Raise your hand if you’ve recently had a deep and meaningful conversation about gender, sexuality and identity. Keep it raised if that conversation was with your mother. Few people get the opportunity to have an open and honest (read: amicable) conversation like this with their folks. We were lucky that Fin (they/them) and their mother Kerry (she/her) were open to sharing this conversation with us. Because, between all the intergenerational differences, you might find that we share a lot more than we think when it comes to love.
Fin: What does queer love mean to you?
Kerry: I love the term queer. I just think of it as an umbrella term that incorporates the whole vegetable soup of sexual and gender identities. Because it’s non-specific, it’s not loaded with the layers of historical meanings and prejudices that accompany each of those identities.
Although, there are still some older LGBTQI+ folx who remember the term queer as a slur and are not comfortable with it. When I think of queer love, I think of the joy of community, of finding your tribe, belonging, and being free to love the person/s you love intimately. I think of queer love as a celebration of life and its limitless possibilities.
F: Who was your first queer icon?
K: Hmm. Although not necessarily lesbian, Madonna and Sinead O’Connor were huge. As was Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, the Indigo Girls, Grace Jones, and Melissa Etheridge. In television it was Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect (still swooning a little just writing it), and Gillian Anderson (also still swooning) in The X-Files. Xena, Warrior Princess was both divine AND a badass.
Ellen de Generes had a self-titled sitcom we were obsessed with and it was a HUGE deal when she came out as a lesbian in her show in 1997. This was back in the day when everyone, including actors, stayed in their closet for fear of derailing their careers. Ellen coming out was so ballsy. It was very culturally significant for the Queer community, and having your own sexuality positively mirrored in TV is a joy that shouldn’t be underestimated. Ellen did experience a lot of backlash from mainstream homophobes, ratings fell, and the show was cancelled the next year.
An unlikely icon in the lesbian community was Aileen Wuornos. If you aren’t familiar, Wuornos was a sex-worker who murdered seven men in the late ‘80s. She had a lot of sympathy because she represented a victim who had experienced a lifetime of sexual abuse at the hands of men, who defended herself and/or took revenge on men. I was not one of them, but I knew of several women who wrote her fan letters.
F: Can you tell us about your coming out story and what it meant to be accepted during an era of deep-seated alienation and discrimination?
K: In some ways I was unusually lucky because I was exposed to the possibility of loving my own sex from a young age. When I was 14, I read a book on my mother’s bookshelf called Patience and Sara by Isabel Miller about a lesbian love in the 18th Century that was fraught with rejection and dangers which were eventually overcome. This absolutely electrified me. It was actually valid and real to love a woman!
Around this time I asked my mother what she would think if I was a lesbian. To her credit, she said that it was completely ok with her, but she would worry that my life would be difficult. As an aside, I wrote her a letter many years later in which I reminded her of this conversation. I assured her that on the contrary, rather than life being more difficult, it was wonderfully simple and happy to not be living in the world of men. Which was entirely true!
The other fortuitous thing was that I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir when I was 16. Such a life-changing book. She too spoke of love between women in a wonderful way but also introduced me to feminist thought. This began my lifelong passion for feminist analysis.
When I was almost 17, my best friend Jane and I fell in love. We were deliriously happy and couldn’t wait for classes to finish so we could hang out again. We slept over at each other’s houses and shared our single beds. Giving each other long massages into the night that would end in heavy breathing and taut confusion about what should happen next.
Eventually, while I was away with family on xmas holidays, I wrote Jane a long, love letter and described being a lesbian in the most romantic of terms. When I got back home I couldn’t wait to see her, of course. She was shut down and would barely look at me. When we were finally alone and I could ask her what was wrong, she said “I don’t want to be a lesbian” and burst into tears. I tried to take it back. Said, “oh no, we’re not lesbians”, but it was done. Next day at school she refused to talk to me and from then on was rude and sometimes a bully.
I was so broken-hearted and spent most of my senior year hiding in places where I could cry about the love I could never tell anyone about. But, poor Jane. Many years later she would explain that she had never heard of it and it really frightened her. Jane was a lifelong lesbian who always struggled to be okay with it, particularly because her family was (literally) violently homophobic. She had not been exposed to the possibilities of it like I had. Her heart was broken too and she spent that year hiding in the library.
After school ended, and a couple of (brief) boyfriends later, I entered a relationship with the first lesbian I met. Note to young queer women, the only lesbian in the village is not necessarily the best choice. As was typical in Queensland in the ‘70s, we were very secretive. Being yelled a “lezzo” by men on the street and in cars made us feel that it was unsafe to be visibly lesbian.
When I moved to Sydney, with its huge gay and lesbian population, I was so excited to find that queerness was normal in the inner city. The first time I whispered to a colleague at work that I was a lesbian, she just shrugged and said “so what?”. Those two words blew my mind. Once I found my way into the lesbian community, I was out and proud and loving it!
F: After years of identifying as a lesbian, and living with the secret shame of the occasional intimate encounter with men, when and why did you finally come to identify as bisexual? How was this shift for you?
K: In the 14 years I identified as a lesbian, there was a pretty strong code of excluding bisexuals that was rigidly defended. Bisexual women were seen as sleeping with the enemy, confused, experimenting or non-monogamous. I think part of it is the role that lesbian identity plays in the community. Having a strong sense of community, based on shared identity, created an important sense of safety and belonging which is/was vital to both mental health and attaining rights. While I understand this, it leaves bisexuals feeling excluded by the one community they would naturally feel they belong to.
I was always bisexual but identified as being lesbian by choice. Lesbian identity was pretty clear. We were women-identified women, had relationships only with women, sought out women-owned businesses, had strong feminist ideologies, and definitely did not have relationships or sex with men. But, okay, I did have the odd sexual dalliance with a man (secretly), but not relationships.
F: Can you share any particularly fond memories of queer joy shared between you and your community, during the rise of lesbian and gay bars and events in Sydney in the ‘80s?
K: I loved my lesbian community. I had come from a childhood framed by domestic violence, alcohol and heterosexual/patriarchal oppression. I had grown up assaulted by men, groped by men, frightened by men and dominated by them (not an uncommon experience for young women). This world of friendliness, cooperation, care and strong sense of family was the healing and safety that my heart needed. Lots of fond memories.
I remember one occasion in particular, after participating in a Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, where a group of us had worn g-strings and were painted from head to toe, it took us hours to get the paint off. Hours of mess, chatter, laughter and the wonderful intimacy of washing each other's bodies – without even a hint of sexual undertones.
The same feeling could be found at the Korean bathhouse that had a women’s day once a week. But really, every lesbian event was a pretty special occasion because a whole bunch of the women there were friends, and every one else we knew at least by name. It was special, that community.
F: Can you share a few more of your favourite memories of Mardi Gras?
K: One of my most enduring memories was getting introduced to house music at a Mardi Gras Party, which was a big shift away from the disco and pop music played in most bars/clubs. I was dancing on a raised platform to Lil Louis’ “French Kiss” and watching a throng of thousands of bodies below me slowly grinding out the beat, building up to an audible orgasm which rises to a fevered pitch. Phew! If you haven’t heard it, go and listen immediately. I was officially sold on house music.
F: Having spent time travelling with lovers, through different Australian states and different countries, how did your expression of queerness change in these spaces?
K: In the mid-1980s, shortly before a 3-month trip bumming around the beaches of Queensland with my long-term girlfriend Michelle, we heard on the news that the Bjelke-Peterson Government had (falsely) linked homosexuality to paedophilia and that the anti-sodomy laws were being harshly enforced. When we crossed the border (from NSW) we went from our out-and-proud lesbian life to once again keeping our relationship closely guarded and whispered to those we felt we could trust.
We looked for lesbian community everywhere we went, using our finely-honed gaydar. When a lesbian or gay person was identified we would sidle up to them and quietly ask if they knew of any gay or lesbian bars or hang-outs. We were often met with wide-eyed fear, a whispered response, or a location scribbled on a piece of paper and slipped to us. Let’s be clear, there were absolutely no lesbian bars or clubs. But sometimes there was a regular bar or gay bar that had a ‘women’s night’. We would arrive at said women’s night with excitement and hope. And, strangely, over and over again we were met with hostility and distrust by the local lesbian communities.
At one place we joined a table of women and introduced ourselves, keen to connect. I kid you not, without a word, they got up and moved to another table. I think it was likely that in order for members of their community to feel safe (in a deeply homophobic environment), it was kept very closed.
Overseas, we’d found Mexico to be deeply Catholic – and homophobic. So of course, my girlfriend Sophia and I were carefully secretive. After a month or so we finally located a couple of gay men in Mexico City who took us to a gay nightclub. In the local culture, everyone danced a form of salsa (I think) with partners. We were amazed to discover that gay men would only dance with drag queens. Interestingly, although it was acceptable for a man to dance with a drag queen, it was unacceptable for a man to dance with a man. They were rigidly adhering to prescribed gender roles, and we observed Mexican men to be extremely masculine, including in the gay community.
F: Was it hard for you to feel accepted if you presented too feminine? What would you say to young queers struggling with this today?
K: I was hanging around on the fringes of the lesbian community in Sydney when I first moved down from Brisbane, trying to figure out a way in. I went to a couple of women’s events, a dance and a weekend event. I really loved vintage clothes and rocked ‘50s dresses and long hair. I found that most young dykes assumed I was heterosexual, didn’t want to talk to me and, for sure, they saw me as an outsider. That was, except for a few diesel dykes (please don’t take this the wrong way – I love butch lesbians) who were treating me exactly as a heterosexual man would. Telling me I was cute, buying me drinks, opening doors for me – exactly the patronising shit I couldn’t tolerate from men. Finally, the penny dropped for me, so the next time I went to a lesbian event I was sporting a flat-top, Levi’s, flannie shirt and boots. Hey, presto – I was IN! All the way in. This was now my people.
In these early days, late ‘70s to mid ‘80s there was a fairly rigid feminist/separatist lesbian culture in the Sydney lesbian community. It was strongly aligned with (second-wave) feminist politics that were celebrating all things woman and rejecting men and masculinity. We were throwing off the patriarchal shackles that demanded we look and behave feminine. A woman who enjoyed makeup, dresses and behaved in a ‘feminine’ way were thought of as having a false consciousness. In other words, participating in their own oppression. We policed ourselves and each other.
In the late ‘80s, I started to see a shift in the younger lesbians coming out who seemed to reject the lesbian stereotype and were playing with masc/femme gender roles. Suddenly, it was okay to be really sexy and I loved that I could express that aspect of myself – think Madonna meets S&M style.
Until I decided I wanted a relationship with a man. This was in the year that my brother and my mother died. I had lost the only meaningful man in my life and decided it was time I got to know men. I left Sydney because I didn’t feel there would be a place for me anymore in my community. I moved to a rural city, married a man and had a family.
The heterosexual world was a culture shock. Heterosexual women were insecure about their partners. Genders, without fail, separated at BBQs and parties. Most of these women were not feminists. They thought my sexuality was an odd quirk. Gendered roles were performed in everything. I did not consider myself heterosexual, although I was married for 17 years. I called myself queer because the word bisexual had really unpleasant connotations. Bisexuals were associated with swingers who, in turn, were viewed as creepy and oversexed.
After separating, I moved again and in my new life met a new cohort of mostly single women in their 50’s. My new bestie and I discovered we were both bisexual and had many long and excited conversations on what that meant. I wrote a paper on biphobia, bi-erasure and bi-invisibility in my new role as a uni student. My friend and I discovered that many of our friends were also bisexual. We found that, because there is no bisexual community, and because the label bisexual is so maligned, many women never come to identify themselves as bisexual – even though they have had relationships with other women.
So, we began to have bi-women dinner parties and talk at length about the experience of biphobia and bi-invisibility. One of the most obvious effects is that, because bisexuality is denied legitimacy in the gay and lesbian (GL) community, there is no community for bisexuals. Research showed that this lack of community has devastating consequences for the mental health of bisexual people which included much higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide than that of their GL counterparts. We are also invisible because if we’re dating a man we’re thought to be heterosexual, and if we’re dating a woman we’re assumed to be lesbian. We are hugely underrepresented in policy, TV, and various forums. When we’re portrayed on TV it is usually some stereotype. Creating a bisexual community was gratifying and enriching for all of us. None of us had ever connected on this identity before.
Sadly, being bisexual in the dating world is still not great. The online apps will (often) only link you with women who wish to date bisexual women. I’ve found that most women who identify as lesbian do not opt to date a bisexual woman. So, here in rural Queensland, that narrows the dating pool to about six people. I still hear casually biphobic comments from lesbians. Unfortunately, I think biphobia is still alive and well.
F: Was there internal conflict with your identity after having children and marrying a man? Can you tell us some ways in which you have embodied your queerness through motherhood?
K: The good-humoured joke my then husband and I always shared was that I had left the lesbian community and married a caveman. I was now a ‘hasbian’. For real, it was a huge adjustment. He was a bit of a Crocodile Dundee/Steve Irwin barefoot bushie (which I loved) but was 10-years younger than me, so it was both good and tricky.
I loved our semi self-sufficient lifestyle on acreage in the Daintree and raising our wonderful children. I was a stay-at-home mum and absolutely loved it. Also, hubby travelled a lot for work so that worked well for both of us. It meant, though, that we slipped into very gender-aligned roles. I loved growing our own produce, baking, fermenting, playing with and nurturing my children. It was deeply satisfying.
I was in my late thirties when I had children and was entirely ready to surrender my carefree, sexually-adventurous life. But I would sometimes look at my life through the lens of my young, radical feminist self and think if she could see me now, she’d be rolling in her grave. Young me had completely (seriously) rejected the patriarchal model of woman as wife and mother as being a noose around the neck of women who were participating in their own oppression. But, there I was, living my best life newly incarnated as an earth mumma. Marriage requires compromise and I did eventually compromise my feminist viewpoint by just taking on the burden of parenting, housework, and emotional labour – because arguing was useless, and exhausting. So, while there was internal conflict about our stereotyped roles, I didn’t experience much in the way of conflict about my sexuality. I always identified as queer among my heterosexual friends.
There was one funny moment though in which I was seriously challenged. For my hen’s night at my place, my girlfriends booked me a female stripper as a surprise. This woman was very lovely and super sweet and while she was lap dancing, her gorgeous ass just inches from my face, I sighed and surrendered to the deliciousness of a woman’s sensuousness. This awakened longing and was immediately followed by the realisation, “Oh, fuck! What am I doing marrying a man?!”. I also felt a tad embarrassed by the various states of goggle-eyed wonder among my hetero friends, who had never actually witnessed anything like lesbianism or, more specifically, me as being queer. Some were uncomfortable, one of them left, and others were highly entertained by the performance of my sexuality.
I think having a bisexual and outspoken feminist mum probably had an impact on my children. I think it gave them the same freedom that my early reading gave me. The freedom to consider all the possibilities of their own gender and sexuality. Both of them identify as bisexual, and one as non-binary. They are both fiercely independent, confident, and have a critical feminist awareness. That is empowerment.
F: What are your hopes and dreams for young queers today?
K: Acceptance and inclusivity. More specifically, I hope that young bisexuals get to experience themselves as legitimate members of the LGBTQI+ community with the courage to proudly own their bisexuality or pansexuality. There is room for some activism which demands to be heard and included, because seeing ourselves positively represented is so important, just as it is for all minority identities.
Queer stories, awareness, activism and advocacy aren’t just a Pride-thing, but something we can all seek out, celebrate and support every single day. If, like Kerry and Fin, you have a rich, outstretching relationship with queer love, identity and sexuality, we’d love to hear from you.