This Wednesday, a group of elderly lesbians are taking over a tram from Melbourne’s CBD to St Kilda—holding hands along the way to commemorate a historic act of lesbophobia that was almost forgotten, until recently.
“It happened in 1977,” says Dr Catherine Barrett, who runs an organisation aimed at empowering LGBT+ elderly people, Alice’s Garage.
“Two women were charged with offensive behaviour for holding hands on the tram but we don’t know anything else about them. All that we have at the moment is the notes from the Victorian Law Reform Council.”
But although the identities of the women remain unknown, their act of bravery is being celebrated with over thirty older lesbians jumping on a tram in solidarity to “reclaim history” Barrett tells SBS.
The group was inspired in part by a speech made by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews in 2016 when he apologised for the way the state’s LGBT+ community was historically treated by the government.
“I learnt that two women were convicted of offensive behaviour in the 1970s for holding hands – on a tram,” he said in his speech.
He then urged LGBT+ people and their loved ones: “Next time you’re on a tram in Melbourne, hold their hand. Do it with pride and defiance. Because you have that freedom.”
Barrett says it’s quite significant that the ‘Tram’ project is happening in the midst of the same-sex marriage postal vote.
“There’s fabulous quote by William Faulkner who says, ‘The past is never dead, it’s not even past,” she says.
“It’s so true that understanding our history is a really important part of understanding contemporary attitudes to LGBTI people.”
“The older LGBTI people I speak to, they’ve got old wounds. They’ve had historical experiences of discrimination."
Barrett notes that a number of elderly LGBT+ people she works with have “gone to ground” during the same-sex marriage debate.
“So many people are hurting,” she says.
“The older LGBTI people I speak to, they’ve got old wounds. They’ve had historical experiences of discrimination.
“They tell me, ‘They’re using the same language, they’re using the same arguments',” she says of the rhetoric used by ‘No’ campaigners echoing the same kind of discrimination the community has historically faced.
She adds that the trip to St Kilda on Wednesday is important because—even in 2017— the sight of same-sex couples holding hands is not completely accepted by everyone.
“Two women holding hands in a public place still raises eyebrows, you get a few stares,” she tells SBS.
Barrett holds LGBT+ education sessions with aged care service providers and asks them to take part in an activity to understand that there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to achieving equality.
“People say, ‘Oh it's all great for LGBTI people now, we have law reforms and it’s alright now, there’s no discrimination.
“And I say to them, ‘Get together, two men or two women, go and walk around the block in same-sex pairs holding hands and see what happens’. And people find it really uncomfortable because they do find that they get stared at.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that we’re not there yet.”
Barrett has also put the call out for people to upload photos to social media with the hashtag #womenholdinghands. The project is also welcoming any historic photos or stories of lesbian resistance.
If you’d like to take part in ‘Hold Hands on a Tram’, you can find more information at Alice’s Garage. The event is part of the Victorian Seniors Festival and travel is free for seniors card holders.