The Women Behind The First Gay Political Group In Australia
Phyllis Papps and Francesca Curtis on freedom, love, and how things used to be.
Image Credit: Michelle Dunn
Phyllis Papps and Francesca Curtis have been described as the “modern day Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas”. The two met in 1970, had an instant connection, and have been inseparable ever since. They were involved with the Australian offshoot of the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first lesbian civil and political rights organisation in the United States. This group eventually became the Australasian Lesbian Movement, and it was the first gay political group in Australia.
The group disbanded in 1972, but their impact was immense. We spoke to Phyllis and Francesca about their legacy ahead of their receipt of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the LGBTI Awards in March.
Who did you both look to for inspiration when you were young activists in the 1970s?
There was no one really, because homosexuality was illegal for men and lesbians didn’t even exist or were invisible.
There was one lesbian, Val Eastwood, who had a café called ‘Val’s Coffee Lounge’ in the main street of Melbourne. Her place was ‘gay friendly’ – although the word ‘gay’ was not used back in 1970. You were either camp, meaning gay, bisexual, or a transvestite. They were the words used back then.
Homosexuals were seen by the general community as being sexual perverts, who had a mental disorder and who needed psychiatric treatment. In my first job when I was about 22, the first time I told a workmate that I was homosexual she gave me the names of three psychiatrists! When I told my mother at the age of 12 or 13 she said, “Where have I gone wrong?”
And as for Francesca’s family – they pretended it didn’t exist.
Did you ever think about the future, or the impact your activism might have on younger generations?
No. I realize this sounds selfish, but we just wanted gay people be accepted for who we are and not been seen as people on ‘the fringe of society’.
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