Michael Kirby, Robyn Laverack, Jordan Raskopoulos, Shirleene Robinson, Cathy Van Extel, 1 June 2018
MAT TRINCA: So welcome everyone and thanks for joining us tonight. For those of you who don't know me, my name's Mat Trinca. I'm the director of the National Museum of Australia. It's great to have you all here.
We begin as we always do with every event at the National Museum by acknowledging the Ngunawal, Ngambri, and Ngunnawal peoples, traditional custodians of this land, this place that we're meeting in and paying respect to their elders — elders past, those of the present, and those who are emerging. And to say how grateful we are really for a continuing relationship we have with the peoples of this place, and the welcome and support that they give this Museum's program. It's immensely important to us. I also want to extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are here with us today.
Thanks again for being here tonight for this important discussion which will explore the history of LGBTQIA+ politics in Australia and look at the ongoing challenges and issues for these communities. And, as regulars to the Museum will know, this panel is part of our headline Defining Moments in Australian History project, which was launched in 2014 and really aims to stimulate discussion and debate about what matters to us in this country. What matters in our history and how we're shaped, if you like, by the events of the past in the way that we live the present and confront the future.
Tonight's panel is themed as we've said around this year's all important 40th anniversary of the 1978 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras march. This pivotal event was actually on the very original list of 100 Defining Moments in Australian history. In fact, the Honourable Michael Kirby will no doubt have something to say about that because he was instrumental really in the move for the Museum to adopt this project many years ago.
When it came to fruition in 2014 we were very pleased to have him as a co-patron of the Defining Moments program. It's a special moment actually for us and we were speaking about this before because the other co-patron, the late Michael Ball who was so instrumental in encouraging the Museum to develop this project over time, is sadly no longer with us, and he would have so loved to have been here tonight for this moment.
So tonight we remember Michael Ball's contribution to the Museum, indeed his driving force, the impetus that he lent to this project, Defining Moments in Australian History, and we think how lucky we were to have his encouragement in this work.
Now, since that original list was released, we've asked Australians to nominate their own defining moments. People have responded with a great deal of thought and clarity of purpose in contributing another 300 moments that they think are important to our history. And no doubt, they'll be many more to come.
Our effort’s now really bent to creating content around all those moments and for this to be a great resource about our past. It's available for the Australian public. So I do want to thank the Honourable Michael Kirby for agreeing to be on tonight's panel and for his continuing support of the Defining Moments Project and, indeed, of the Museum more broadly.
A huge thanks, too, to our other esteemed panellists, to Mardi Gras pioneer Robyn Laverack, comedian and writer Jordan Raskopoulos, and Associate Professor from the Department of Modern History at Macquarie University Dr Shirleene Robinson. And, of course, a big welcome to ABC Radio National presenter, Cathy Van Extel from Big Ideas.
Cathy's a journalist with more than 25 years' experience in radio and some of you will remember her as a breakfast radio presenter here in Canberra not so many moons ago. Cathy?
CATHY VAN EXTEL: I can't.
MAT TRINCA: No, no. Perhaps later we'll top them up. I'm pleased really to report that this discussion tonight will actually be later broadcast on the Big Ideas program, and Cathy might have a little more to say about that later on.
Look, we're very pleased with what's happening with Defining Moments in Australia History as a project, and the fact that it's now one of the great drivers of people coming to the Museum's website. I was saying to some people earlier on, just down at drinks, we're particularly pleased just a couple of weeks ago that great Australian philanthropists from Victoria, John and Pauline Gandel, have donated 1.5 million dollars to the Museum so that we can take Defining Moments into schools across the country.
And so, yes it is. It was a great moment actually to see that their philanthropic support was coming for something we think is so important in our nation — that is to be engaging young people in the discussion about what matters in our history. And to be having a dialogue that can reach across the country and can reach into schools. So within the next couple of years, you'll see the Defining Moments digital classroom roll out to schools across the country.
But tonight, the focus is on the history of the Mardi Gras, on changing attitudes and perceptions in Australia, and indeed the current and future challenges. It seems to me that comes at, you know, a very interesting moment for us. It comes off the back of the recent marriage equality debate last year, which led to, really, those historic changes, which are, in fact, one of the latest defining moments to go on our list.
Some of you, I think, have already had the chance to visit our Explore gallery downstairs to see the rather beautiful iconic rainbow crochet Love Wheels bicycle that was chained to a pole outside Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Sydney home during the debate and the campaign.
It's been donated to the National Museum by its maker, the fabulous Sydney-based yarn bomber — I love that phrase ‘yarn bomber’ — Eloise Murphy. And the thing about it, I was saying to someone before, is it's quite beautiful. The crocheting is really exquisite on the bike as well.
So we're really delighted to be able to share that great addition to the collection with you tonight, and indeed for you to be able to share in this discussion and debate these stories, and then by extension to take these out in your discussions with other people, so that they can reach out across the country, wherever you may go.
So now, I'll hand over to Cathy to introduce our panel in detail and to kick off proceedings. Thank you.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Thank you so much, Mat. It's a very lovely pleasure to be here tonight, and be reminded of those chilly Canberra winter days. Over the past half a century Australia has undergone a social revolution in gay and lesbian rights. Citizens who were treated as criminals and deviants, or thought to have some kind of disease of the mind because of their sexuality, have slowly but surely been edging towards equality.
There have been some profound social changes over the decades, but of course the fight for true equality is an ongoing one, and we saw that last year with the marriage equality vote. It gave us some indication of the numbers as well. The vote was 62 per cent in favour, that meant more than a third of Australians were against, and in some communities there was a resounding no.
Tonight's discussion, as Mat mentioned, is themed around this year's 40th anniversary of the first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras march. We're going to be talking about that, some of the landmark fights and achievements in lesbian and gay rights, how societal attitudes are evolving and the challenges and issues ahead.
So I'd like now to introduce our very fabulous expert panellists, they've all lived and breathed these battles, they're the vanguard of the ongoing push for equality. We're very privileged to have with us this evening former High Court judge, international jurist and educated Justice Michael Kirby. A powerful and eloquent advocate of human rights, and Justice Kirby is, as Mat mentioned, also co-patron of the National Museum of Australia's Defining Moments project.
In the thick of it all, in 1978 Robyn Laverack here at the end, a Mardi Gras pioneer. She's a former Mardi Gras board director, founding member of Pride and founding director of Aurora, which raises funds for gay, lesbian and transgender community organisations.
Right next to me here is the fabulous, internationally acclaimed comedian, singer, actress and self-proclaimed raconteur —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I'm a raconteur. I'm also a judge too, I judged the Eurovision song contest, you see.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: You did.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I did.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Jordan Raskopoulos needs no introduction, really. And next to Jordan is Associate Professor Shirleene Robinson, she's a historian from Macquarie University with a particular research interest in Australian cultural and social history. Please join me in welcoming them.
Our starting point tonight is a true defining moment in Australia's history, the 1978 Sydney gay Mardi Gras march. Now, Robyn, I'd like to begin with you. As I said, you were there. Can you share with us your memories of that night, and the lasting impact that night had on you?
ROBYN LAVERACK: It's interesting because in fact it wasn't called Sydney Gay Mardi Gras at that point, it was a gay solidarity march. I had been to many other meetings before this march. There had been a meeting in the morning, a protest meeting — at that stage in New South Wales homosexuality between consenting gay men was still a criminal offence. So it was a very strong political activity and a series of activities around that date of 24 June that lead to that particular night.
Why that night, rather than the year before or later? But that night when the parade marched down Oxford Street, and the call to the bars was, you know, ‘Out of the bars and onto the streets.’ The other slogan of the night was, ‘Stop the attacks on gays, women and blacks.’ It was a very inclusive movement in that sense. I mean, it was driven by the left and the socialists and so you know, had a strong political message.
But the march that night, I didn't actually participate until the end of it. I'd been to the demonstrations in the morning, but it was also my birthday, so, you know. Politics, birthday — what do you do? You go to dinner with your friends. So I did. We were actually up in the Cross after the police stopped the parade in Hyde Park and then, sort of ad hoc, the march moved up towards Kings Cross. So we came out onto the streets realising that something was happening and not quite what it was until we were actually in the thick of it.
I have to say, that was a horrifying time. It was terrifying, it was challenging in every single respect. It was certainly not the first time that the police had taken their badges off, you know, let's not forget the Vietnam moratorium marches, but it was night time, the crowd was cornered, we were circled. There were lots of paddy wagons and those of us who could, ran.
There were 53 people arrested on that night, majority of them were women and, in fact, one of the things we were talking about was that lesbians were very politically active way before 1978. And, in fact, were strong supporters of the political movement and encouraging men to join that political movement, become more active.
But anyway, so 53 were arrested. And the next morning, there were demonstrations outside the court, and somebody who is here was there. Not gay or lesbian, but there to support their community and their friends.
I think, as a defining moment for me it was — for me, I actually backed away for a while. I was a young teacher, I was scared of losing my job, I could have lost my job if I'd been identified publicly, certainly if I'd been arrested and charged with the offence.
So it was everything sort of bundled up together on this particular night, but as a defining moment, boy do I think that it did absolutely change history. In New South Wales it was a major turning point in terms of political activity, it lead to, in 1980, what was then the Foundation of Sydney Gay Mardi Gras as an organisation.
Its second defining moment for me, was in 1980 when it actually split kind of its political side from its celebration side. And became very much a let's be out, let's be proud, let's celebrate and by that let's achieve political influence and clout.
And then we'll go on to later history, I'm sure.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: We will go into some of that history.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Yeah, but that's 80.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Thank you. From those tears, it clearly still has an emotional toll on you. That's clear.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Yes.
MICHAEL KIRBY: I don't have too many tears. I've got a feeling of anxiety and anger, and a feeling that we ought to have achieved much more in the time since 1978. And —
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Michael Kirby, can I take you back to —
MICHAEL KIRBY: And that it's taken far too long, and it's been outrageous and we've got to really make our country a much more liberal, open-minded, accepting diversity and really our politicians have got to get with it. And that's, I think, a lesson that we've got to take away tonight.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Can I take you back, Michael Kirby, to the 70s and the 60s?
MICHAEL KIRBY: Oh, it's such a long while ago.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: A trip down memory — you were already a federal judicial officer at that point. Robyn alluded to the professional risks that were involved around being identified as homosexual, for your sexuality.
You'd been living, by that stage in 1978, with your lifelong partner, Johan, for many years. And you were in a situation where you were up against the law, religion, society. What was it like to live like that?
MICHAEL KIRBY: It was not nice. It wasn't nice at all. I was very lucky with Johan, because he was from the Netherlands. The Netherlands had never had the British laws that we inherited in Australia. Most of the world didn't have those laws, it was just a dear little gift of the British Empire, and it's still in force.
I mean, the Queen had the meeting just a month ago, and of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, 54 countries, I think it's still 40 of them have got these laws. They just won't change them, and they won't change them because of religious opposition.
But back in those days, I'd met Johan in 1969 and whenever I telephoned him at home, I would ring the phone. I would allow it to ring once, and then I would allow it to ring a second time. And actually by accident today I rang him and then it didn't seem to go through so I rang him a second time and he said, ‘Are we going back to the old days?’
But I have to say I wasn't like Robyn, I wasn't as bold as Robyn was. I had to be pretty careful as a judicial officer, and so I did the deal. The deal was ‘We know you're out there, and we know you're not going to go away, but if you confront us we'll make life very difficult for you. But if you keep very, very quiet and pretend that you are straight, we will leave you alone’.
So basically I did that deal. And that was really required of a person in a public office at the time. It was only really when the AIDS epidemic came along, that Johan and I got involved in AIDS activities and then when you saw your friends, and we had 12 friends who died in those early days. That's when really we began to stand up, because in comparison to the enormity that was going on about us, our own little secret didn't seem all that significant.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: I'm going to pick up —
MICHAEL KIRBY: It wasn't a good time.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: No. I'm going to pick up on some of the issues around Australia's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic a little bit later on this conversation.
Shirleene, can I bring you in now? Mardi Gras is often held up, or that first Mardi Gras is often held up as Australia's answer to the 69 Stonewall riots, which of course galvanised LGBT rights in the US.
Why do you believe this Mardi Gras here in Australia was so significant, such a significant milestone? And can you give us a bit of a sense — we've alluded to it — of what came before?
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Well, I mean, I guess the immediate answer in terms of the Stonewall legacy is that it was the date that Mardi Gras, as Robyn mentioned, has changed. So the date that the first one was held was the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, so there was that sort of immediate link.
I believe that it was — there's a communication between activists in San Francisco and Ken Davis, and possibly some other people who I might not be mentioning, but essentially there were issues in California over teachers potentially not being able to teach because of their sexuality.
So a letter went out asking for a day to be organised where activities of solidarity would be occurring across the world. Robyn provided a very moving account, I think, of what it felt to be in that, and to see the police respond in the way that they did.
And so certainly in terms of this being Australia's Stonewall moment, well when we think of Stonewall we think of the community that has been forced to be invisible, that has forced to live in the shadows fighting back. And it actually if you do look at Stonewall you'll see that there are examples of communities fighting back in other parts of America well before this, in the 1950s. Yet there was something about that time and that moment which captured the imagination of New York and of society. And it made the front pages in New York. Not so much in Australia at the time.
I think Mardi Gras had that similar resonance, I think as a historian you don't always get to pick or know when history is happening around you, but sometimes you are swept up in it, or you are caught in it and it sounds very much like that is what happened on that particular evening, on that particular day.
ROBYN LAVERACK: I think you're right. Because I think it was a really emotional night. It was — the weeks after it, the months after it, the court cases, it didn't end on that night by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, in August of the same year there was a national homosexual conference where 104 people were arrested.
So it kind of kept building this sense of no, we're not going to hide anymore. We are going to get out there and protest very publicly, and we will bring about change. Ultimately we will, but it will be a long and hard fight. Whether it should have been a long and hard fight is another issue.
MICHAEL KIRBY: I don't think that there wasn't resistance, and there was a lot of resistance. The chief, the commissioner of police in New South Wales, Colin Delaney, said, ‘This is the greatest threat to Australia’ at the time. There were politicians who were really quite decent people otherwise; they had all these feelings of animosity and anger and resistance.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: It feels like you're describing six months ago as well.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Yes.
MICHAEL KIRBY: And it really, I mean, we saw some of that unfortunately in the —
CATHY VAN EXTEL: And in 1978 you had the media publishing the names, addresses, occupations of those who were arrested. Extraordinary.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Yes, but we saw the same thing last year, in Australia. In modern Australia we saw the resistance of politicians to a fundamental equality in a civil right, by a parliament that could not confer a right to have a religious marriage, and they denied it, and that was about 40 per cent of our fellow citizens.
People say it was a wonderful vote, ‘Oh isn't that wonderful.' I don't think it's so wonderful that 40 per cent of my fellow citizens don't believe that there should have been equality for all people, even though the census shows that something like 80 per cent of Australians don't get married in churches at all. They get married in the local park or vineyards or historic homes and so on.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Or Vegas.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Mind your own business.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Sorry, Cathy, you actually asked, for a little bit of, I guess, background and earlier context before Mardi Gras, which I didn't provide. So I will say that yes, so there obviously was activism and a growing political awareness that did happen before that, and you alluded to that as well.
I think it's really interesting and often forgotten that the first deliberately political organisation in Australia that set out to address discrimination and to try and change that through education, was actually an organisation that was founded by lesbians. And that was The Daughters of Bilitis, so I think it's always worth highlighting that. It's a bit of an obscure name.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Now, let's not get any differences between the gays and the lesbians. We are not going to get into a battle as to who was there. We're all in this together, and with the straights.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: That is true, but you know I find this very particularly interesting, because you know when we think back to 1969 and what it was like for these women to create this organisation, actually they both independently wrote to the American organisation Daughters of Bilitis chapter, and then of course the American chapter put these two women in touch with each other in Melbourne, so that was two of them. They decided that they're able to start organising and from that they went and tried to place an advertisement in The Age newspaper. And actually for the Age editor to accept the ad he said he would have to meet in person with one of these women, which he did.
She managed to convince him to publish the ad, which, you know, announced the rival of the Daughters of Bilitis. Of course he wouldn't publish it in the main section of the newspaper, but he did publish it in 1969 in the sort of advertising section of the newspaper. So that was their first statement. I think that's a really interesting moment in Australian history.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Absolutely. Shirleene, let's go to the year after 1978. The police turned up for the follow-up march, but there were no arrests this time. That was largely because premier Neville Wran had decided to repeal the Summary Offences Act, which was basically what was used to mass effect the previous year.
Homosexuality, though, remained illegal in New South Wales, and in many other states around Australia.
ROBYN LAVERACK: It was still illegal in New South Wales up until 1984, which if you think about it, that's not all that long ago. It was actually a criminal offence, not just a summary offence but a criminal offence. Appalling, really. But yes, 1984 finally. And I do actually.
MICHAEL KIRBY: At least it wasn't the death penalty.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Mike, well, you're so positive. I love it.
MICHAEL KIRBY: You've got to be grateful for small crumbs.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: But, Robyn, do you believe that decriminalising homosexuality in a way is more defining than Mardi Gras?
ROBYN LAVERACK: Absolutely, I do. And that's not to say that those events did not contribute to that, they did absolutely because we became a force that couldn't be ignored. That's the significance I think.
MICHAEL KIRBY: I think if a defining moment is a fork in the road, which having been taken leads on to other things, as I think, then the Mardi Gras, really, for the first time people were standing up. That led on to an awful lot of trouble for Neville Wran.
Now, people might have forgotten he was a very powerful, very effective premier, a considerable reformer in environment and other matters, but he had a lot of Catholics in the party who didn't have anything done. Then he went to a Council for Civil Liberties meeting, organised by John Marsden, whose sister Jane is here tonight.
He was the president, and they booed him and hissed him, and he went out of there and said, ‘I'm not going through that again, we're going to get this reform through.’ Then it was got through in 1984, as has been said. That was a long time.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: How much do you think decriminalising homosexuality shifted societal views?
MICHAEL KIRBY: Well, until it was decriminalised it was rather dangerous for people to stand up, because then you would be targeted. You would be identified because you are not only potentially being seen to break the law, but you were also not delivering on the deal, the deal that you keep pretend you're straight.
Even this week, I got an email from somebody, some nutter who sent me an email saying that I should apologise to the Australian people. He should apologise to me for having subjected me, it's like saying to Nelson Mandela, ‘You should apologise for breaking the pass law.’ And that's how I feel about it.
Well, you shouldn't apologise, we should have an apology, we should have people say, ‘We're sorry that we've treated you with such disrespect as a human being, contrary to science, contrary to equality and we're going to make sure that we don't do that again.’ We've got to remember that, now that we've got this so-called religious freedom right, that is going to come up to try and take away the equality and dignity of LGBT people.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Shirleene, the flip side of decriminalising homosexuality was that there was criminality on the part of against gay and lesbian, particularly gay men, that was a strong issue around attacks by homophobic men. And many crimes against gays were covered up. They were never recognised, they were treated as misadventure or suicide. It's a past that remains unresolved in Australia, doesn't it? Isn't it?
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Yes, I definitely like to bring Jordan in in a minute, because I think there's certainly a lot of transphobic violence, which I think has been swept under and ignored, that we also need to acknowledge.
But the one thing I would like to say, when we talk about turning points and decriminalisation I am struck by something very sad that happened on the bank of the Torrens River in Adelaide in 1972, and of course that's the death of Dr George Duncan. I don't believe that without that happening, South Australia would have become the first state to decriminalise it. I think that was a galvanising moment.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Yes, they changed things under Don Dunstan in 1973, I think it was, or 74. So that was the first state of Australia. The British had reformed their own law in, I think, 1967, so it was England 67, Canada was about then, and then South Australia 74.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Full by 75, everything by 75.
MICHAEL KIRBY: No, Tasmania didn't change until 199 —
CATHY VAN EXTEL: 97.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: 97, but yes, South Australia was 75.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Yes, we can't forget Tasmania, they're down there. They're a beautiful island off the coast and now, of course, they're also one of the very, very forward in things, under both political regimes, in Tasmania.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I think the parallels and to talking about trans experience, today and in the last two decades. The agreement that you brought up, that you can live your lives as you live it in secret. That exists now for trans people. The bigger issue there is that not all trans people can take part in that agreement.
You know, when we talk within the trans community about the idea of passing, and passing privilege and what it means to be a trans person, but to go about your daily life without being recognisably trans. And even well into the 90s, when people approached doctors for help, for treatment, when they were trans, they were held to a degree of scrutiny, as to whether they could be treated.
Part of that was they needed to — the doctor needed to believe that they could blend and reintegrate into society with no one ever knowing that they were transgender. So that meant the doctor had to assess if they could pass, so me and —
MICHAEL KIRBY: It's rather similar isn't it, it's going back to the deal.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes.
MICHAEL KIRBY: We will accept you if you’ll pretend you're straight.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Well, yes, but also it's not even just if you pretend you're cis gender, it's I see that the breadth of your shoulders, I see that you are attracted — you are a transgender woman who is attracted to women, you're a lesbian. That's not allowed. You need to — if you're balding or if you have a deep voice or whatever.
So if I had presented in the 90s, I would have been refused treatment, and then sent on my way. Trans women at that time knew about this, and they made sure that when they went to the doctor, they ‘femmed’ it up. Trans women would ‘femme’ it up, they would answer all the questions in a way to get treated.
When doctors noticed this, rather than saying these people are so desperate to be helped, the conclusion they came to was that trans women are dishonest people. That there is, they is a comorbidity with dishonesty, dishonest personality that goes along with being transgender.
And that persists socially now, you know. We will accept you in our bathrooms, so long as I don't know about you. You know? If you are noticeably transgender, then I don't want you my bathroom. I don't want to be bothered by it. I think even advocacy within the trans community now, a lot of — around bathroom stuff, because we're talking about bathroom stuff a lot, particularly in the US.
You know, a lot of the advocacy which is well meaning, is saying, ‘Well, this is a transgender man. Do you want this person in your women's bathroom?’ But the real issue around bathroom and trans people moving through society is about people who don't have that passing privilege, or who don't want to buy into it. Who want to be proudly trans, who want their ‘transness’ to be out there, to be part of their visible identity. It's those people who are suffering most by the social context you described, that it's persisting.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Just a very use of the word 'bathroom'. I mean, American bathroom, there's never a bath in them.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: No, that's true.
MICHAEL KIRBY: We call them toilets or lavatories, but it's —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I didn't want to say ‘dunny’ on a podcast.
MICHAEL KIRBY: My grandma would have understood.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Or a shitter.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Delicate editing.
MICHAEL KIRBY: But now we know, we've had — it's all been revealed tonight. Now we know why Prince William and Prince Harry are so sympathetic and supportive of LGBT, because they're both baldy and they both got a deep voice. So things are changing, but too slowly.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Could I bring it back to a more serious note, HIV/AIDS, just going — you mentioned a little bit earlier, Michael Kirby, about the way that crisis changed the way that yourself and your partner interacted in the community. You were a bit more open, I think I read? You felt there was this bigger, greater issue going on. You were very much involved in international committees; Johan was a volunteer assisting people with HIV/AIDS.
Was that another important period in terms of shifting societal attitudes?
MICHAEL KIRBY: I think it was an important point in strengthening gay courage, because people had to face up to really terrible events that were going on. I mean, I went to and spoke at least 20 funerals, and you'd go to the chapel or the religious occasion and then on one side of the aisle, the central aisle, were the gay family and on the other side was the blood family. And it was also very sad and a lot of the religious organisations were very unfriendly, and not supporting.
And then you'd go to a funeral — Johan was an Ankali, and they are people who help others who are sick, who clean the toilets and make a meal and basically converse, because it was a very lonely time for many. But then one of his clients died, he went to a funeral and not a mention of the Ankalis, not a mention of the truly loving support he got from the gay family.
The blood family was saying, ‘Oh yes, Uncle So-and-so, we used to get together and talk about football and so on.’ And it was just the deception, the falseness. The falseness to parents requiring young kids to be untrue to their families, their parents.
It did make LGBT people confront ‘who am I, who am I’ and to confront that basically on their own. And not being able to talk about it to the people who you love most, and who otherwise love you. But it really is not a good thing to inflict on people, and it's still happening in Australia today.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, I mean, I think when people talk about the LGBT+ community, or the trans community, or the gay community, those communities don't exist for people in the closet. You're in a community of one, and you deal with everything alone.
MICHAEL KIRBY: It does have, though, that feature. I was speaking to a young, gay lawyer, I didn't know he was gay until he told me yesterday, or the day before yesterday. He helps me as a volunteer and he said it does have this requirement that if you're straight, and you feel straight, you don't ever think about these issues, but if you're LGBTIQ then you are forced to look into yourself, and ask about difference. Ask about reality, and in a way that is an added dimension to LGBTIQ lives, and it's one that is painful and many tears are shed on the pillow of young, gay LGBT people. We've got to make life a bit kinder, and more loving to people everywhere.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Robyn?
ROBYN LAVERACK: Michael, when you were talking about that period that, you know, first AIDS cases in Australia, 84. Only a couple of years later is when, you know, Reverend Fred Nile is organising demonstrations on Oxford Street, and parades up and down protesting and, in fact, trying to move for the police to ban the parade from being held.
MICHAEL KIRBY: He prayed for rain at Mardi Gras every year.
ROBYN LAVERACK: He absolutely prayed for rain [inaudible].
MICHAEL KIRBY: God didn't favour him with rain.
ROBYN LAVERACK: It did one year, but we —
MICHAEL KIRBY: But we won’t go there.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: When he calls for the AIDS task force head for the Mardi Gras not to go ahead at once?
ROBYN LAVERACK: They were because it was seen as being in some way disrespectful, that you know you've got this crisis within your community, you have got people dying. I mean, a similar experience to you, Michael. I got to my 100th funeral and I went, ‘I'm not going to anymore.' This is not the way to celebrate my friends, by celebrating their death.
So I decided that no, not going to do that anymore. I'll just keep fighting how I know I best, and that was in 1988 when I actually joined the board of Mardi Gras, and it was a really positive time in terms of saying this is a next. I’ll keep going back to another defining moment for me of — we changed the name to include lesbian and that was a major push, I have to tell you. There were a lot of very misogynist gay men out there. It's a surprise, not.
MICHAEL KIRBY: You have tears in your eyes, this is still painful for you.
ROBYN LAVERACK: No, no, no, that's just the lights.
MICHAEL KIRBY: It's still painful. No.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Just raining on my face. Fred Nile was praying.
ROBYN LAVERACK: I think the response of Mardi Gras to the AIDS crisis, and it was described in those ways, was to say, 'We are not going to stop what we know how to best do.' And that is to be an organisation of celebration, to be as inclusive as we possibly can. I mean, 1988 was also the first year that there was an Indigenous float, obviously 1988. Why you would do that?
It was also, as I said, that year the name changed, the year that we really enhanced the festival. We had a Koori program, there was certainly transgender people involved. There wasn't, I would in fairness say, the same level of recognition that now is. It was kind of —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Well, we're not in the name yet, so.
ROBYN LAVERACK: No.
MICHAEL KIRBY: There's also been change within the Reverend Fred Nile. He actually voted for the expungment legislation — that was the legislation in New South Wales that's been copied or done in other states that allows the removal of the conviction record of people who are convicted under the old criminal laws. And he voted for it.
So, you know, progress is made and just we seem to take a lot trouble and there are just — I haven't denied my religion, I remain an Anglican Christian. I'm quite happy about that, leave me alone.
But the fact is, a lot of religions have been really nasty. Why did the Anglican Church in the weeks before that vote give a million dollars for the ‘no’ vote, and they gave, I think it was 5000 dollars, to the family violence research. I mean, it's all barmy.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Why did the New South Wales government give 140 million to World Catholic Youth Day and in the same year thought they were very generous by giving Mardi Gras 140,000.
MICHAEL KIRBY: 140,000.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Versus 140 million.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Oh well, it's just a digit.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Yes, someone left a nought off.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Shirleene, you want to say something?
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Well, I could say a couple of things about HIV and AIDS, but because the postal surveys come up a lot, I do want to, I guess, say a couple of things. The first is that I was part of an organisation, am part of an organisation, that tried to stop it and actually went to the higher court to do so. So I was very much against it, and still am. I think that it's a shameful legacy, and a dangerous precedent that happened.
But I do think that we should acknowledge that the ‘no’ side had something like five times the amount of money that the ‘yes’ campaign had. That's evident from their spending, and it was published in The Guardian, and yet despite that we still returned a yes vote in every single state and territory in this country.
So we have gone on a journey, and I think that we do need to acknowledge that, and we do need to acknowledge that if any other issue or political party got a 133 seats back out of — I think it was it 150 — we would call that landslide. I think Allan Joy said that would be the biggest landslide in Australian history.
This is not to minimise the pain felt in those ‘no’ electorates, which as I said is beyond devastating, and they should have never known those statistics. But on the other side, we were dramatically outspent. There was a very strong campaign that used very misleading information and yet still every state and every territory, including Queensland, where I grew up with the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, returned the ‘yes’ vote.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: In fact, as a Queenslander, our vote was stronger than the New South Wales vote.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: It certainly was, and I was in Brisbane to see that. I can tell you that I did not see that coming at all.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Jordan, while we're talking then about the break-up of the vote, you're in a Western Sydney suburb.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, I was, when my electorate voted ‘no’. I kind of feel like I live in Minas Tirith, in Gondor on the edge, where the great Eye of Sauron. But look, I think —
CATHY VAN EXTEL: What did mean to you, having that number there?
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: That's the thing, is that regardless of the result, we got that number. We got — we know that 38 out 100 people decided that they wanted to live in a country that said ‘no’ to us. And to know that that's some of my neighbours, that's some of the people that I live with. That was one of the most awful things about it was that they talk elements of the community who do not agree and made us fight, publicly.
Then when the result came in, you know, Malcolm Turnbull gave himself a pat on the back for it. And it's almost like shoving someone into a gladiator pit and making him fight to the death, and then when they come out they're like ‘Congratulations, aren’t you happy? You're a winner'.
It was awful. I mean, I still am not okay from it, and I think — I mean, the hardest moment for me was I was booked to sing on the day of the announcement, and I had to prepare two songs. I had to put myself in the position of what do I sing if my country votes ‘no’. How can I sing?
In the end it was fine, and I sang ‘We are the champions’ by Queen, which is a super gay song, by the way. I love that so many sporting events play it, and don't realise how gay it is, because it's about being marginalised and coming out on top. The ‘no’ song was ‘Don’t dream it’s over’.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Why haven’t there been — talking about sporting events, why is Ian Roberts really still, I think, the only out footballer, and, I mean, the numbers of sporting people who are open about their sexuality. They must be there in the same proportion as is everybody else in this society, including judges. But why does sport take such a long time to make progress?
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Look, I think sport definitely is behind in a lot of ways, and particularly around trans inclusion in sport. You know, I was saying before this, I used to play rugby and do martial arts. And when I started transitioning, I didn't feel safe staying in those communities, and I didn't want to have to negotiate my transition in those worlds.
I play roller derby now, everything's fine because it's a community that not only accepts me and the way my body is, but celebrates it. I have team mates who are pleased that I am on their team, I have opponents who are pleased that they get to play with me.
And yes, I think broader sporting communities are well behind kind of learning about trans bodies, and how they interact with the world.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Robyn, you were instrumental in bringing the Gay Games to Australia. You were part of the original bid team. Is that right?
ROBYN LAVERACK: I was part of the original bid team, and we were unsuccessful. I had the pleasure of going to Washington with Dawn Fraser to bid for the games. We weren't successful because we didn't have a black person on our committee, was the reason that was given, which was a real misunderstanding of, you know, everything about Australian culture and history in some ways. But we were seen as being non-representative, and so we were rejected.
So, we learned how to address some of those issues for the next bid, and it was successful. So, the gay games came to Sydney in 2002. It had 15,000 participants, which is more than the Olympics, more than the Rugby World Cup, more than, you know, just about any major sporting event you can name. Michael gave one of the defining moment speeches of all times in opening that. We also had the governor of New South Wales.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Marie Bashir.
ROBYN LAVERACK: But the wonderful Marie Bashir, and her husband Nick Shehadie, and the two — well, I particularly remember Marie and Nick with their pink pom poms cheering every single person onto that parade as they came into the stadium.
And, as I said, Michael gave a most interesting and defining speech that night that friends of ours still talk about. It was a very moving moment for them, as was the whole Gay Games, because it was such an event of celebration. Quite different to Mardi Gras in a sense in that it was an international event, so there were people from all over the world.
In fact, the transgender issues around the Gay Games were some of the most challenging issues that we had, as organisers. My partner was the CEO, we had friends on the board, I worked on it at that stage, trying to negotiate that path around sport and how people competed and who they competed as. And it was in a community that was accepting of difference.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, I think those issues that sports are having, and communities are having around trans inclusion in sport are social issues. They're not physical issues. If those organisations listened to the right doctors and scientists who know what they're talking about hormones and body changes and it's easy. A trans woman's body is a woman's body. If you plot a trans woman's body on a graph against cis women, you put them there, the distribution is within normal ranges for a woman's body.
So, the issues that people need to navigate, they are social. It is weird sure, it's weird but it's okay to say I'm uncomfortable. It's bad to say I'm uncomfortable and I refuse. If you say I'm uncomfortable but I'm willing to listen and understand, that's kind of what we need, rather than flat out refusal to accept the science and accept the opinions of doctors.
And so many sporting organisations have got it right. The Olympics have it right, the Olympics have got it right. Roller derby — smashing it.
ROBYN LAVERACK: I think, I mean, in fairness the Australian Gay Games absolutely smashed it, because they did do exactly that.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, totally.
ROBYN LAVERACK: They talked within the community, they talked about how to define it so that it was accepted by the trans community, I mean who else to define it.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Totally. But I think the AFL, and I think with the way that they made their decision this year, was really disappointing because it wasn't based on the evidence they had. It was based on how were they going to, I presume their marketing, the backlash, the opinions of the papers and all those sorts of things.
MICHAEL KIRBY: But the Pride in Diversity organisation which has been a great supporter of promoting pride and engagement at work. And which has got the Australian Defence Force and the Federal Police and lots of other federal bodies. It now has an organisation which is Pride in Sport. And they're now promoting this issue within the sporting filed.
But I think we need to promote this also in LGBT group itself because amongst gay people, you don't always you get a mirror image often of the general community and —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Oh, of course, yes.
MICHAEL KIRBY: And a lot of prejudice amongst different components.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I think that's the thing with the community — we all stand together, the letters of the rainbow alphabet, because we have a shared experience of living in a society that encourages us to feel shame about ourselves. But our needs are different. I think one of the big things about the marriage equality debate was it was the biggest issue for our community for a long time, and got to the point where a lot people thought it was the final issue.
Even people in parliament saying we just got to get this done, and it's done and everyone's equal. When there are so many issues that the trans community are facing, that the intersex community are facing, gender non-conforming people are facing, asexual people are facing. And their issues aren't even on people's radar.
I spoke at an event at Mardi Gras last year, which was sponsored by an IVF company. It was said this IVF company is supporting the LGBTI community. An intersex advocate came up with a sharpie and crossed out ‘I’ on that poster at the Mardi Gras event, because that company, when doing IVF treatments, screens for intersex conditions and destroys embryos that have intersex conditions.
How can a community of intersex people feel pride in who they are when they know that a company that does that, is a sponsor at Mardi Gras? And when — I didn't know that, I didn't even know that was an issue. I think that's a big thing that the other letters in the acronym have issues that we're not even listening to, or hearing or recognising.
MICHAEL KIRBY: It's a good thing about this program that it'll take out into the Australian community the fact that the issue isn't over, we're going to face very certain that the report that hasn't been revealed so far about faith communities. And it will be a terrible thing if we go backwards, in having secured marriage equality then we're allowing people contrary to the anti-discrimination laws that are in place, we're rolling that back and saying, well you can just be nasty to people just like they were to Rosa Park, moving the barrier in the bus, so that she had to go and get up at the back. And she wouldn't do it. And that's what they want to do, they want to revive hatred and inequality and discrimination. I do hope that we don't go back, that I hope that our parliament doesn't agree to that. I don't think it will.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: And is there energy for another fight? Is there — I think there's a fear that everybody thinks that the fight is won, and that the ball is being dropped. Is there a concern that there's — you need to muster up the troops again for another fight?
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: I think I would like to say something to that, which is that we in no way could have won the postal survey without the support and solidarity that was shown from so many sections of the broader community, but also within our own community. That includes intersex people, transgender people and gender-diverse people who are experiencing very real, and very immediate, and very pressing issues, who still stood with us.
But in that particular moment, because I think that there was that sense that we were bigger together, and that postal survey became about something much bigger than marriage equality itself in the end. I mean, this was about so much more than that, that we were fighting for as we waited on that results day.
I think if there is any lessons to be taken from that it is that during the postal survey, we organised on a scale and a level that has never been done before in Australian history. And I think that we were able to achieve something with that. And that we must use that momentum and we must use that energy to repay that solidarity and that debt that was given by people who were placed in a really precarious position by irresponsible ‘no’ campaigners, who put out very misleading and very inaccurate information, and really put those people in the worst type of situation.
So certainly I think that everyone I know who was involved in that campaign certainly does feel an obligation to keep working on that, because of that.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, I think that the difficult thing for the future is that we have achieved so much for gay and lesbian rights that young people growing up in the next generation who are gay and lesbian are going to grow up with the privilege of being broadly accepted in society, broadly celebrated in society. And are not going to have the perspective or the experience of the history.
MICHAEL KIRBY: But this isn't different, is it really? If we think of our country Australia, it's had a really checkered history about prejudice and discrimination against certain minorities. It had prejudice and discrimination against Aboriginals, and still has in many ways. It had prejudice against people of different colour, we had the white Australia policy until 1966, and 73 it had prejudice against women and inequality in the treatment of women. And it had prejudice against people with disabilities, it had prejudice against LGBT. We have made progress. There's no doubt about it.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: No, absolutely.
MICHAEL KIRBY: But this is a commonality, and I think what we have to do is look at our country, look at its history, look at what needs to be done and that's the advantage of this Museum, the National Museum, of having these artefacts, having these images, having programs like this and focusing on our history and learning from our history. And seeing it as a whole, not just seeing different categories.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I agree. I guess my point is that we need to recognise that there is a generation — there was the article that was published during Mardi Gras last year, written by a 19-year-old Shore Old Boy, who wrote an article about ‘Why do we need Mardi Gras anymore? My life's fine, my friends all accept me and I'm happy’.
So that is a young person, and an adult who is so disengaged with the history and so disengaged with the needs of the broader community that they decide that they're done, that they're going to hang their hat up and they want everyone else to finish.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Possibly he thinks it's the same about Aboriginals, but look at what happened with the ‘voice from the heart’, the wish of the Aboriginal people to have a voice into our federal parliament. It was just dismissed out of hand, it wasn't even publicly debated. They got their whole community together at Uluru and they came up with this, that's an amazing achievement to get the whole Aboriginal community together. I think it's very important that the LGBTIQ people should see their struggle in the context of the struggle of the Aboriginal people, the struggle of women, the struggle of other groups in the community, the struggle of people of colour, the struggle of minority religions and so on.
We should be in there trying to improve our country. Because we've had a real thing about this. That's what I hope the Defining Moments project is going to identify the history and how we have had many wrongs, but how we have made progress. And how we got to continue making progress.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: Can I just add something to that and just say, Jordan, I think, you know, I really appreciate that you're emphasising how important history is and that people must know this and we have to continue to maintain that solidarity. It is so important that people know that there are members of our community who stood with us, and who are still experiencing, you know, financial disadvantage and huge problems, and that we need to stand in support with each other, I think. We've shown what we can do and we must maintain that.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Jordan, can I ask you about your electorate, where we had strong ‘no’ vote in Western Sydney, it's a very strong multicultural population there.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: What are the issues there that need to be addressed? I know that you've thought about perhaps transferring Mardi Gras to Western Sydney, as part of the solution.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Look, I think there is something to be said for — because there are community members living in those areas, there are LGBT people within those religious communities, or within those geographical locations who are feeling the pain, and feeling marginalised by the people around them.
I think as the broader community, we should have a look at that and going, 'Well, how can we make their lives better?' And maybe that is programming more Mardi Gras events in Western Sydney, let's have a parade in Parramatta. Let's go ... well this vote has given us an indication on where these pockets of hatred are highest, what can we do to make the lives of LGBT+ people living in those communities better.
MICHAEL KIRBY: I'm glad you raised that question, Cathy, because we should also not just be little islanders. We should not just be looking at our own position on the Pacific Islands. In many countries, most countries of Asia, I mean there's still violence. Brunei has just reintroduced the death penalty for homosexual acts in Brunei. In Bangladesh, young gay activists are slaughtered, and so on throughout our region.
We've got to be engaged with all of this, this a human rights issue at the whole world. We've got to be serious about it and make sure we're not just thinking of ourselves in Australia. We've got to take Robyn's example and her message back there in 1978 and we've got to take it to our region, take it to the world. We've got to be stronger in that respect, and our government has to be stronger.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: In what way? How do you see that happening? What role do you believe that the Australian community can play?
MICHAEL KIRBY: Well, I think Australia should be an enlightened leader for the community. You know, at least under President Obama — I don't know if it happens under Mr Trump — but American embassies around the world would fly the rainbow flag on IDAHOBIT day in order to send a message to those beyond the wall — there are people here who are concerned, who support your struggle and don't give up.
I think Australia should — some ambassadors do it, in Australian embassies. But not many. It's a bit like what Anwar Ibrahim said, we were rather quiet about his imprisonment. Sometimes we've got to be a little bit more noisy and stand up for the values we believe in.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: I think individuals, governments, but also corporations in the way that they interact with customers and partners overseas, I think there's a role they can play there. I mean I fly Qantas, and I often gig in the UK. Qantas used to do stopovers in Singapore, and other stopovers in the Middle East. I'm not allowed to be in certain countries in the Middle East, you know.
When we had a gig in Germany, the people in my band stopped over in the Middle East, whereas I took several flights to make sure I didn't land in a country I felt unsafe. I can't enter Dubai. I could probably stop over there, but if I try to go through I would be arrested for who I am. And a company like Qantas is partnering with companies in those countries. That's something to think about.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: In fact, let's pick up that point about the power of corporations because in Mardi Gras, particularly in the 90s when there was a real head of steam behind the event, there were massive numbers. I think at one point in the sort of early 90s it was up to a half a million people involved. The corporates really got behind it, it was a sort of powerful shift in society because it was seen as a commercial opportunity as well.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Oh absolutely, the pink dollar which was what everybody wanted to get. It meant that organisations like Playboy were bidding to be a major sponsor of Mardi Gras and to have their sort of iconic bunnies as Mardi Gras symbol. What did they get? What Mardi Gras's focus is and what Playboy's focus is. But it was commercial opportunism.
MICHAEL KIRBY: It's called sex.
ROBYN LAVERACK: There is that. But they wanted to make a dollar, and that's fair enough and I don't question that, but there was no alignment between their corporate values and our corporate values as an organisation.
MICHAEL KIRBY: In fairness, Pride in Diversity has gathered many of the big corporations, because the bottom line dictates what they will ultimately do. The bottom line shows that when LGBTIQ people are comfortable and open about their sexual orientation, they work, they get more. It's good for the shareholders, it's good for the corporations.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: It's dangerous thinking, though, because if the bottom line switches, or the bottom line says something different —
MICHAEL KIRBY: Yes, but it won't switch because —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: No, no, but my point is, you know, a company will say, 'Well, diversity within our working group actually increases productivity.' Even if it didn't, there are reasons to be diverse.
MICHAEL KIRBY: You're right.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Which is to not be cruel to the people in our community.
MICHAEL KIRBY: No, absolutely. It's a human rights issue. But on the other hand, there has been —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: The invisible hand is not a social justice hand.
MICHAEL KIRBY: There has been progress with the big end of town, and now they're taking that into health and diversity. Kerryn Phelps is the patron of that, and now they're taking it into sport and —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, because there're definitely challenges in the community that are not profitable.
MICHAEL KIRBY: The next one we've got to take it into is the faith communities, because the faith communities have got plenty of LGBT people — many of them frightened, many of them very silent. It'll be a good thing when all of them come out of the woodwork and then maybe one day we'll live to see this whole sorry saga.
If every LGBTIQ person in Australia stood up, the whole pathetic deal and the whole pretending would be all over. That's really an important goal we should all set. And I thank Robyn for her leadership back then, when I was being a very quiet, a little ‘telephone twice’ person. You stood up, you went out there, you went on the streets.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Oh, there are many, many others.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Many other people, yes, but you did it. It was harder for me, but I did it in a different way when AIDS came along, and we got to get more people. I still know judges who, you know, don't live — live back there in the ‘two telephone’ area.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Yes.
MICHAEL KIRBY: We've got to get that all changed, because it's so unscientific.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Right.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Robyn, I'd like to pick up on something that you mentioned a little earlier, before we came on stage. And that was despite all of the profile that you've had and despite the societal changes, and the improvements in attitudes, you still live with prejudice. You still live in a small community town where there's a sense of other.
ROBYN LAVERACK: Oh, definitely. I mean my partner and I have been together 25 years, we're referred to as ‘the girls’, because I don't think people know what to call us. They could try calling us Robyn and Judith, that would work. But when — and the rest of that community is straight, but amongst that community that's how they refer to us. Whereas we would say Mark and Bev, you know, or whoever.
No, we're always just ‘the girls’, and so there is still that separation. With that comes a bit of a demeaning of our relationship and who we are.
I'm reflecting on some of the things that people have been saying, I'm sick of fighting. When you ask, you know, is there strength to go on? Well, I'm over it, I was over it for the marriage equality debate. I mean, I marched but I did nothing else, because I'm sick of having the bloody fight for what should be basic human rights. That I should have as a basic social equity within my community.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Yes, but don't give up fighting, Robyn, because it's the spirit that you had in 78 that started the roller coaster, and it is still going on. We must never forget that the greatest achievements for LGBTIQ people would not have happened without the support of straight people.
I mean, it's the fact that straight people came on board, began to question it, began to question their attitudes, began to question the fairness of it all, and the ignorance and the unscientific nature of it all. I think that's when things started to change. We've got to keep that momentum up.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Jordan, you came out as transgender in 2016 with a video that you put on Facebook, called ‘What happened to Jordan's beard?’
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: We have come a long way from the 70s, 80s and even the 90s. But you were still worried about the reaction. Was it a fear about what impact it would have on your career? What was —
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: There were all sorts of fears about career, about whether I could persist doing what I did, how people would receive me, whether people would still be turning up to gigs, whether the people even before I came out to the people in my band, whether they would accept it or — and so many questions and for me. I wanted to tell a story of continuity, because so many trans narratives that had been told that up until that point, and during that time — because that was the time that Caitlyn Jenner was coming out — were about change. And were about starting over and about a new life, and a new personality.
I saw Caitlyn Jenner give her final interview, before she disappeared to transition. It was a thoughtful, deep, moving interview and then her first act when she came out was to be in lingerie on the cover of Vanity Fair. I thought what a difference of expression, and how gendered it was, and how it lent into the tropes that are so toxic.
I didn't want to do that, and so for me coming out was about expressing the continuity in my life, that I was the same person. I loved the same things, I was going to continue doing what I did, which was to sing funny songs. I was going to come out doing a funny video on YouTube, which is what I do, funny videos on YouTube. I was going to sing in the same voice, you know.
My journey with my voice has been one of the most important journeys of my life, because one of the things as a singer, was, like, do I need to sing like a girl? Is that a thing I need in order to be accepted as a woman? Do I need to sing like a girl? Do I have to sing in a girl's voice, and doing that would mean abandoning half the notes I can sing. Only being able to sing so high, and what a waste.
My voice is a gift and an instrument. Part of the thing, you know, the journey that singers go through, is understanding the instrument they have, and their capabilities. Not every voice is the same. Different voices are capable of different things.
My voice is great, and a really great rock growl. The thought that I had to abandon that made me sad. So I decided I wasn't going to sing in a girl's voice, I was going to sing in my voice, which is the voice of a woman, because I am a woman so my voice is a girl's voice.
Yes, so all of those journeys, were happening at that time, and it was hard to balance how much I let out publicly. I think that was the hard thing that lots of people in the community while transitioning, and before I came out publicly, but no one really had a perspective on how that would go, or how that would — I'm glad it went well.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: You also learned the importance of a mentor and you very much decided to become a mentor yourself.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, look, I think I wanted to be the person that I needed when I was younger. And I wanted to tell the trans story I wanted to tell, and I get emails from people who say, ‘Oh my God! I didn't know I was allowed to transition that way. I didn't know I was allowed to keep on liking video games and ...’
I've had people contact me every day with amazing stories. An older trans woman who had lived her life in stealth for 30 years, sent a message to me saying, ‘I'm not doing that anymore because I saw how important it is that your transness is part of identity and how you're proud. And I want to be proud of it too. So I'm not living stealth anymore,' which means to live appearing cis gender and buying into the contact that we spoke about earlier. She decided after 30 years of the security that came with that contract, to abandon it and be proud and be an advocate.
I'm so pleased that I've had that impact on people. And I'm so privileged to hear these journeys that people go on, and to know I made an impact. But similarly, I recognise that I benefit so much from the fact that I lived for 32 years as a dude, and I wonder often that if I had transitioned earlier, or if I had born as a cis gender female, if I would have been afforded so many of the opportunities I received in my life.
The knowledge of that privilege doesn't make me feel guilty, and I think this a message that we should broadly talk about when talking about privilege. The knowledge of that privilege doesn't make me feel guilty, it makes me feel responsible. When you have privilege, you don't need to be guilty about it, to be ashamed about it. You need to recognise that you have a thing, and you have an advantage that other people don't have. And you have to ask yourself whether that is fair.
If you understand that it is not fair, then you are responsible for fixing that. You're responsible for dismantling toxicity, you're responsible for sharing that privilege that you have. So, the reason that I take this so seriously, and that I put myself out there is because I want to live in a world where anyone would have had the opportunities, whether they're cis or trans or man or a woman. That is my responsibility.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: We've come up against time. And on that very positive note we might open it up to audience questions. I think we have a microphone that can be passed around. If you could just indicate by raising your hand, there's a microphone there, a hand just there, Luke.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, Cathy, and thank you to the panel for addressing the questions of gender issues. I think in terms of transgender, we've come a long way. Only a few years ago being transgender was not only career threatening but thoroughly dangerous.
These days due to the efforts of many, many people, including one particular senior army officer and a couple of priests, we're getting better exceptions of this. But that's not universal amongst the health professions. For instance in WPATH, well, they're called the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, they encourage the pathologisation — terrible word isn't, can't even pronounce it — but amongst their standards of care, they state that before hormone therapy should be prescribed by doctors, they should demonstrate persistent well-documented gender dysphoria.
What do you think it does for the reputation of these self-reported professionals? And do you think that they need some education in being effective gatekeepers?
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Well, I think that's an interesting question. I mean, I noticed that you said the phrase ‘gender dysphoria’, I noticed you kind of spat it out. I don't dislike that term, because the previous version of those guidelines was gender identity disorder. So the very least, we have established that being transgender is not a disorder.
And gender dysphoria, the language there is that dysphoria is discomfort and distress that one experiences when they notice that their gender identity does not match their body, or the way that they're treated into society. That absolutely describes my experience. And that's on a social level, physical level, hormonal level, internally like my body once I was exposed to oestrogen, felt normal. And I lost some of that distress.
I mean, there's probably always going to be some level of pathologisation with trans people, because it requires a treatment. I think we need to discuss the gatekeeping, and we need to discuss there are issues with it, particularly when we are talking about gender non-conforming people, non-binary people, or people who are trans and don't want to pursue that route.
But also, bringing in a situation of informed consent as well, that people should have autonomy over their own bodies, and they should have the risks of transition explained to them. They should be helped if they have any other disorders that are not related to being trans.
And yes, I think it's a complicated thing, and I think there's more journey to go. But I think we are at a better place than we were, like you said, five years ago.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: We might have time for one more question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question for Michael about just unpacking —
MICHAEL KIRBY: You have to speak up, I'm sorry.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Sorry, unpacking the challenges that face us with the religious freedoms debate in a human rights context, so that balance between respecting people's rights to choose their religion and not discriminating.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: The question between balancing the rights, religious rights and human rights, something we were talking about a little earlier.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Well, I think that was well expressed by a philosopher in terms that the right that I have to swing my arm finishes when I hit your chin. I think that's the same in terms of the right of religious freedom. I believe in the right of religious freedom, it's in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it's in the International Covenant, and it's part of our history and there are legal protections already in place.
But the question is, do we claw back the protections against discrimination in order to accommodate some people's desire to assert their religion in the public space, in a way that interferes with the dignity and feeling of equality and non-hostility of LGBTIQ people?
Take the cake makers. I mean, this is now before the US Supreme Court, and we'll hear what they say under the American constitution shortly. But for people to say, ‘Well I don't want to make ... I'm in the business of cakes. I make very good cakes and especially very good wedding cakes, but I don't want to make a wedding cake for people who are lawfully married in this country, under the marriage act. And I want to be able to say to them, “I'm sorry, I don't do it because I have a religious view against what you have done.”’ And I have a difficulty with people being able to do that, at the moment under anti-discrimination law, then they probably can't do that. And people can have their religious views, but if they're in the business of making cakes, I don't think their religious view is going to reach down to the fact that they can be hurtful, discriminatory and refuse to observe equal conduct in the public space for people who want them to make a cake. They should go and become merchant bankers or something like that.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Get out of the cake game, yes. You can't make cakes for everyone, do something else.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: And the florist game.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Yes, and the photography game.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: I mean, you know, we have yet to see this particular cake-maker that has this problem. I mean, if you think logically about this occurring, you'd have to find somebody, I think, as Trevor Evans said in parliament, you'd have to find somebody who basically cared, a cake-maker who cared more about, you know, making a particular point around this particular issue than they did about their business, then you'd have to find another person who cared more about, you know, having their cake made by this particular baker, than they did about actually have a cake for their wedding.
So, I mean, these two things coming together you know, hopefully are unlikely to happen, but I would make the point that Australians voted to remove discrimination and not to introduce any more. I think that should be the takeaway that everyone put forward last year.
JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: And no wedding cake is going to be as disgusting as a hens’ night cake. Right?
MICHAEL KIRBY: In fact, in the United States the case before the US Supreme Court is actually about a person, a couple, a gay couple who wanted to have a cake, and they found actually only in America, they found a cake-maker who didn't want to put ‘Happy wedding Joe and Craig’, and therefore they've got that exact issue before the US Supreme Court. And we'll know in a few weeks, but —
CATHY VAN EXTEL: They do, but, you know, in all of the population of America, they found one.
MICHAEL KIRBY: Yes. It's a very rare situation.
SHIRLEENE ROBINSON: And they’re more litigious, I think, than Australians are generally also.
CATHY VAN EXTEL: Yes, well I think you'd agree it's been a really engaging and illuminating conversation. So thank you for that. And thank you for being a great audience as well. Mat, I'll ask you to come back for the farewells.
MAT TRINCA: [inaudible] What a great conversation. What about a round of applause?
You know, we've had so many discussions and debates and this room actually down the main hall in the course of the Defining Moments project. But I really mean it when I say it tonight, that this was very compelling and absorbing, I think for all of us in the room. And not just that was the temper of the discussion, but just how much that I think it goes to the very centre of our experience in the last 30 or 40 years in this country. Trying to plot, I think, as we did through the course of this change, and then the need for more change.
If history can do that for us, then it has a virtue I think in our lives to think about the past, think about what the past has meant, to understand it clearly, to see it honestly and to take some lesson from it as we confront the future. So again, thank to our panel members.
So superbly led by Cathy Van Extel. Thank you! I do want to thank the staff at the National Museum of Australia who as always were just so superb tonight in putting this together. I want to make special note of Lily Withycombe who is the curator, who's responsible for the rainbow bike, the love bike downstairs being on display. If you haven't seen it, take an opportunity to see it. It's a great story.
As I said earlier, this panel discussion will be broadcast on RN's Big Ideas program at some time in the future. Listen to RN and you can find out when. Or indeed come on our website to have a look from time to time. We will let you know the minute that we've heard when it's going on.
I want to thank — always important to thank your sponsors — Capital Wines and Coopers beers. You've enjoyed their wares at the beginning, and remember their name when you visit your bottle shop.
If you enjoyed tonight's discussion, look there's plenty more. Watch for the next discussion under the Defining Moments rubric, and indeed watch out for our blockbuster summer show that's coming in September, Rome: City and Empire and there'll be a great discussion about why Rome still matters to us today. And perhaps for the future on 5 December we hope to see it there. Thank you all!
Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 23 April 2019