We tell stories from our lives because as women and as lesbians they’re not heard enough.
Life is long, in a good way. The most important thing I’ve done recently is make a feature documentary about my father and the family he kept hidden from me. I’ve always told stories. It’s a creative thread that runs through my life, no matter what I’m doing. I’ve been a performer, a writer, a theatre producer, an artist, a worker in a feminist abortion clinic, a carpenter, a builder, a filmmaker. We tell stories from our lives because as women and as lesbians they’re not heard enough.
Turning sixty one is a significant moment because I’ve entered my next decade. Last year I tried to avoid celebrating turning sixty, but in the end sixty was good because I went back to Trinidad, where I was born, with my film The Last Goldfish, which was an amazing experience.
When you have a story about family secrets you have to be a detective. That journey started for me when I was very young. My father would say things which suggested another life or another history, it was like he was leaving me clues. The film is a massive achievement at the end of a whole life process for me. Though it wasn’t until my parents died that I could tell this story. My experience of growing up was one of blissful ignorance and a bit about being an outsider. I was born in Trinidad. I’m white, which I didn’t realise until I was about ten. I suddenly got a sense of uncertainty, of where do I really come from? I’ve always felt as if I’m slightly in the wrong place. Am I allowed to be a lesbian in this world? Or a carpenter, where there are very few females? But ultimately those challenges are exciting and spur my creativity.
Dress is a big thing. I get in trouble for not thinking much about how I look. It’s because I dress like a tomboy, and I always have, no matter what decade I’m in. My reference point for style is teenage boy, occasionally cute toddler. I don’t like wearing women’s clothes. But I go out with a style queen, so I’m very fortunate to have an in-house couturier advice bureau. I identify as a woman but I don’t in terms of what I wear or what I do or what I think. I am who I am.
I do think about the meaning of clothes, how clothes are so gendered. Women’s clothes often don’t have pockets. It makes it really hard to carry stuff. You have to have a bag, rather than the freedom of shoving everything in your pockets and having your hands free.
I’ve always been very practical, and I’ve always been an activist. I like working with artists, and I also like making things. I’m usually making something. But in my day job I’m the manager of the UNSW Creative Practice Lab. Secretly what I’m doing is supporting the arts and artists. At the moment independent artists are really unsupported. It’s a patchwork of connections to make a career.
Younger people find me funny. I get a lot of respect from younger queer people. My clarity about my sexuality, my feminism and my politics supports my younger colleagues and the students. They are curious. I tell them stories and they lap it up. It’s great being in that environment.
I love getting older, being a bit wiser, being a mentor, having history that young people are interested in. I constantly surprise people because of my work and varied creative history. I like to challenge people’s assumptions. But physically the aches and pains of getting older are really annoying. My age is impacting on my tennis because my knees are sore. You don’t bounce as well. Not being a very female female, I’ve always been a bit invisible, and as women get older, we become more and more invisible. There’s a certain power in that because people aren’t looking at you, judging you, but you also have to fight to be heard. To be noticed. But then again, age offers perspective on life and art and creativity. I can’t work as hard as I used to, so I have to work a lot smarter, which I’ve always done as a small person in the building industry. I had to adjust. Again, it’s like the world is built for a certain kind of person, and again I don’t fit the bill. But that’s made me curious, and open, and wanting to make a difference.
In the current times when people are talking about sexuality and gender in such an interesting and complex way, I don’t think my sense of self has changed. As soon as I decided I was a lesbian, it’s been consistent. I use that word as a political statement. It’s not gay, that sounds too friendly. It’s lesbian. I come from a time when the word lesbian was so hard for people to hear, so it was, and still is, important to say it. But I do love fluidity, I respect that, it ties into my tomboyness, my not wanting to be defined. It’s really important to push forward our visibility as queers. But in the end, I believe we are all people, and it shouldn’t matter how we identify.
The older you get you realise that being a little bit kinder about who you are in the world, to explain yourself a little bit, is a good thing. Nowadays, I hope I’m not too judgemental. I try not to be self-righteous. Not to jump on people if they get it wrong.
The environment is really important to me. I feel like we’re destroying everything that’s amazing about the planet. We’re this voracious species that just eats everything. We’re unstoppable. The thought of all those incredible birds and insects facing extinction is ultimately so very sad. It’s horrific thinking so many people refuse to change their behaviour to do everything we can to try and make this better.
I was at the morning demo for the very first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978, but I ran away from the evening one. The morning was quite scary. I was 19 years old. It was threatening. I knew there was trouble coming, so I didn’t go to the evening march. I have a very self-protective core and a good sense of danger. It steers me away from catastrophe. From too many drugs. Too many bad people. Too many bad relationships. But at that stage I lived in King’s Cross, and our house became a refuge for everyone who was running away from the police. It’s really important that people realise that it was like a war that time. It went on for months and months. In many ways we’re back there now, with the current government bringing in laws to restrict demonstrations.
I was one of the chippies in the Mardi Gras workshop in the 1990s. We set up the workshop in Newtown, with workbenches and tools, paint and glitter. For Mardi Gras and the annual Sleaze Ball I’d stop my own private building work and start working there on the floats and party props. The women were primarily the welders and carpenters and the men were the seamstresses. It was wonderful. I learned so many skills around collaboration, working with community, how you make things happen from design right through to being out on the streets. What a fabulous time it was. But Mardi Gras has changed a lot. When I was there it was run by us and sponsors did what we wanted. But I’m really glad that Mardi Gras is still happening.
It’s confronting being sixty-one. I work in a university so I can think seriously about retirement but I see retirement as being about changing what I’m doing. I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I’ve been a builder, I’ve made a feature film and I’ve seen through the building of a new, beautiful arts complex on the university campus. I’m excited about what’s next. I might retrain as something else. I’ve done that many times in my life.
But at the moment I feel like, I’m sixty-one. Do I get to retire soon?
Photos by Sue Lightfoot