Stolen Generations survivor and ballet legend Noel Tovey AM was a “rentboy”, jailed for homosexual activity and among the first marchers of London’s Pride. In his 80s, he is still campaigning for gay rights.
Words and pictures by: Ali MC
Produced by: Sophie Verass and Daniel Gallahar
At 86, Noel Tovey AM moves carefully, but with considered grace, around his small Hawthorn flat in Melbourne. He is surrounded by artworks and mementos of a stellar career in the arts.
For a man whose passion for dance and movement led him to the world stage, to be now reliant on a wheelchair — the result of an amputated leg due to cancer — must prove frustrating. But Noel is also a survivor, and his life demonstrates the character of a man who has managed to overcome extreme hardship time and again.
A self-confessed Marxist, Noel cites people such as Joan Collins and George Harrison as friends, and has been awarded the Order of Australia and included on the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll. He is also an outspoken gay activist, a campaigner of Aboriginal rights, and was the first male Aboriginal ballet dancer.
The talent for performance runs deep in Noel’s family. His grandfather — the son of an African slave — was one half of an act called the ‘Royal Bohee Brothers’, who in 1880s performed in America and England.
Noel says he grew up believing he was Aboriginal, as his father was black, but it wasn’t until much later that he would discover his father’s African background. His great-grandfather was taken as a slave from the Ivory Coast to Jamaica, and that his mother was a Ngarrindjeri woman from South Australia.
Noel was removed as a five-year-old from his family who were living in Carlton, a suburb he says in those days “was a really lower class, working class area.”
He was first placed in the Royal Park Depot in Parkville, and still recalls the white building in which he was placed, which is still standing today.
“The original building is still there, except there are no bars on the windows anymore.”
Noel was then fostered out to a white family in a small town called Burren Junction in northern New South Wales. Here, Noel says he experienced both physical and sexual abuse. He also spent time in the Far West Children’s Home in Manly before being returned to his mother at age 10.
As a reflection of his take-no-prisoners attitude to life, however, he says
“I’m not a part of the Stolen Generation, but the Survivor Generation.”
Back in Melbourne, Noel did not attend school, by his own admittance, he “wagged” and instead, grew up on the streets where he became what he describes as a “rentboy and a petty thief.”
He says that when growing up, his sexuality was not apparent, which made for a confusing and difficult time.
“I didn’t know what I was. I was a rentboy, that was what one did. But I didn’t know what I was until much later.”
Not only was it confusing, but very dangerous: at the time homosexuality was illegal and any same-sex relationships were to be conducted in secret.
Noel also describes how gay men would also be targeted by gangs, and that he was “bashed up several times for being gay”.
In 1951, he was arrested at a party held by a group of female impersonators, and charged with the “abominable crime of buggery”. Despite pleading not guilty, he spent three weeks in Pentridge Prison.
Yet a chance encounter with the police would prove pivotal in Noel’s life.
“I was coming home from a wild night and a police car pulled up beside me. And a detective said ‘get a job or you’re coming with us’. So I got a job at Collins Book Depot.”
It was there he became friends with a female colleague, who took him to the ballet one night.
“At the end of the male solo, she dug me in the ribs — I’ve never forgotten it — and said ‘you could do that!’ And I knew I could.”
Noel began taking dance lessons, and recalls, “I didn’t know that you could buy tights. I bought a pair of long underpants for 12/6 and dyed them black.
“I didn’t get any funding, it was 1950s before anyone had heard of funding.
“My friend found out the times of beginners classes. I must have looked a bit odd — barefoot, no jock strap and dyed underpants, but that’s what I wanted and I did it.”
He successfully auditioned for his first paid performing role in the production Paint Your Wagon at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1954, and says of his first experience dancing on stage. “It felt like I could fly,” he recounts.
Noel eventually moved to London in 1960, where he arrived with “17 and sixpence” (approximately one dollar), and there he would live for 30 years, where his career would flourish, performing and directing in the theatre, and establishing an art gallery called L’Odeon.
Yet his Aboriginality remained a dormant aspect of his personality, a result of racial abuse and a desire to forget his traumatic experiences in Australia. “When I was very young, one did everything to hide one’s Aboriginality,”
“I was everything but Aboriginal. If someone asked me if I was Greek, I’d say ‘yassou’ [hello]. It’s still the same. The bottom of the pecking order is Aboriginal.”
He says that in London, he could leave the troubles of being Aboriginal behind and concentrate on his career. “When I got to London … no one questioned me.
In London, he would also become immersed in campaigning for LGBTI rights, explaining how his early experiences of homophobia fuelled his activism, helping to organise the first pride march in London.
Noel was even involved in the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, when the gay community rose up in protest against ongoing police harassment; a pivotal moment in LGBTI activist history.
When he eventually returned to Australia in 1990, he says he came home with an agenda, being that, “no Aboriginal child should go through what I went through.”
He says he also wanted to work with Aboriginal actors, “to prove to the world that Aboriginal actors could take part in any play.”
Reclaiming his identity as an Aboriginal man did not come easily, but Noel found assistance to research his family background and reconnect with his culture.
He would also realise his dream of promoting Aboriginal actors. In 2000, he directed a groundbreaking performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Sydney Theatre Company with an all-Aboriginal cast, and also established a performing arts course at Eora Aboriginal Education Centre in New South Wales.
Since returning to Australia, Noel has continued to be active in promoting LGBTI rights, for which he was awarded him the AM.
He was influential in campaigning for an apology to gay men such as himself who were mistreated due to the ‘crime’ of homosexuality, which was delivered by the Victorian government in 2016.
Today, Noel is disappointed that the Mardi Gras festival has, as he believes, lost its political edge, noting that when it first started, it was called ‘the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras’ and is now instead simply referred to as ‘Mardi Gras’.
“It should still be political,” he notes. “The whole of Sydney comes to town and pretends to be gay for the night. It’s more like a party now.”
Similarly he acknowledges that there has been great strides forward, he says the marriage act has not brought equality to the LGBTI community and “there is still work to be done.”
Despite having lost a leg to cancer, Noel shows no sign of slowing down. Currently writing volume three of his life story, he notes with a wry smile that his first book Little Black Bastard
— which would go on to become a one-man play — has been stolen from many libraries, due to its popularity.
Had Noel Tovey not been taken to the ballet and inspired as a young teenager, his life may have turned out markedly different. Instead, the world of dance gave him an escape from the trauma of removal and abuse.
“In my world of dance there were no drunks, no drugs, no abuse and no racism, it was just me and the music,” he says.
“Sometimes now, I sit in my wheelchair put my favourite record on the turntable, close my eyes and I’m dancing again.”
Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. Follow @alimcphotos