Demonstration or parade

Immediately prior to 1978, Sydney gays and lesbians had come together to try to understand Gloria Steinem, Schulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer and Dennis Altmann. It was called “consciousness raising”, the Australian equivalent of Lavender Power in the USA. For this check out the visuals of the Rolling Stones song Gimme Shelter.

There were fiery debates: should women separate entirely from men? Did we have anything in common? When such a separatist lesbian meeting took place in a Balmain church hall a gay man chained himself to a pew, claiming that he was a lesbian. There were demonstrations, more or less violent, such as that against the Springboks’ tour in the Sydney Cricket Ground (?), culminating in the violence of the first Mardi Gras. Of this event I know nothing as my friend and I boycotted the event. It had been planned in our house in Cleveland St, by Lance Gowland, then well known as a communist provocateur. By contrast its other major organiser, Ron Austin, was totally apolitical. His idea of the MG was a stroll, down Piccadilly with a sunflower or a lily, wearing the obligatory caftan of his making. I think the lack of political fervour in his vision is what enabled some to see the MG event as something people of all political/cultural persuasions could attend. These days the original event is celebrated by the remaining 78’ers on a truck riding through the parade like princesses.

Granted the original young protesters were a mixed bunch; we were uni students in the last year of our Bachelor degree. In spite of Whitlam’s making it possible for the working class to achieve a tertiary degree it was a rare phenomenon. Certainly in my time at Macquarie Uni, my colleagues were upper middle class folk, their social skills finely honed to an unbelievable shrillness. Someone once described the rebels from such a background as being a little bit rebellious, but knowing the acceptable limits, such as tidying one’s appearance to attend the family Sunday roast lunch. lest one be written out of the family inheritance.

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It was all about visibility, then as now. We exhorted each other to come out of the closet. Our slogan was: “we are the children our parents warned us about”. In the Glebe Point Rd headquarters of Gay Liberation we received mail from all over Australia, although when the Melbourne representatives of gay lib down south came to Sydney they took over the office duties. One such letter was from an anonymous group. It read: “we are a national team of sportsmen. We are well known. We are gay but feel no need to broadcast the fact”. Clearly a case of “the love that dared not tell its name now won’t shut up”.

Back to Gay Lib of the mid 1970’s. We decided one day, having spent the morning in someone’s Camperdown house (then a working class area) making banners and planning our next demo. Someone said that we should take to the streets there and then, protesting locally; we were a group of 20 or 30. This we did, shouting our slogans. We approached a corner shop and I decided, it being a hot day, to buy an ice block. Someone accused me of wanting to leave the event but I went to buy it. As I stood outside, unwrapping the confection, an older, working class man (gentle, in the closet?) asked me: you’re not one of them? I jumped into the street to rejoin the demo, shouting “yes I am, they’re lovely people”. He reacted to this with a cry of anguish. Had I thought the idea of consciousness raising more thoroughly I might have found that  talking with this person was more valuable than an impersonal shouting at houses and street architecture. Who did we know was home anyway? Who was noticing us? When I rejoined the group a lesbian, who’d never spoken to me previously, said: “that was amazing, do it again”. I declined, thinking that would be false. She decided to recreate the dynamic herself, with what result I never found out.

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Curiously, I now live in a working class suburb, having come, as it were, full circle; it was where trams were repaired; now it has slowly gentrified. In spite of this, among young, millennial families, hipsters everyone, with shiny new cars, I have men older gay, working class men who’ve spent all their lives in the closet. Their faces wear a sadness, born of unexpressed desires?

What I think now, is that as our LGBTQI communities grow and flourish in friendly suburbs post the same sex marriage victory, someone has coined the phrase “victory fatigue”. That is to say, when an oppressed minority achieves a victory, in our case a visibility equated by some as “normalcy”, we collapse, thinking that the battle’s won. In fact we’ve only just begun. The structures of our communities need to change, to morph, accommodating the expansion this recent event has afforded us.

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Suicidal Terrorists

In Texas this weekend, yet another mad shooter killed a number of people by rifle fire. I say “mad”, because, while the individual was not assessed as to his mental stability, his act beggars belief. Equally astounding is the frequent occurrence of such events in the USA. Of course, lobbying by the NRA means that rifles are readily available.

By contrast in the UK, it was decided that if a gun was readily available it became the source of injury or death during an escalated, violent argument. If the weapon is only a knife or another weapon of some kind death is not inevitable.

What intrigues me about the US gun incidents is that frequently the killer is himself killed as part of the situation, or “death by cop” as a friend called it. The suicide seems intentional, or if not planned, internal mental pressures for the killer spontaneously outweigh rationality. As such, the situation largely resembles that of extremist Islamic terrorists in the west. With one exception however: the Islamic terrorist is spurred on by a mistaken interpretation of his religion. The US gun murderer seems to seek infamy posthumously; also the number of deaths he causes around him seems a little the death of a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, bodies buried with him to assist his journey in the afterlife.

I do not seek in any way to romanticise such individuals; clearly, work needs to be done urgently to assess the mental stability of anyone attempting to buy or possessing a rifle. Currently, the US system seems unwilling to take this necessary step, being hindered by the effective political lobbying by the NRA.

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Seeking the Divine

In spite of the textile title, this is my site for general introspection. I am listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman. My mind wandered to my mid adolescence when I had been sent to an excellent boarding school run by the Divine Word Missionaries; originally it was attached to the seminary, as a natural progression to becoming a priest. Why, as a working class boy, I had access to this will become clear below. Like all boys abused in the Catholic system, I served as an altar boy. The church then was almost medieval: sodality banners were hung at each side of the aisle in the church; St Joseph on the left in front of where men were seated, on the right Mary in front of the women. Easter was especially complex with its solemn rituals: the red sanctuary lamp was constantly lit to mark the presence of the host in the shrine, I forget the exact nomenclature. On Good Friday, the priest, robed in black, removed the host (where I forget? I think to a private chapel in the nunnery next door). The doors of the shrine were left opened for people to see that there was no divine presence.

This was the atmosphere in which I was raised. Bathed is probably a more accurate description. I hero worshipped the priests; for good reason, as they were at a social apex, material socialising and spirituality combined. I determined to become a priest and must have made this known to my teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, especially the wonderful Sister Matthews, who looked after me and guided me through difficult times. I was a gifted student, always appreciated by a good teacher. Then came the day that I fell over in the school yard and grazed my knee. I was crying and one of the sisters said that I had to go to the nurses’ room/library, at the end of a row of classrooms facing an open aired verandah. The priest who was there, Leonard O’Rourke, asked he whether I wanted to become a priest. He also said he knew that I liked to read books; all of which puzzled me as my concern was my bleeding knee. I was about eleven years old at the time. He had been sitting across the room but got up and stood behind me. He started to grope in my shorts and finally asked me “Is this it?” The question meant nothing to me. But I did notice that when he saw a sister enter one of the classrooms he arranged us out of her sight.

The abuse involved several visits to his room; for me, a priest’s command was unquestioned. At one stage he lent me two books, one being Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. When I returned it he asked my opinion. I replied that I had a list of words I did not understand: “lesbian, marijuana and cocaine”. His response was that we need not concern ourselves with those. Recently, when my fellow victims and I brought forward a charge against him in the Bundaberg Local Court, the public prosecutor described my evidence as prima facie,as opposed to some of my co-accusers who were unwell, or comparatively inarticulate, working class. I was appalled at the magistrate’s expression of amusement at their attempts to articulate their narrative.

But, back as an eleven year old, about to finish primary school, my future stretched before me. My dad, who overheard me discussing “sex education” with my also abused older brother, was horrified that another brother was being detained by O’R; he raced to the presbytery. Peter ran down the steps, saying to dad: “he wanted to measure my dick but I wouldn’t let him”. O’R wanted dad to come inside and discuss the situation calmly, to which dad replied: “why, you want to measure my dick too?” O’R fled town that night and somehow managed to be transferred to Bundaberg, which is why he was tried in the Local Court there, as he later abused a number of boys there also. My later conciliation discussion with the Bishop of Rockhampton included my enquiry about the so-called priests’ transfer books. Mysteriously, they had been moved to Brisbane, where they had disappeared. My dad was good friends with the older priest of Marian parish, Father Fraher, a godly, old school guy, although he once asked me, after mass had concluded, whether O’R’s abuse involved anal penetration. How embarrassment.

I know Catholic theology is a mystery to many; the man I live with was born Anglican but is now an unbeliever. For instance, from his memory of church practice, confession is a totally alien concept. Among Catholics, confession cannot be granted by the priest if it is clear that the “sinner” is unrepentant, merely going through the motions. That’s a particular dilemma; a person who is addicted to certain behaviour may become intensely contrite but afterwards he commits the same sin. Personally, I do not think the church has examined the concept of addiction at all well.

In my case, I was raised to view my local priest with awe; after all, during the ritual of the Mass he transformed the materiality of bread and wine into the real Body and Blood of Christ, a spiritual feat of extraordinary power. His hands were magical; it is not too farfetched to extrapolate. At the core of my abuse by O’R was the puzzle that a priest could behave in such a manner, could combine such two behaviours. Matters might have been alleviated matters if his superior, Father Fraher had said to me quietly that this abuser was a-typical, that his behaviour sprang from a cynical, worldly place deep within his psyche. ( Perhaps the concept of child abuse was so new then? I still cannot fathom the need for a grown man to manipulate the genitals of a pre-pubescent boy.) However, this conversation did not take place.

I was so particularly naive and brought up in a dysfunctional family (my mum had been a post-WW2 refugee, brought to Australia on an Italian IRO International Refugee Org ship). She spoke little English and her behaviour was un-Australian. I feel solidarity with the situation of Arabic women wearing their traditional dress. Sunday mass was a ritual where the women of Marian (my home town) were able to wear their prettiest hats, the competition was fierce. Meanwhile, my mum wore a black headscarf, not seen even at  Australian funerals. So much for a few of my socialisation problems; but back to the situation that might have occurred where this older priest could have made the situation clear. I now feel that this did not happen because it would have involved rubbishing the product, a concession that some of his colleagues (we now know, post-Commission just how many) were cynically abusive.

Religion after all is a solitary matter; it’s sink or swim; you face your demons internally. How apposite it is that one Bishop (of Sydney?) refused to join the coalition of religions wanting to offer sanctuary to refugees, saying it would be unAustralian. Meanwhile the chubby Bishop of Brisbane, (I know not if either of the above is an archbishop, they are equals, the pope being primus inter pares) recently declared that same sex marriages would amount to a parent marrying their child. Only slightly improved from the Bernardi obscenity of males marrying their pets; US style ultra right wing evangelical speak has arrived on our shores. God help us, or as the Mormon guy having gay sex in the sauna said, “don’t use the G-word”.

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Circus Parade

I was at Macquarie Uni, West Ryde, when Dennis Altman participated in a debate titled Gay is Good. His opening comment was about the number of people who recognized each other as gay, where previously they had clearly been ambivalent. This was indeed what we had done; I turned to the people I saw most on campus but had not come out to, they likewise. I completed my degree, the uni being an isolated suburb only accessed by interminable bus rides.

I moved to inner Sydney; in fact, I lived upstairs of the Gay Liberation headquarters in Glebe Point Road. There, the life was a series of encounters as our lesbian sisters became separatist and we struggled with feminist texts by Greer and Shulamith Firestone. Most of the time I felt like the focus of anti-male hatred. In spite of this, we organised and participated in a series of Gay Liberation demonstrations. We had long ago decided that what Camp Ink and Dignity stood for was being “naiice”.

In my own group there were so many socio-economic rifts: I was an ethnic working class kid from the country, a rarity at that time, until the current Federal Govt gave scholarships to working class kids to complete university degrees. Meanwhile, my comrades were middle class. “We are the kids our parents warned us against”. Another way of delineating the boundaries was hearing of one guy who, no matter whatever he did during the week, turned up for Sunday lunch, lest he be deprived of his inheritance.

The demonstrations became increasing larger events culminating in that 1978, that moment that became deified annually, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. However, the series that preceded it and made it possible, gave it the necessary momentum, included the demo against the Springboks. My fellow demonstrators and I. long haired, all of us, I was wearing the de rigueur duffle coat with a copy of the Lord of the Rings in the pocket. We passed through the front gate and the attendant policeman leant over and sniffed me.

On another occasion we were in someone’s house in Camperdown, then definitely a working class suburb; we were debating where the next demo should happen. Someone said we should just go outside, there and then, and march through the local streets. Two blocks away, I decided I felt like an icecream; I bought it and was approached by a clearly working class man. In pleading tones he asked me if I was with the group of demonstrators. My reply was “yes, they were lovely people”, which left the man in a state of visible distress. I was approached by one of the demo organisers who thought my “tactic” had been brilliant, and that I should immediately repeat it. I refused, on many grounds: the original act had been spontaneous and the organiser herself had never spoken to me previously.

Clearly, Liberation was a severely impersonal matter, which was not to my liking. This spans my life to the present: my life is lived within personal bounds; art making is my life’s work; when and where it expresses my sense of liberation and my attraction for persons of my own gender.

The last photo of the three below, (1. me, 2. Rod, my partner) is of a Domain demo, that usually happened on a Sunday alongside all the speakers on boxers and the Hari Krishnas chanting.

a swingrod1domain demo1

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Following the Herd

The Brit pop group Blur wrote an ironic song called Boys and Girls about the androgynous herding instincts of Brits on holiday. Given the myths in circulation about aussie hipsters today I’m sure the same happens with our lot in Greece, Japan, Bali etc. A few nights ago I accompanied a friend to a Darlinghurst gallery to see an exhibition of photography in newly gentrified East Sydney, so different from the down at heel, run down hippie streets of the 70’s/80’s. The Govinda restaurant was still there while its ashram was round the corner: hare Krishna, hare Krishna; Krishna, Krishna, hare, hare; hare Rama, hare Rama; rama, rama, hare hare.

Afterwards, we dined in a German restaurant, a legend even in the 70’s. It was a 3 waitress place, packed to the rafters. The table behind ours was filled with hipsters drinking those huge flutes of beer; their laughter grew commensurately. The volume of noise in fact was ear piercing; it must be that, like the recluse in A Rebours, I simply do not often expose myself to such experiences.

Afterwards, my dining companion remarked that the French would not have tolerated such conditions, labelling them “mal eduque”. Even in Sydney there is a wonderful restaurant, Mere Catherine in Victoria Street Potts Point; bookings are required three months in advance since there are but six or so tables; the atmosphere hums at whisper level above the occasional. minute kitchen noises. Needless to say, the quality of the food is indescribable.

Likewise, my friend talked about places that were to be found on Japanese streets, barely booths seating four people. Imagine the quiet attention to detail, the reticent quality; my favourite Japanese restaurant in Wolli Creek is such a place, if only for the fact, apart from the ravishing quality of the deep fried battered chicken, that as we have become regular clients we are greeted with a pot of green tea mixed with toasted rice.

I have the darkest suspicion that the English/Australian impulse is to congregate densely like a bees’ nest and thus assert the validity of their collective if not individual identity.

 

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Anniversary of Jane Austen’s death

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death; after Shakespeare she would have to be the quintessential English writer, at least for, as it is called, “chick lit”. Her novels are filled with nuances of behaviour and manners, with perfumed clothes. I am reminded that this year the waist coat of Captain James Cook has been found, form fitting and decorated adventurously with floral motifs. The link between the the two is that Austen’s politely mannered family made its income in the slave trade of the New World. Likewise, Cook began the tradition of massacres in the Australian outback of its indigenous people.

But it has to be said the Austen was not the only English writer of her time to ignore the brutal reality on which English culture was based; the only person to speak out was the poet William Blake in his shrieking poetry: the children of Albion, the children of the New World. The best way that his contemporaries silenced him or at least discredited him was to pronounce him “mad”.

All of this springs to mind watching the excellent BBC sit com Unforgotten, about the transition of Brit culture from rock n roll through hippy to punk, homophobia, 1970’s mob criminals. Curiously, the pursuers of justice slowly come to resemble the worn, sad, wretched, certainly haunted faces of the criminals. What struck me though, was the extraordinary beauty of one African actor; perhaps Jude Law in the series Young Pope once matched his looks? One hopes for him an exemplary career.

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Spirit

“Heaven in a wildflower”. Exif_JPEG_PICTUREWilliam Blake, one of the English Romantic poets, was most political in the topics of his verses . In last night’s ABC TV show The Drum, one of the panelists was adamant that the artist was a political animal, as were we all. The 70’s slogan “the personal is political” continues to apply.

In 2001, I was in hospital having an aortic valve replacement and pre-op engaged in conversation with my very personable surgeon. As an agnostic, I made my views felt. “After all”, I said, “god is not palpable”. “Oh but he is palpable”, the surgeon insisted and proceeded to narrate the following. He had gone to China some years earlier to attend a cardiac conference when his hosts asked, no, demanded that he perform complex and urgent surgery on a senior member of the Party. Protestations that he had not the necessary equipment fell on deaf ears; he whittled his surgical requirements down to three items, which one by one mysteriously were found. The surgery was performed and the patient lived to continue to govern. I think the surgeon had prayed and believed that his prayers were answered.

Post-op, I was in and out of the intensive care ward as my condition stabilised. There, I witnessed the slow decline and death of a fellow patient, whose days and nights were filled with a racking cough. He died, the moment was marked with an end to the coughing. The nurses closed the screens round his bed; when the surgeon arrived the staff lined up in two rows and held open the curtains. The surgeon flounced into the room with a magisterial gesture. Father Brown could not have done better.

I related the above because it seems to me that medical specialists and nurses, at least those vitally concerned with the care of others, grow in their psyches a type of determinism. Birth and death are the milestones of existence. By comparison, judgementalism is a disease that some in our species feel the need to inflict on the rest of us: politicians, policemen, judges and pharisees. The USA is currently the unfortunate breeding ground of such self congratulating judgemental religiosity. The type of pastor who feels it appropriate to stand up in a place designated for the worship of the deity and utter obscenities like: “if same sex unions are allowed I’ll eat my own faeces”; how are they to be judged, or rather treated? Another compared gays and lesbians to the children of Satan. Concerning the “naturalness” of gay, an advocate said recently “if god disapproves of us why did he make us”? Meanwhile Blake’s comment on human behaviour was that what we most wanted were “the lineaments of gratified behaviour”. Blake found his in the garden of his cottage, sunbathing nude with his wife and her sister.

William Blake, when he was writing his poetry in an age of revolutions and injustice, chose not to recognise the local church. His complex symbolism included such deliberations as the idea that John Milton was of the devil’s party; Milton’s poem Paradise Lost depicted Lucifer as a valiant hero banished from the luminous regions by a despotic ruler to dwell in fiery darkness. Using the cloak of such imagery Blake was safely able to discuss the independence of the American colonies, the French revolution and injustice at home, all treasonable thoughts.

Finally, he turned away from organised religion, or housed, collectivised religion, to meditations in his garden or in the country. How ironic it is that his poem Jerusalem, “And did those feet in ancient times” is now a hymn much loved by the established church.  William Wordsworth roamed the Lake District; Coleridge dwelt in the interior world of opium. A younger generation, namely Percy Bysse Shelley and Lord Byron were post-revolution, Shelley being openly atheistic and Byron: mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Like Qld’s honest police during the 1980 gambling corruption scandals, they might well have written on their lockers: NRMA, “nothing really matters anyway”. William Blake was best, of all of the English Romantic poets, to know the difference between religiosity and spirituality, the latter a formless creative awareness, (see Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spirituality in Art) that finds “heaven in a wildflower”.

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