Sophie Robinson reflects on the meanings and histories of personal and sexual liberation in our continuing series on marriage equality in Australia.
For at least forty years, LGBTQ+ communities in Australia and elsewhere have been striving for recognition, protection and empowerment. The current postal vote to decide whether same-sex couples can marry is a continuum of this long struggle of acknowledging diversity. It is a vicious reminder of the structural injustices against sexual minorities that play out in law, politics and everyday public discourse. It has also has caused many to articulate (in diverse and often divergent ways) what ‘marriage equality’ means to them.
What is clear to many in the queer coalition is that our history and everyday experiences go deeper than the disappointing political exercise of a non-binding survey, whatever the outcome. We share a history of trauma, violence, suicide, bashings, and broken families, but also a history of caring for each other, resilience, willfulness, play and creativity. As Australian writer and activist Fiona McGregor reminded us recently in her published letter to our Prime Minister, ‘Dear Malcom’, Sydney alone has a history of ‘glorious untrammeled hedonism’, accessed and shaped by queer women as well as men by the late 1990s. Indeed, the futures, the relationships, and the sex, some of us celebrate and continue to fight for can, and always will, exist whether or not we can commit to a legally binding marriage. ‘We’ll vote Yes with a vomit bag’, Fiona added, ‘to your puerile little survey, and walk right over the top of you into a future where we will love as freely, queerly, diversely, kinkily and creatively, wedded or not, monogamous or not, with or without kids, prettily polily pluckily as we please.’
For the past four years I have been interviewing lesbian activists, born between the early 1940s and some up until the late 1970s, who have pioneered the struggle against sexism and homophobia in Australia. Through their emerging commitment to the Women’s Liberation movement in particular, as well as a range of interrelated social justice campaigns, some began to imagine a different future for themselves and future generations. This would be a future in which they could safely embrace their female lover in public, live with their female partner and have their relationship acknowledged with all the legitimacy and rights offered to their coupled heterosexual friends and family. A future where they could have (and keep custody of) their children, and where they would not lose their jobs or careers if their sexuality was revealed. Constructing this future, where lesbianism could be acknowledged, lived and celebrated, took on many different forms. Some chose to live in lesbian and/or feminist households, some moved out of the city and set up homes and communities in rural spaces, formed collectives, experimented with new relationships, intimacies and created family networks with other women.
From the early 1970s, an increasingly visible lesbian feminist presence in Australia inspired some women who desired other women to view themselves as radicals and ‘Amazons’, not, as the medical establishment and wider society had treated them thus far, as deviants. In 1972 in Melbourne the Gay Women’s Group formed, partly out of frustration with the sexism of some men in Gay Liberation, and also because of an increasing sense that lesbian liberation needed to be taken more seriously. After the arrival of three women who had been away in London, Robina, Jenny and Kerryn, the group’s commitment to feminism intensified. They began engaging more with radical feminist ideas and texts such as ‘The Woman-Identified Woman’, published in 1970 by the US-based group the Radicalesbians, as well as Robin Morgan’s book of poems, Monster. The group published this with Morgan’s consent, as it was unavailable locally. They also decided to start identifying as ‘Radicalesbians’ and wrote their own local manifesto. ‘We want to overcome the division between women’, it stated, ‘We do not want equality, but liberation.’
By 1974, the Radicalesbian manifesto and impulse had spread interstate via Diane Minnis, who had been part of the Melbourne group but had relocated to Sydney. Within a couple of weeks she was living in a lesbian share house in Crystal St, Petersham. In an interview for feminist journal Refractory Girl in 1974, some of the Crystal St residents described their household as chaotic and busy, with people always coming and going. At one stage the house was so overpopulated with visitors from around Australia and New Zealand, plus the 8-9 that lived there permanently, a second household had to be set up.
Women’s Lib, Gay Lib and the counter-cultural impulses of the 1970s more broadly had also highlighted that traditional value systems and institutions – namely ‘sex-roles’, monogamy and marriage – were oppressive and needed to be radically altered. Monogamy came to be considered by some in the women’s movement as ‘ideologically unsound’, as were expressions of ownership and dominance in any form. Negotiating these politics and challenging relational boundaries on a daily basis could be radical and exhilarating, but it could also be could be difficult, exhausting and traumatic. Now in their sixties and seventies, some lesbian activists remain non-monogamous, and some anti-marriage (even those with life-partners). This is due to their spending the past forty years trying to destabilise our obsession with the ‘traditional’ nuclear family model and its accompanying sex roles, gender constructs and hierarchies.
Some of the lesbian activists I interviewed became deeply invested in creating alternatives to marriage and family life that may have seemed impossible prior to the 1970s, but are today increasingly visible. For example, Sara from Sydney was part of a group of women who decided they wanted to be a family together, bought some remote land in Tasmania and shared an invented surname. As Sara recalled:
We had talked about getting land together and living communally … like really communally, no one would have anything that they owned, like not a bedroom, not a piece of clothing, nothing. We were going to have a room, a dormitory, and there’d be some private rooms also. This was the sort of vision . . . We were there a long time.
Kerryn Higgs, one of the three women who encouraged the Radicalesbians to form in Melbourne (and who had written the first Australian lesbian novel All that False Instruction, published in 1975 under a pseudonym), was also inspired to live more sustainably in this period. The Women’s Liberation movement had helped her to ‘challenge 27 years of fear and loathing’ as a lesbian and she eventually decided to pursue her dream ‘to get a place in the bush’. As Kerryn explained to me:
I grew up in the country, so [I] had a connection with nature from very early. I had been living in London for 3 years [and] had lived a counterculture life and had connections with counterculture people. I read Limits to Growth in 1972 and this opened my eyes to what might be an ecological crisis coming. I thought about finding a remote place where one could live the simple self-sufficient life and stop contributing to the decline.
Eventually, Kerryn literally stumbled upon the perfect site while camping in northern NSW and it was bought with a group of other women interested in the idea. ‘It was called Amazon Acres, by a Sydney wit, with tongue in cheek’, Kerryn noted, ‘I was never particularly keen but the title took hold. Place is now called simply the Mountain.’
The Mountain’s history is ‘rooted in conservation and sustainable living’, an ideal that has resonated for many feminists who have tried over the years to challenge capitalist modes of consumption by living sustainably and organically. Another aim of the Mountain, Kerryn explained, ‘was to be a refuge and retreat for women (and not just lesbians).’ She recalls:
In the early days many women came, left husbands camping in the lowlands. We welcomed a few women on the run from violent relationships and perhaps did provide something useful for them. … For many, it was a place to be free with other women and work was the last thing on their minds, so practical progress was slow. We were young too.
Separatism was and remains a highly contested feminist strategy, in Australia and elsewhere. I have drawn on these historical examples because together they illuminate moments in which sisterhood and separatism were first being introduced and embraced by some lesbian activists in the service of building alternate futures. Creating lesbian feminist collectives, households, family groups and rural retreats collectively encouraged some women to rethink how they lived, who they lived with, who they were, how they used their bodies, and how best to live a feminist life. In our current political context, where we are being made to vote Yes or No to whether same-sex marriage can take place, they are powerful demonstrations for me and others of personal and sexual liberation, and indeed family and community, defined on our own terms.
Sophie Robinson is in the final year of her PhD candidature in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New South Wales. She is also on the committee of Sydney’s Pride History Group that collects and preserves the oral histories of Sydney’s LGBTIQ communities.
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