Elderly lesbians in Australia to hold hands en masse to commemorate their history of resistance

Katharine Swindells July 18, 2017
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A group of older lesbians in Australia are planning a mass hand-hold on the tram, as part of a campaign to remember historical acts of resistance from lesbians.

The event commemorates two lesbians who were convicted of obscene behaviour for holding hands on a tram in 1976.

alice's garage tram campaign
Graphic by Jacq from Plump Design

The group of lesbian elders will board the number 16 tram from the Melbourne CBD on October 11th.

They will hold hands as they travel through the City of Port Phillip to the St Kilda Town Hall for afternoon tea and to share their stories of resistance.

The Hold Hands on a Tram campaign was launched this month, and is also hoping to collect more information about lesbian history.

“We want to recognise lesbian history,” director of Alice’s Garage and project coordinator, Dr. Catherine Barrett told PinkNews.

“It will be an act of resistance, these older lesbians jumping on the tram to hold hands and to bring visibility.”

As well as the mass hand-hold, the campaign are calling on volunteers to search through archival material to find original reporting of the 1976 conviction.

They are also inviting older lesbians to share their experiences of lesbophobia over their life and the way they resisted, and encouraging younger lesbians to talk to their elders and hear their stories.

Dr. Barrett said that in the week since they launched they have had a “really positive” response.

“A lot of lesbians I speak to had no idea that lesbians experienced discrimination,” she told PinkNews.

“In Australia we tend to refer to LGBTI histories collectively – as though everyone had the same historical experiences. We want to raise awareness of the unique experiences of older lesbians and how lesbophobia was and is different from homophobia.”

One such story Alice’s Garage have collected is that of lesbian elder Jill Bolen. Bolen fought the police’s attempts to harass and intimidate her out of the force for twenty years and went on to become the first woman Chief Superintendent in Queensland.

Bolen knew the impact of police harassment first hand from her youth spent hiding from raids in a Brisbane gay club.

She joined the Queensland Police in 1973 and established a discrete group of gay and lesbian friends in the force. She lived with her partner, who was also a policewoman

“Life was good, but things were soon to take a turn for the worse.”

Jill Bolen
Jill Bolen (Photo provided by Alice’s Garage)

Bolen recounts the way her partner was pulled in for questioning by the Criminal Investigation Branch about being a lesbian, and their relationship.

When Bolen was questioned she freely admitted she was a lesbian, and “asserted that I was more competent and capable than some of my heterosexual, male counterparts.” The Inspector and interviewer mocked and laughed at her.

Within weeks, Bolen and her partner had been reassigned to branches over 400 miles apart. Bolen’s partner quit the force soon after, and their relationship fell apart. The Lesbian Investigation had had its intended effect.

Bolen would continue to experience discrimination throughout her career.

“I had five qualities that they saw as very negative. I was a woman, the most junior in terms of years of service, a lesbian, the youngest in age, and the only commissioned officer with a tertiary education,” Bolen said.

However, Bolen’s resilience allowed her to rise through the ranks of the Police Force over the years and, in the early 90s, she became the first woman Chief Superintendent in Queensland.

Stories such as Bolen’s are important to Alice’s Garage because they show that queer women have been resisting persecution throughout history, although most of it is unrecorded. It also inspires younger gay and bi women, to see the progress their forebears have made.

“I think there is a great opportunity for us to learn from older lesbians – from lesbian elders,” Dr. Barrett said.

Research has shown how the intersection of gender and sexuality can have a huge negative impact on older lesbians, including the way they access health care and old-age services.

The campaign is also to acknowledge societal change – this year it was announced that there will be a Pride Centre built in St Kilda’s.

The new centre will be bigger than San Francisco’s LGBTI Community Centre and has received a $15 million investment from the government.

The Tram Ride is presented by Alice’s Garage (part of the Celebrate Ageing Program) and The Social Photographer in partnership with Switchboard Victoria. This event is part of the City of Port Phillip Seniors Festival and is supported by the Victorian Seniors Festival.

More: Australia, Australia, lesbian, protest

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