Lizzie Craig, 72, and Derek Christian, 71, are discussing what they’re going to wear to the Coming Back Out Ball while Zannis, Derek’s chocolate-coloured guide dog, sits patiently by his side.
“I’ve become Judy Dench,” Lizzie says of her plan to wear a floaty black top and pants combo with a brightly coloured embroidered jacket. “I think she’s gorgeous.”
Derek’s channelling India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with a high-collared, charcoal black jacket lined with bright pink silk, paired with black slacks and boots. “And a purple bow tie for the feminists, with just a splash of orange,” he smiles. “I feel like the belle of the ball already. Why wear a dinner suit? Everyone else will.”
Derek’s not the sort of man to blend in. As a young man he wore a badge proclaiming ‘how dare you presume I’m heterosexual’. “I came up in a different era, and we had a lot of oppression, a lot of homophobia, but I’ve always been out there. It’s always been a part of what I am and I stand up for it. You’ve got to.”
Gifted with a mischievous wit, he tells me that when he lost his sight overnight two decades ago, a definite bonus was that it no longer mattered how hot the person you hooked up with was.
Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985, that’s how he met former district nurse and counsellor Lizzie, through the Victorian Aids Council. They’ve been friends for around 12 years. “He’s got incredible resilience,” Lizzie offers. “His focus on life is amazing. We both know people in our lives where it hasn’t been that easy, particularly for people in the country and particularly males.”
Raised in a devout Christian family, coming out wasn’t easy for Lizzie either. She married and raised a beautiful daughter with her ex-husband, who she is still close to. “It was out and in and out and in and trying to please everybody.”
Out and proud
Coming together in celebration of pride, visibility and strength is a big part of the Coming Back Out Ball, which will take over the Melbourne Town Hall. Organised by All The Queens Men - a production company that hosts monthly social the LGBTIQ Elders Dance Club - they’ve pulled out all the stops.
Hosted by Robyn Archer and featuring performances by the Queen of the Cross Carlotta and opera singer and Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, among other queer luminaries, they’re providing 500 free tickets to LGBTIQ elders over 65, with a three-course dinner and drinks included.
Looking to First Nations Australians, All The Queens Men’s co-founder Tristan Meecham says it’s a way to honour elders. “As young gay man who struggled with his identity, I wanted to thank my elders who led the way, the pioneers that have fought for our rights,” he says.
Presented as a premiere event of the 2017 Victorian Seniors Festival, Meecham hopes the Coming Back Out Ball can be both a safe and celebratory space, pointing to research that shows that for some LGBTIQ elders, going into aged care can see them climbing back into the closet for fear of encountering homophobia or transphobia.
Shake it off
Michelle, 64, a committee member of Transgender Victoria, came out as a trans woman late in life, telling her wife of 38 years four years ago. “I knew from my earliest memories that I was trans, but there was no word for it then,” she says.
Involved in organising the Coming Back Out Ball, Michelle says it’s a wonderful opportunity to bring the LBGTIQ community together and celebrate trans elders. Events like this and the annual Transformal in the Blue Mountains also help her partner. “That was very important for our relationship, having other models of relationships that go on after one partner comes out as transgender,” Michelle says. “It also helped me broaden my contacts and really appreciate the breadth of the community. Alliances are very important. They’re everyone from religious ministers, to truckies, to academics. It’s quite exciting.”
Michelle’s looking forward to seeing trans pioneer Carlotta perform, as she was one of the first trans people she ever knew of, even going on to guest star on hugely popular television series Number 96, living proof that she was not alone.
As the marriage equality survey rumbles on, Michelle also notes that from the outset, the debate pivoted to attack trans people. “Tony Abbott kicked of the No case by saying that marriage quality will promote gender diversity, and the implication is that gender diversity is a bad thing, whereas from the community’s perspective, it’s absolutely good thing.”
As well as celebrating diversity, it’s the intimacy promised by dance that has Derek and Lizzie most excited. “Have you got a spot for me on your dance card, or is it all totally booked out with all the gorgeous men?” she asks.
Derek, who loves listening to Joan Sutherland and Amy Winehouse, says he’ll squeeze her in.
“The dancing is the thing that keeps you connected,” Lizzie says. “I think with sexuality, as you get older - and Derek and I have chatted about this a lot - it’s not just about having sex, it’s about holding hands. It’s about sharing a movie and a meal. About having a purpose to cook and what are you going to wear?”
Derek, whose partner of 11 years died, agrees. “It’s just that companionship, and you have to make that effort, wardrobe and makeup, to go out, someone to prop you up if you had a bad hair day. That reassurance that someone cares enough to be there and dancing is very good that way.”
Ageism is a big issue, Lizzie says. “You’re actually seen as unattractive and asexual, all these myths.”
She shares a story about having to sit in the car as a 27-year-old nurse until her 90-something patients finished enjoying their Wednesday morning nookie day. I point out they both have at least 20 good years then. “That’s right Derek, a bit of lead in your pencil,” Michelle chuckles. “Viagra and you’re fine, love.”
The Coming Back Out Ball will be held at the Melbourne Town Hall on Saturday Oct 7, for more information or to book tickets, go to www.comingbackoutball.com