Added notes, August 16, 2020. This talk- performance has become very important to me. It is the last outing of this kind I will be physically able to do. For one last time I drank deeply of the joy of shaping a drama with people unknown to me for the most part, with offering the energy of thinking, artifacts, words that fitted no outline. Before this presentation, I had asked two friends, lesbians in their late 20s, how would they want to be spoken to in a public presentation--thinking of the static drone of most conference proceedings. "Don't tell us what to think" Ang said. "Help us ask questions." And that is why there are so many bits and pieces here, thrown out for conjecture and even fabrics to feel, bearing imprints of bodies, of stories. Two other background waters. First the physical challenge I had in getting my body with my cane, my suitcase of books, garments to the conference site. Having the thinkers, creators who had given life to my thinking all these years present, piled up on stools for all to see seemed necessary to me and so once again I became a schlepper. Last, I started the "talk" with the story of Lee and his kind words because of the tension one of the speakers had created between herself and the trans community. Lee gave me the gift of new solidarities and it seemed just the right time to share it. The joy, the aliveness I felt, the love for what we were all trying to do together in that rather cold room, brought back all the LHA slid show presentations, the one woman erotic reading shows, the endless talks I have given and my teaching days on that cold hill in Flushing Queens on which Queens College stood. Now on this lifeless page, one more time. Thank you for listening.
Reflections on Legacies and Solidarities from the Perspective of a 50s Fem: Fragments of Stories, Encounters, Perils and Cries of Possibilities
Acknowledgement of country:
I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations and pay respect to Elders past and present. I acknowledge that for 61 years on another continent, I walked the traditional country of the Lanapi people and I wish to pay my respects to their elders past and present. I acknowledge that the sovereignty of both these countries has never been ceded. This primary, brutal dispossession is at the heart of the brokenness of our human solidarities.
Re-Creation of a Talk Setting:
I set the room with many movable parts, all speaking to memory, encounters, geographies that have shaped my life, to old histories and new ones. From the speaker’s podium, I hang two garments: my old black slip in which I did erotic readings for three decades, the fabric still showing my large woman’s shape, and my black cotton Women in Black t-shirt that calls for an end of the Israeli occupation in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew and English that I wore at our weekly demonstrations here in Melbourne. These represent desire and engagement, perhaps another way of saying legacies and new solidarities.
On the wall behind me, moving from the left to right, the enlarged cover photograph of Urska Sterle’s book, Vecno Vojno Stanje—An Endless Struggle—which depicts seven young, Slovenian lesbian women with exhausted faces sitting in front of their small café, their lesbian gathering place, which had been firebombed in the night. They sit in a protective vigil with their dogs lying at their feet. On the wall of the charred building are the words, “Death to Queers.”
Next come three panels of butcher block paper on which I have attached headlines and sentences, largely from newspapers in the days before the conference. Bulletins of queer concern, of irony and trepidation:
...“Australia Better Off After Same Sex Marriage”: “…one of our most historic events. Now, one year on, our country is better. Thousands of couples have married, there is more commitment and mutual responsibility, our social fabric is stronger and there is more love” (Wilson).
... “Australia Battler Party”—“Right Wing Party Wants Migrants Put on Bonds” (Jacks).
...“Gay Brazil’s Fears—‘the gates of hell have been opened’” (Phillips): “I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son. I’m not going to be a hypocrite: I’d rather my son died in an accident than showed up with some bloke with a moustache” (Lyons); “Where there is indigenous land…there is wealth…” (Sengupta). Words of the new Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro.
...“Fringe Party Targets ALP Over Safe Schools”: “A glossy brochure claiming Labor is enforcing a school anti-bullying program that encourages young children to change their biological sex is being distributed to hundreds of thousands of Victorian homes…The colour leaflet, headlined ‘Stop Harming Our Children,’ attacks the Safe Schools program for its ‘dangerous agendas’” (Carey).
...The Voices of Rise Up Australia and The Coalition Against Unsafe Sexual Education: “The newest most dangerous development in this program is to encourage children—separated from parental guidance—to act on impulse to ‘change’ their biological sex…” Translated into Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi, Punjabi, and Greek. 500,000 copies distributed (Carey).
...“Gay teachers ‘more acceptable far from school’”: “It’s not just a matter of one’s attribute—it’s what one does with it that makes a difference.” “The archbishop said schools did not care whether staff identified as gay, lesbian or transgender but were concerned about ‘the public nature of what someone might say’” (Koziol).
...From Vashti’s Voice, No 1, 1972: “On International Women’s Day, March 8 1972, 2000 people marched through the Melbourne streets demanding women’s rights. This must indicate the enormous potential power of women’s liberation as only a few years ago the movement was virtually unheard of…Women’s liberation is no fixed organization with a rigid platform that its members must adhere to— it is a state of mind” (Vashti Collective, 3).
...“No, the gender pay gap is not a myth…” (Irvine)
... “Vice Chancellors rail against ‘death of a thousand cuts’”: “I think universities are in a very precarious position—more precarious than we have ever been.” Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive, Group of Eight. “Vice-chancellors are also reeling about a planned ‘national interest test’ for research grants…[to] preclude projects deemed to undermine Australia’s security, foreign policy and strategic interests.” (Koziol)
... “Millions for LGBTI tourism, but no mention of Safe Schools”: “The state Coalition has promised if elected…to establish Victoria’s first LGBTI business roundtable to be chaired by the premier, provide $500,000 in funding to support Joy FM in becoming one of the first tenants in the Victorian Pride Centre to be built in St Kilda, as well as $50,000 annually to digitise archives and ‘preserve the history and role of LGBTI Victorians’” (Precel).
On the central panel is The Uluru Statement from the Heart, an excerpt of which is as follows: Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial,’ and according to science more than 60,000 years ago. This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature,’ and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown. How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years? With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
Under it are these words by Bruce Pascoe:
"Many readers of the explorers’ journals see the hardships they endured, and are enthralled by their finds of grassy plains, bountiful rivers, and sites where great towns could be built; but by adjusting our perspective by only a few degrees, we see a vastly different world through the same window.
Finally, a slide of a call to action by the New York Lesbian anti-Trump activist collective, Rise and Resist:
Rise and Resist is a direct action group. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. We are also, essentially, a grassroots direct action LABORATORY for democratic community-based change. Come meet with us, come find your activist people, come workshop your ideas, come find out where the action is already happening around your concerns for a democratic society. Come plug in. BRING your enthusiasm and commitment to making social change happen. GET support and training to be your best, most courageous self. FIND your voice. LOSE your fear. (Rise and Resist)
On a small table, I stack the books that have informed my thinking for this time together: a living bibliography: Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, the play based on transcripts (1881) created by Giordano Nanni and Andrea James (2013); tattered copies of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself, (1845) (1960) and Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965), my companions for over 40 years; Voices of Vashti Anthology: Melbourne Women 1972–1981 (1986); Collected Poems of Pat Parker (2016); Gay American History by Jonathan Katz (1976); Memory for Forgetfulness (2013) and Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone (2006) by Mahmoud Darwish, and Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (2018). As Pat Parker remarks, “Books don’t say much about what I did but I was there and I kept moving” (1999).
The Talk --Story One
Just a moment to share with you—last week, on a very cold morning, white head bent low, 30-year-old red coat, buttoned tightly, pulling shopping cart with cane in the other hand, coming home from our Asian Taste take-away on Grantham Street with wonton soup for Di and me—my legs hurting. I start one way and then turn the other, a little confused—a young man perhaps in his early 40s steps aside to let me pass. I say, a little embarrassed, “Changed my direction.” And he says with a little laugh, “It’s your prerogative.” I, ever on the alert for a feminist moment, say, “For men and women.” He answers as I pass him, “I agree with you a 100%, Joan.” I stop short. “How do you know my name?” Now all drops away and I am looking into a smiling, gentle face. He says, “Joan, I know your work. I want to thank you for all you have done for us. My name is Lee, I transitioned some years ago, but I lived in New York for several years and heard you speak many times.” I stand a little straighter, so touched by this accidental meeting here on this struggling street in West Brunswick, with a cold wind snapping at our heels. Thank you, Lee.
That this is a space where feminist and queer cultural workers share their histories, their public thoughts in the same place, that sex workers are welcomed as an integral part of our movements—how exciting, how necessary, how a sign of our awareness of the danger of the times. I want to thank you all for the caring you have given my work, since I became a part of your communities 18 years ago. All of us here, many of us from endangered peoples, together where we need to be, a very powerful corroboree.
This conference honours the founding of ALGA (Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives) at the Fourth National Homosexual Conference in 1978 and the vision of Graham Carbery who housed his refusal of historical exile in the specially-dug basement of his home. This is the time too for honouring the work of the women who founded the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives in 1983. I have an early memory of sitting with Jean and others deciding what to do with the collection that had taken over her home. I know this passion. Almost 50 years of pubic collecting of queer history—what will we do with it? What does it mean to have a history or histories; what are the critical intersections of all our stories?
"The colonized draw less and less from [their] past. The colonizer never even recognized that [they] had one: everyone knows that the commoner whose origins are unknown has no history. Let us ask the colonized: who are [your] folk heroes? [your] great popular leaders? [your] sages? At most, [they] may be able to give us a few names, in complete disorder, and fewer and fewer as one goes down the generations. The colonized seem condemned to lose [their] memory." (Memmi, 2003, 146–7) (I changed Memmi's "He and his" to be more inclusive)
It is a warm summer night in 1957. I am sitting in Tam Tam’s on Sixth and 8th in Greenwich Village—a grungy well-lit hole in the wall, bad coffee, but open to all the freaks—no need for IDs. The mirror lining its doorway often used by young lesbians to check their DAs, the favoured butch hairstyle of the day. This night it was only me and an older woman maybe in her 30s, I was 17 at the time, sitting diagonally across from me. I had been walking the Village streets, looking, yearning. I sip my coffee and then she speaks the words that gave me a world. “How are things over at the Colony, slow? But the night is still young.” My first public recognition, as a lesbian, as a queer. She had read me, she knew. I had never been to the Sea Colony, only heard of it as a tough, working class lesbian bar. I squared my shoulders and tried to sound knowledgeable—“Yeh—looks like it’s going to be a good night.” Before I was a lesbian, a fem, a feminist, I was a freak.
Legacy is a big word that can slide too easily into legitimate, into legalities, into lineages of power. Perhaps another remembering is what we choose to keep alive from the rawness of our beginnings, the ways of being that gave strength to get beyond the bleak, the limiting, the narrowing, the taken.
In a conversation around the Lesbian Herstory Archives dinnerwork table in 1979, a Jewish woman in her 60s says, “I had a chance to read The Well of Loneliness that had been translated into Polish before I was taken into the camps. I was a young girl at the time, around 12 or 13, and one of the ways I survived in the camp was by remembering that book. I wanted to live long enough to kiss a woman.”
Perhaps legacy is the shout of resistance from those not supposed to have a voice: "Things back then were horrible and I think that because I fought like a man to survive I made it somehow easier for the kids coming out today. I did all their fighting for them. I’m not a rich person. I don’t have a lot of money; I don’t even have a little money. I would have nothing to leave anybody in this world, but I have that—that I can leave to the kids who are coming out now, who will come out into the future. That I left them a better place to come out into. And that’s all I have to offer, to leave them. But I wouldn’t deny it. Even though I was getting my brains beaten up I would never stand up and say, ‘No don’t hit me, I’m not gay; I’m not gay,’ I wouldn’t do that… . (Matty, speaking of her life in the 1950s, (Davis and Kennedy).
Perhaps it is a memory of dispossession, of a world taken away in a legal decision, in the service of the colonial illusion that the right to possession was a white European legacy, in the continued belief that “the tide of history” flowed in their service (Olney. The killing “blatant confidence,” as the Maori writer Linda Tuhiwai Smith has argued, “to see ‘others’ as tools” for their ascendancy (Pascoe 5). Legacies of arrogance, of a convinced right to power, to another’s home.
Can poems be legacies? Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, forced into a permanent absence from his own home, wrote: “The poem is what lies between a between. It is able/to illuminate the night with the breasts of a young woman/It is able to illuminate, with an apple, two bodies/It is able to restore,/with the cry of a gardenia, a homeland!” (Darwish, 110).
Are legacies cries from the centre that go unheard, can they be the refusal of a refusal? Is there a relationship between power and legacies, can a legacy be a plea to us to be more, to change the tides of history, to demand equities, to learn from the archives and to change them?
The archives must be a wild place—a borderless place, reflecting the anxieties of the present, questioning the certainties we called into being, because we were so sure we knew what we were seeing, who we were, who we wanted to be, certain of who and what endangers us, of where safety lies. Let our legacy be one of questioning our own blatant confidences. Power is coming our way; some nation states want to kill us, others court us. Now is the time to build our wisdoms of solidarity, our intergenerational listening, our appreciation for differences within our own communities turning away from closed borders. We all here have helped make the past, now we must with tenderness, integrity and community take on the future.
When I look over my 79 years, I bend in homage to three lifegiving forces: grassroots liberation struggles, communities of progressive thought, and always, our subversive bodies. Thank you all for listening one more time to this Bronx-inflected voice. I have learned so much under your Southern skies, histories that make me weep and solidarities that fill your streets and my heart.
Inclosing, KL, a new young friend from the Bootblack community I had met earlier at the conference, rose and read the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Carey, Adam. “Fringe party targets Labor, backs Coalition, over Safe Schools.” Age, November 11, 2018. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
Pat Parker:An Expanded Edition of Movement in Black. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1999. ——. The Complete Works of Pat Parker. Edited by Julie R. Enszer. Brookville, NY: A Midsummer Night’s, P, 2016 and Dover: Florida: Sinister Wisdom, 2016.
Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture. Brunswick: Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, 2014.
Phillips, Tom. “Brazil’s fearful LGBT community prepares for a ‘proud homophobe’.” Guardian, October 28, 2018. Retrieved 22 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/27/dispatch-saopaulo-jair-bolsonaro-victory-lgbt-community-fear.
Precel, Nicole. “Millions for LGBTI tourism, but no mention of Safe Schools.” Age, November 18, 2018. Retrieved 22 October 2019.