The Lives And Loves Of Older Lesbians Who Grew Up In An Unfortunate Era

This multi-media project crosses the boundaries of time, politics and prejudice to tell the stories of eight Queensland lesbians.
Heather Faulkner

A spotlight is being shined on LGBT rights -- or, more accurately, the historic lack thereof -- in the Australian state of Queensland. The beam is in the form of an upcoming book, North of the Border, by cross-media storyteller and documentary photographer Heather Faulkner. The book builds on Faulkner’s doctoral thesis research project, A Matter Of Time, and through six years of interviews and photography, tells the stories of eight lesbians who grew up in Queensland. The women range in age from their mid-50s to 70s.

“I want older lesbian and gay readers to know that their stories are important,” she told The Huffington Post. "That what they lived through matters."

Faulkner, a Canadian who left Calgary for the lesbian-friendlier Vancouver just as soon as she could, met her Australian partner when both were working in Prague. They made the decision to move to Australia, Faulkner told HuffPost, but when she arrived in Brisbane -- the capital of Queensland -- in 2003, she was greeted by an almost invisible LGBT scene living with intense homophobia. She recalls how even the lesbian community initially distrusted her, assuming that she was a straight woman covering LGBT events for the mainstream media.

"I have worked on LGBT stories and features for mainstream and queer press in Canada and Europe and never experienced that kind of reception before," she said. Her interest was piqued. "What, I thought, was going on? What history contributed to this?" she said.

Faulkner realized that no one had investigated the Queensland lesbian experience before, especially not in a documentary. "So I decided to do it," she said.

She describes a Queensland under the rule of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (the longest serving premier of Queensland) from 1968 to 1987 as an ultra-conservative state where women’s rights were minimal. Domestic violence was rife and women needed male signatories to purchase things like refrigerators or to get a bank loan; indigenous rights, homosexual rights, education, disability rights, environmental rights, etc. all needed redressing.

"Those who didn’t fit the government-prescribed norm -- straight, white, married with children, Christian and conservative politically -- didn’t fit in at all. This included feminists, homosexuals, aboriginals, academics, environmentalists, unmarried women or single moms," Faulkner said. "The government made demonstrations illegal, a policy that resulted in several mass arrests ... known demonstrators were ostracized from work places, spied on, bullied or beaten by police," she describes.

Even today, LGBT Queensland residents don't share the same rights as other Queenslanders. Private consensual sex between adult males was first legalized in 1990. While lesbianism had never been criminalized, males engaging in homosexual activity faced imprisonment. Same-sex couples still cannot wed or adopt children.

Against this backdrop, Faulkner found the inspiration for her thesis and this project. She met with dozens of lesbians who were interested in participating -- authors, former Olympians, community leaders, and to find the age group she was after (50 – 75+), she reached out to OWLS (Older Wiser Lesbians) in Brisbane.

But while everyone initially was very supportive, she said, no one wanted to participate when they learned they would be identified both visually and in text. This was in 2008, so full legal protection against discrimination (employment, services, medical, legal, housing, etc.) hadn’t been enacted yet (that was in August, 2013).

Women she approached feared losing their families (children, parents, siblings, etc.); losing their jobs (some were teachers, some worked with children (the specter of pedophilia is still attached to homosexuality, Faulkner says); fear of being stigmatized in the workplace, church, community; fear of losing social welfare benefits; and fear of stirring up bad memories. Faulkner just kept trying and in the end, wound up working very intensely with eight women for the six-year project.

Here are some of the eight women whose experiences are chronicled in the project, publication of which is scheduled for next summer:

Carol Low
Heather Faulkner
"I was definitely aware that I needed to hide my sexuality. It was like getting used to putting on different masks at different times. I wasn't 'out' in the Social Work Department of the University of Queensland, but I dare say the majority of the people knew that I was a lesbian. Also, I had no qualms about walking around the corridors of the department in my flannelette shirts and my blue jeans and my homemade leather boots, which, looking back, seemed to me a bit of a giveaway. But I think that's how we did it in those days. You just put on different masks at different times and learned ways of protecting yourself."
Gai Lemon
Heather Faulkner
"In 1992, as president of the Gay and Lesbian Welfare Association, I was asked to come and talk to a psychology class at Brisbane University. They were focusing on what they called, 'deviant sexuality,' and right from the get-go, the lecturer asked me, 'Do you know any gay men?' I went, 'Yes, of course, not a problem.' I knew my friend Jeff would come out because he was always happy to do any education he possibly could. And then, in the next breath, she said to me, 'Look, I’m also looking for a pedophile,' and I was on the end of the telephone and I think it quite literally took my breath away. I was so astonished that she would even think that I would be moving in a circle of people that comprised pedophiles. It really compounded that concept of how closely some people align being gay with being a child molester. It just made me so angry. Why would you think that decent human beings like my friends and me would want to share the company of someone like that?"
Barbara Bryce
Heather Faulkner
"When I had my first attractions to other girls my own age, much to my surprise as everybody else's, my mother asked me if I was a 'woman's woman.' I didn't know how to answer that. So I said, 'Do you mean I'm a female valet?' She said, 'You know very well what I mean.' I didn't approach that subject again with her at all. She did bring it up when she was dying of cancer. I avoided talking about it because it was too involved for me to tell her the whole story. I didn't know how much she'd understand. I told my father. It was somehow easier to tell my father. My sister was quite accepting. But I still got the feeling that they weren't really happy with my lifestyle."
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