoic, but I learned that I could ask for help, even in the middle of the night. I could cry with the people of Pitt Street, tell them I was feeling very low and fearful. People would hold me and comfort me.
When I came out in the church the response was positive. The neo-Nazis made sure everyone knew, so the Synod staff called me and asked if it was true, and I said yes, and they left me there in the church, and supported me, and when I left Pitt Street they made me National Director for Mission, which is the second most important position in the Uniting Church nationally. My big coming out was when the national assembly in Perth discussed the issue, and reflected on it. The conservatives were making such a fuss, which in a way prompted me to retire, because I was too busy defending myself to do the things that I really needed to do. But, it’s important for me that the hierarchy of my church supported me.
I was the first woman in the world to be Moderator, or Chairperson, of the World Council of Churches Worship Committee, presiding over about seventeen bishops, archbishops and patriarchs. We got on well, after I had affirmed my leadership.
I realized that if I owned my sexuality, I knew I would have to tell people. It felt like stepping off a cliff.
Everything was at stake – my work, my ordination, and many relationships. I’d known all along that I didn’t feel comfortable with a man, but I just wondered if it was about the wrong man. I met many lesbians in the women’s movement, and I suddenly realized. So when I stepped off that cliff, instead of falling, I was flying. I felt truly, fully alive. Complete. I had my first relationship which lasted seven years, and then I met Ali, who was the love of my life.
There aren’t too many clerical collars around on lesbian women. It’s important for me to wear my clerical collar. To claim my space as a lesbian minister. Many denominations don’t even ordain women, let alone lesbian women. So, wearing the collar is a statement about who I am, what my profession is, but also it is a matter of standing and saying I am here and I am clergy. If I ever wear my collar and get on a bus, people look at me nervously as if I might start to evangelize.
When I’m having dinner with people who don’t know me, and they ask me what I do, I say, Actually, I’m clergy, and they say, Oh, I’m sorry I swore a few moments ago. So now when I am among people before they know what I do, I say, Oh,shit… Then people think I’m human. Of course some clergy are very righteous and pious, but I’m not.
My partner Ali was brought up an Irish Catholic. But she was very alienated from the church – partly because she had spent many years in hospital as a child, and by the time she went to the Catholic school, she would ask lots of questions and get banged over the knuckles. Even though she wasn’t a person of the church, she was a person of spirituality and faith. She deeply respected my profession. She was very affirming of what I was doing. But she made a great contribution to me, because she’d say, Now, don’t think you’re God. You’re not God. You’re showing off. She’d push my ego down, quite rightly.
Ali taught me to laugh and play and fight. To be authentic, rather than just say polite things. She let me be real. She loved my clerical collar. She said I looked sexy in my clerical collar.
Ali died two years ago. She was the love of my life. We were together for twenty years. She was my home. Body, mind, heart and soul.
My children all accepted me when I decided who I was. They are all totally supportive of me, and I am still good friends with my ex-husband. My little granddaughter, when she was four, asked me, Grandma, are you and Ali married? And I said, No. And she said, Why not? She could see that our relationship was the same as her parents.
When I was with my husband I didn’t like sex. I thought it was my problem somehow. But once I realized I was a lesbian, I enjoyed sex. It’s part of the joy of living. But my ex-husband and I are very good friends. When he remarried, he told me he suddenly realized how good it was to be married to a heterosexual woman.
It takes me a bit longer to recover from doing things these days. I get tired more deeply somehow, and I find I have to watch that I don’t take on too much. I thought everyone would stop asking me to speak, but I still get asked very often. I have to push myself to do a bit more exercise. I can hear Ali’s voice saying, Come on, go to the gym. But I don’t like exercise, even though I was good at sport when I was a child. I’m lucky to have good strong knees. When I turned 80 my kids gave me a tiny iPod, and they put all my favorite music on it, and told me I could listen to it while I walk. But if I really want to do something, I will do it.
I feel respected in the LGBTI community. I suppose because I had a fairly high profile, with coming out in the church, and particularly when I won the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1988 and the Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Macquarie University in 1992. I am often touched and amazed when young people talk with me and shake my hand.
I am the features editor at the South Sydney Herald, which we started ten years ago when I first went to the Uniting Church in Waterloo. We wanted to tell good news stories about Redfern, and reflect positively on issues in the local area. I write a faith column. We have final year journalism students do all our writing. Volunteers distribute 30,000 copies each month. It’s a big effort all right. It’s like walking on water.
Oh yes, I still cry for Ali. I really miss her conversation, that everyday company. She wasn’t scared. Particularly once she was going downhill in the hospice, she was very peaceful. I asked her, Are you peaceful darling, do you feel ready to die? And she said, Yes, she was. She would tell me, Go and get a haircut, you look much better when it’s short. And, go and buy yourself a decent bottle of gin, darling. She was in a coma, one day, and before I went to see her I did the two things she wanted – I had a haircut and I bought a bottle of gin. When I arrived I took her hand and she just slipped away.
I’m planning to go back to Tasmania to see where I was born. I left there at three weeks old, in a fruit box, and I’ve never been back. I’m curious to see the west coast. To see how beautiful it is.
Photography by Kerry Fluhr