Launch of Unnamed Desires - A Sydney Lesbian History

In Parliament | 09.03.16

Women like us.

Speech for the Launch of Unnamed Desires — A Sydney Lesbian History by Rebecca Jennings as part of Sydney Mardi Gras, 25 February 2016.

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“She eased herself out from the cramped position beside the bed and stood by the dressing table. I moved towards her. She raised her face slightly to meet mine as I bent to kiss her. It was my first real kiss.

"My hands moved around her body to hold her close; to hang onto her, lest I fell. There was something pounding away within my head. My body grew light and I was floating. All feeling became highly charged on ‘full’. This was ore than a kiss between friends. This had become a lover’s kiss, and she was sharing it with me. As out lips parted, I gazed into her eyes. They were alive with a new light. A puzzled light, but one of which she was fully conscious. It had just dawned on her.”

 — Sandra page 103 Unnamed Desires

The realisation that you are different is something that every woman in this room has come to understand at moments in our lives.

It may have been at school when our friends were checking out the boys and we were not remotely interested.

It may have been at work when we met a woman who made our heart flutter for the first time.

It may have been after trying this thing called marriage with a perfectly lovely bloke but it just didn’t work out.

It may have been after the first time we kissed another woman and found that we liked it — a lot.

For women my age, this realisation happened in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

During this time there was no internet but there was Lesbians on the Loose — a magazine I devoured.

During this time male homosexuality had been decriminalised, there was the Sydney Mardi Gras and that precious but intangible thing called visibility.

During this time there was the Feminist Bookshop, cafes, women’s collectives on campus and clubs where women like me could read about and meet other women like us.

And while in 2016 there is now much more visibility of women like us and of course , the internet, every woman still shares the same moment when we recognise that yes we love women and some of us may even be lesbians.

I can only imagine what this realisation meant in a time when there was no word for your desire.

How can you explain to yourself what you feel when you thought homosexuality was only for men and it was considered a mental illness and perverted.

I can only imagine what this realisation meant when divorce was not an option.

I can only imagine what this meant if by even naming this desire could see you hospitalised, imprisoned, sacked or even lose your children.

This is why Rebecca Jennings book is so important. Rebecca has searched the nooks and crannies of a sometimes invisible history.

As with so much history, the stories of women and in particular lesbians has been under represented in both our “gay” history and often our feminist history.

Rebecca has pulled together what we know and importantly she has explained why it is that we know so little about the lives of lesbians in this wonderful city.

Rebecca went beyond the documentary evidence to speak to our elders about their lives, their experiences and what is was like to love women at a time when the women themselves were just hearing the word lesbian for the first time.

Thank you so much to the Pride History Group for giving Rebecca access to your archives, your memories and your contacts to allow this book to be written.

There are so many stories to be told. And so many stories we should stop to take the time to listen to better understand where we come from and how we got here.

The women in this book tell us stories that are rich, tragic, funny and sad.

They share with us the complexity of identity and what it truly means to live your own life on your own terms.

They describe trying to get the UK magazine Arena Three delivered, not having it seized by customs or having your family find it.

They describe living lives pretending to be sisters with their partner.

They describe the fear of exposure.

They tell stories of shock treatment and being locked up as a danger to children.

The women in Rebecca’s book also tell the stories of living a life out and proud but still in the shadows of Sydney.

During the 1960’s with their gay and transgender friends there are stories of clubs and bars, of house parties, friendship and solidarity.

During the 1970’s the stories evolve to ones that describe the intersectionality with feminism that lead to moves for women to establish their own organisations or split from others.

These trailblazers from the 1970’s were also instrumental in setting up services like our first women’s refuges and rape crisis centres.

Their visibility and activism articulated specific demands. In June 1977, Sydney Women’s Liberation Newsletter reprinted the following demands from the Melbourne- based Lesbian Newsletter:

“End Heterosexism: We demand an end to the expectation that every person will only seek out the other sex for all emotional, sexual and economic partnerships.

Lesbian Mothers: We demand the right to bring up children whilst openly living a lesbian lifestyle.

Lesbians at Work: We demand that an end to discrimination against lesbians in the workforce. We should be free to be open at work without fears of intimidation, rejection or dismissal.

Lesbian Sexuality: We demand that accurate information on lesbian sexuality be freely available to all women. We demand an end to treatment of lesbians as sexual deviants.

We demand the right to live openly as lesbians.”

- page 89 Unnamed Desires

Not a bad start.

Rebecca’s history finishes off with stories of the first Sydney Mardi Gras on June 24 1978. The first Sydney Mardi Gras.

“Early in 1978 a group of lesbian and gay activists responded to a call from the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Committee for an international day of action to mark the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The Gay Solidarity Group was formed, with the aim of organising an International Gay Solidarity Day and campaigning for an end to police harassment and other forms of discrimination against homosexuals in Australia. A series of events was planned for 24 June: a morning march, a public meeting, and an evening street party or mardi gras. Over a thousand people turned up to the evening event which commenced at 10pm on Oxford Street in Sydney. Many of the marchers came in costumes or party dress, signing and dancing their way down the street accompanied by music played from a sound system on the back of a truck.” 

— page 130 Unnamed Desires

“In total 30 men and 23 women were arrested that night, including many who were badly beaten in the streets and in the cells, and the police action sparked a wave of protests on an unprecedented scale in Sydney. Further arrests were made on 26 June outside the court hearings and at a protest march on 15 July. A campaign was launched to ‘Drop the Charges’ against those arrested…The Charges were ultimately dropped by the police in December 1979. However, the consequences, even for those not arrested, were still significant. The Sydney Morning Herald published a complete list of names and occupations of those arrested on 24 June in its paper the following day, while other papers carried photographs of the event.” 

— page 132 Unnamed Desires

Today the NSW Parliament made an apology for the events of that night. An historic and long overdue moment in our states history.

I would like to add my thanks to the 78ers for what they did 38 years ago and the years since.

And again congratulations and thank you to Rebecca Jennings for producing a timely book that shines a light on the wonderful lesbians of Sydney.

You have helped to tell the stories of the women who lit the embers and then built the fire of change so that the woman who realises in that moment that she is a bit different can live her life free to be herself.

None of us would be here without those that have gone before.

Thank you.