Sunday, August 24, 2008

August 22, 2008--Queer History on Two Continents

Daniel, Val, Liz, Joan (with Obama button)
On a cold night in August, the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives had a wonderful 30th anniversary celebration in the cavernous space of the Fitzroy Townhall. Now I know I am writing for some who do not know the streets of Melbourne or its municipalities, but it was very generous of the Fitzroy council to make this large and historical meeting place available to the queer community. Over 300 people attended, sitting at tables decked out with pink balloons, cheering on the bubbling voice of Julie McCossin, a leading radio talk show celebrity here, who tirelessly lead us through the evening of interviews with founding members of the archives, slide shows, queer history highlights with Dennis Altman, Daniel Marshall and Esther Singer, Kaye Sera's uplfting drag performance, dinner and finally a few words from me and Graham Willard, the president of ALGA. As happens here, the evening began with welcome to country, conducted by Annette Xiberras, a Wurundjeri elder and her young daughter. These welcomes remind us all that we are occupiers of another people's land and it with their kindness that public events proceed.

One of the queer elders I met that night was Val, a woman in her 80s who was the hostess with the mostess for the camp (the Australian term for queer in the pre60 days) community, welcoming lesbians and gay men to Val's Coffee Lounge on Swanston Street from 1951-52. The place to meet, as it was known, had two levels with seats for 80 patrons on each floor; a royal blue carpet and mauve walls set the scene and Val herself was often seen wearing a black Hamburg, a mannish suit and sporting a silver-topped cane. She was never intimidated out of being herself, she said in an interview for a soon to be published book on Melbourne queer history. Val and I were introduced to each other by Liz Ross, an archives volunteer who is also writing a book on the queer left movement in Australia. As I addressed the crowd, looking over the enlarged documents from the archives collection that hung around the chamber, I felt how lucky I have been in my life to be part of two groundbreaking historical projects, LHA and ALGA; I saw so clearly the connections between histories, the moments of personal delight that outlasted bigotries, the strength of communal projects that changed laws and the fragile cultural artifacts, once despised, now a people's heritage.

La Professora and I left before the dancing started--it had already been a long night. She kept me steady as I labored down the steps, my leg just not working; as we slowly made our way to the car, a handsome slim man drawing a luggage case after him, stopped and asked if we needed help--"You're Kaye Sera, aren't you--we enjoyed your performance so much," I said. He nodded bashfully and we all kept walking into the night.

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