Cate McGregor
Cate McGregor

Steph Sands and Merryn Johns catch up for Women Say Something, a Mardi Gras event.

Steph: You said yes to Women Say Something and coming to Sydney very quickly when we asked you! What have you heard or seen that makes this a “must-do” experience for you?

Merryn: I may live in New York, but you don’t have to ask me twice to come home to the other greatest city in the world! And even though I’ve been busy with Curve magazine and promoting LGBT rights in the U.S., I’ve followed lesbian and women’s issues in Australia with interest. I was impressed and excited when I saw how much Women Say Something has grown since its inception.

Merryn: The last time we saw each other was in N.Y.C. and Michelle Obama was having dinner next to us! You told me about WSS and I thought, This girl has attitude! What is your vision for WSS?

Steph: Did the attitude come from my attempts to get Michelle to read my Women Say Something T-shirt? Or was it my brash statement that one day we will do a WSS in N.Y.C. with Hillary Clinton and Michelle back to back? The vision is pretty simple: to give all women a voice. We still have a long way to go before all women are heard and celebrated. If we even look within our own communities we still are not accepting each other for our differences. Through sharing stories, sharing our diversity and realising that we share our issues as women, we hope that we all become more accepting.

I’m very excited to announce that we will be able to hear Australian Army Lieutenant Cate McGregor speak at “Dancing on the Ceiling” on Feb 28th. Cate has shown immense bravery through her transition process while maintaining her role in the Army and continues to provide inspiration to all women. She has achieved great things and she should be celebrated for this, along with the other “ceiling dancers” on the night, including you!

Steph: Merryn, what makes you a woman saying something?

Merryn: I came out around 25 years ago and at the same time I became a journalist in LGBT media because I wanted to be a voice for lesbian rights. I was editor of LOTL for ten years before then starting the international magazine for lesbians, BOUND, and then moving over to Curve, which is America’s #1 lesbian magazine. Looking back, I see how my choice to progress in this field was based on my belief that I can provide a voice for lesbians everywhere because we are minority women in mainstream culture.

Merryn: I notice that you’ve moved from strength to strength.—from female co-chair of Mardi Gras to creating the huge success that is WSS. You’re already dancing on the ceiling!

Steph: Success is such a subjective thing. But there is no way we can claim success when there is still gender inequality both locally and abroad. There are so many stories of disadvantage that need to be shared, acted on and for change to occur. At the same time we need to get better at celebrating the success of women and keep inspiring other women to reach for the stars—women like Lisa McGuigan of Lisa McGuigan Wines, who also will be appearing at Dancing on the Ceiling. Lisa was recently named one of the 21 Most Influential Liquor Identities of the Past 21 Years by her peers in the industry. How many times have you heard young girls say, “When I grow up I want to be….” and then over the years their dreams almost get filtered down? The answer we should be saying to our younger generations, even saying to ourselves, is “Anything.” Because you can be anything! And it shouldn’t be hard!

Steph: What did you want to be when you grew up and why did you become an editor-in-chief?

Merryn: Perhaps because I was a tomboy, and also knew I was gay from an early age, I didn’t place any limits on myself. My first urge at around 6 or 7 was to be an astronaut or a racing car driver. My mum encouraged me to write a letter to NASA, and I still have the photos they sent me of the moon landing! Of course, as I got older those dreams did filter down, as you mentioned. I think that’s what happens: we socialize girls to make them more modest than they should be. But even though my dreams became more “realistic,” I always gravitated towards professions where I could teach and learn and be influential within the culture. Whether that’s my academic career in the arts or as a magazine editor, the emphasis is on knowledge, communication, and providing people with useful information that can help shape their lives.

Merryn: WSS is a bit like a magazine in that it creates a space for information and ideas. Tell me more about its evolution and potential.

Steph: As an event, WSS continues to exceed our expectations with each sell-out. However, the disheartening part of this for me is that it is showing without a doubt that there is a burning need from women for this type of event and discussion to happen. WSS will have achieved what it intended to when it is no longer “special” to hear women’s voices and perspectives in an event such as this. When these voices are heard and acted on in a truly equal way. WSS has had its own journey over the past three years and has really come of age. In a way we have broken through our own ceiling especially now we are a premium Mardi Gras event, at Sydney Town Hall, the night before the Parade. The event is a testament to the outstanding team of volunteers who produce it. No doubt it will be a highlight for women this season and even though it has a strong message it is a fun and entertaining night at the same time.

Photo: Steph Sands
Steph Sands

Steph: What are you looking forward to most about returning to Sydney and Mardi Gras?

Merryn: It is always good to come home! I love Sydney, especially during summer and Mardi Gras. More importantly, though, having been a vocal part of the push for marriage equality in the U.S., I am now keen to see that become a reality in my own country. If it can happen in a politically conservative culture like the States, there’s no reason why it can’t happen in Australia. Conservatives will always try to suppress women and minority groups, but what’s happening in the U.S. is proof that we don’t have to put up with that. We just need more people to become motivated to make the change. I’m going to try to get that message across.

Merryn: Lesbians and women still struggle for equal rights around the world. What is the most pressing issue for women in 2014?

Steph: Excellent question, Merryn, and one that has many different answers. This is why WSS assembles some of the most interesting speakers to educate but also to inspire and motivate our audience to go out and make a change.

Steph: If we were to ask you what is the most pressing issue for women in 2014, what would you say?

Merryn: For me, it is the fundamental right to love who I love without fear of persecution or discrimination. This right overlaps with the broader feminist need to end violence and discrimination against all women. The other two pressing issues are equal pay and reproductive rights, which are still seriously lacking in the majority of the world.

Merryn: Why should all women “say something” and why is WSS a good place to start?

Steph: Everyone can get involved with WSS. We have very accessible price points starting at $30 for the event and ranging to a full three-course dinner with fine wine. We also continue our “Pay What You Can Afford” option. This option ensures that women are not turned away from the event if they are experiencing financial difficulties.

Our events are entertaining but with a strong message. We don’t feel that feminism should be serious all the time, or be filled with big words or concepts. There is definitely a place for that, but at WSS we want to empower everyone to make a change at whatever level they feel comfortable with. We want to encourage women to take a new step towards a more equal life not only for themselves but also for women in places where they have no voice. We want a place and a space where we can celebrate the achievements of women, to hear their stories of how they got there, and what more than can achieve. And it doesn’t stop there. You can leave the event feeling inspired to Do Something and join in our online communities after the events. And it’s fun! It’s a great night with friends, with music, with sharing. Everyone leaves Women Say Something with a big smile on their face and feeling empowered.

Steph: So I’ll see you there?

Merryn: I wouldn’t miss it for the world!