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Meet the fearless lesbian couple who came out on live TV in 1970: ‘It has been a life of struggle’

Maggie Baska March 17, 2021
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Francesca Curtis and Phyllis Papps

Francesca Curtis and Phyllis Papps pose with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Australian LGBTI Awards at The Star on 1 March 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images for Australian LGBTI Awards)

Phyllis Papps and Francesca Curtis came out live on national TV 50 years ago, and their actions changed Australia forever.

The couple, who are still together, appeared together on ABC current affairs programme This Day Tonight in October 1970, becoming the first lesbian couple to come out on Australia TV.

The fearless women are now “coming out for the last time” in a new documentary titled Why Did She Have To Tell The World?

The documentary, screened on ABC’s Compass programme this week, details Curtis and Papps’ 50-year relationship and the wave of political change that came after the couple appeared on TV.

Papps said in the documentary that Australia in the 1970s was “very, very conservative” and that “gay women were invisible” because “people didn’t think lesbians existed”.

The pair struggled with their sexuality in this climate, and Curtis admitted in the documentary that she didn’t know “anything about homosexuality or lesbianism”.

She said: “Nobody talked about it in those days.”

Papps shared how she came from a traditional Greek family and was even briefly engaged to a man. She said that she opened up to a colleague about her sexuality, and the individual “gave me the names of three psychiatrists”.

 

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Papps said she visited one of the psychiatrists and was given the drug “sodium pentothal, injected with it and then had to talk”.

The couple met through activist circles and became prominent members of the Daughters of Bilitis, Australia’s first homosexual political rights group. The organisation was later renamed the Australasian Lesbian Movement.

In July 1970, Papps and Curtis exchanged wedding rings, even though Australia did not legally recognise same-sex marriage until December 2017.

Just a few months later they appeared on ABC’s This Day Tonight to take part in a segment about lesbianism and to push for wider acceptance of the LGBT+ community in Australia.

“No one wanted to go on [the show], they were all in the closet, so Phyllis and I volunteered,” Curtis shared.

While on the show, she told the host that she “had three months approximately of guilt” about her sexuality, but then she got to a stage where she wanted to “tell the world” and “wanted the world to accept it”.

In the aftermath, Papps said her mother “took legal action” to prevent them “from making a claim on her inheritance”.

Beyond their personal lives, the interview signalled the beginning of Australia working towards LGBT+ equality. Papps said she believed the interview was “major in creating a force” towards LGBT+ progress.

“It has been a life of struggle … Not because we couldn’t cope with being ourselves [but because] we couldn’t get people to accept us,” she said.

 

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Throughout the ups and downs, Papps and Curtis have always had each other, and now they live on Phillip Island in Victoria.

Papps told Q News that she visited her mother in her nursing home while same-sex marriage was still being debated in Australia. She said her mother had “voted yes” on the marriage equality postal survey in 2017.

“It’s taken a whole lifetime to get to that,” she said.

Related topics: lesbian

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