“Am I changing into something of a monster or am I just claiming back my rights?”

Feminism, Herstory, Lesbian

Could violence be liberating? Not a commonly posed question concerning women’s relationship to the serious issue of domestic and related violence in New Zealand – and for good reason. Police are currently called to an average of 200 domestic violence situations a day, and that figure is estimated at a fifth of the total incidents of domestic violence in New Zealand. That’s at least one call out every seven minutes. But in the late 1970s in Wellington, lesbian feminists reflected upon this very question, reflecting on their own use of violence, wondering: “Am I changing into something of a monster or am I just claiming back my rights?”

Articles on this theme published in the lesbian feminist magazine Circle document a range of attitudes towards violence, both violence between lesbians, and violence between lesbians and heterosexual men. What is clear is that ‘fisticuffs’ were prevalent in late 1970s lesbian life, so much so that women began to reflect upon the politics of throwing a punch. From a 2015 perspective where relationship violence as it impacts on lesbians and others within the Rainbow spectrum is only starting to garner thorough attention, I was surprised to find this politics of aggression being critically presented in 1979.

For one Circle writer, lesbian feminist violence was a means of empowerment. Echoing the ethos of self-defence, she claimed that fighting was just another thing that women needed to learn. But this was not the politics of knowing how to keep safe when approached on a side-street, so much as a politics of fighting like the boys. This writer describes instances where she initiated fights with men on the street, noting that she would be more likely to pick a fight when she “didn’t like the look of him and knew he wouldn’t retaliate. That’s a lot of when I do things – working out if they look as if they’ll hit me back (none of them really has yet).” She then reflected, “There’s a lot of shit about “we’re going to find a better way of doing things”, “we’re just like them” but for me that’s bullshit. Some middle class woman saying to me “I cut them down with words” or “I stay away from them”, well I’m no better with words than those men are and I’ve no car to get around in anyway else and they’re my streets too.”

Lesbian-Feminist Circle, 'Lesbian's Ignite', 1079, p.18For another Circle correspondent the violence in the Wellington lesbian scene was the symptom of lesbian oppression and resulting fear and frustration. However she also noted, “What is disturbing though is that the violence that should be directed outside is so often diverted into the lesbian community and finds expression against other lesbians in the same form as male brutality and cruelty.” Lesbians threw punches at bars, but they also threw punches at home, while some stayed away from lesbian and feminist meetings for fear of the backlash if they threw a punch in a public forum.

Google for ‘feminism +violence’ and you’ll get a plethora of hits concerning feminist campaigns against domestic and sexual violence. None will argue for the feminism of physical hits. Google ‘lesbian +violence’ and you’ll find a similar array of sites against physical and sexual violence, and a few links to porn sites to boot. Which leaves me to wonder, does the feminist politics of lesbian violence remain?  Were we monsters or freedom-fighters?

The Charlotte Museum Trust holds copies of Circle within its research library.

Why not a lesbian museum? Miriam Saphira reflects

Herstory, History, Lesbian, Museums

In 2001 a small archives group was set up in Auckland to try to encourage people to write their stories and send them to LAGANZ (Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand). In February 2003 I took a T-shirt quilt and the badge collection to the Outlines conference, and thought they would be great at LAGANZ, but they could not collect objects so back in Auckland the group  thought, ‘What about all those lesbian art works that relatives will never understand or know what to do with? – Why not a lesbian Museum?’.

Quilt made from 48 T-shirts from the 70s to early 90s for the Outlines Conference 2003, by Miriam Saphira

Lesbian history has been lost. Lesbian culture was always hidden and available only to a few lesbian academics. With a history of discrimination, violence, and hospital incarceration there is little trust in the straight world knowing about lesbian culture or viewing it. In the 1920’s there were several group of lesbians who mixed socially in New Zealand e.g Tuesday Club in New Plymouth. Apart from a few hearsay references and photos we have very little information about their lives.  After the backlash from World War Two in the late forties and fifties,  lesbianism became classified as a mental disorder. It was not until the seventies that there was a renaissance of lesbian culture. This material was becoming lost.

I did a feasibility study – not knowing anything about museum standards or what was involved, and I set up the Charlotte Museum Trust with Nicola Jackson, Christine Hammerton, and Paula Wallis. We put some money in and began fund raising. In 2007 the Charlotte Museum held a Poster show in conjunction with Marco Trust under the title REMEMBER THIS ONE. The exhibition was held throughout the Hero festival and was very well attended with over 800 people viewing it. We got registered with the Charities Commission in May 2007. As founder of the Museum and as Secretary of the Trust, I would not have put my hand up if I had known it would involve writing 86 policies to become a real Museum with Museum Standards…

But hey, we did it!

One of the failures of modern society is to provide safety for our young people. Lesbians still have a higher than average rate of suicide. The stories of several lesbians who have been incarcerated in mental hospitals and subjected to invasive treatment in attempt to change their sexuality needs to be in the public domain.

Information of lesbian culture is now available for the first time to the public, especially to young people who might be questioning their sexual orientation or wanting to understand a friend’s orientation. The many songs and poems the museum hopes to preserve are part of the stories of women from many different walks of life and education. The Charlotte Museum Trust collects and preserves artifacts of lesbian culture such as labrys, music, theatre, film, literature, art and other memorabilia from early lesbian life in New Zealand / Aotearoa. Currently we have a collection of 800 lesbian cultural artifacts: Labrys (in bone, glass and silver), domestic ware, lesbian ceramics, 2100 lesbian books and many of the early magazines from both New Zealand and overseas.

Straight people who have visited the museum are astonished by the early women who had female companions and the women orientated works we have on display, while lesbians visiting us talk about a sense of pride.

Dr Miriam Saphira

Self Love

Contemporary Art, Lesbian, New Zealand art, photography, Selfies

I am not sure I even remember my first selfie. It was definitely taken on a 35mm semi-automatic film camera, and definitely using a timer. It probably involved precarious balancing – both of the camera, and of me. I was probably 19. While I may have taken self-portraits at most twice a year, millions of people now take multiple self-portraits daily. As a genre, selfography bloomed in the 2010s. It found a home in social media, travelling from MySpace, to Facebook and beyond. But it’s not the internet that makes today’s selfies different from the self-portraits I took as a young woman; its little things like face recognition, auto-focus, and the ability to reliably take photos at close range.

Charlotte Museum Trust poster girl

Charlotte Museum Trust poster girl

The bathroom or public toilet has become a ubiquitous setting for selfographers worldwide. Well lit, often private, with a nice big mirror. Why weren’t we all taking photos in bathrooms when I was in my teens? Because most of us couldn’t afford the macro lenses that allowed you to take a photo in such a small space, and even if you could, you never knew what the camera had focussed on while you were smiling hopefully into its big black eye. Digital cameras and their user-friendly technology have created a new genre in photography that plays to the advantages of auto-focus, auto-exposure, face recognition, and close range. Selfies quickly became a visual style, where subjects often photographed themselves looking upwards at the camera creating a flattering distortion of the face. Then came the duckfaces.

With informal, popular standards for selfie taking, comes the possibility for selfie subversion and selfie play. For at least my first year as a facebook user, I rebelled. I tried to look bad in selfies to break the monotony of smiling eyes and strategically blown out complexions. I used tomato sauce and chicken feathers to create a Halloween selfie for my profile picture that was also a tribute to Anne Noble’s photography. And I don’t even celebrate Halloween.

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Tribute to Anne Noble, 2009

In 2013 the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, at the Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair in London, became one of the first exhibitions to take selfies seriously. Two years later the Charlotte Museum Trust is doing the same with our ‘Me Myselfie I’ exhibition, due to open at the Charlotte Gallery on 16 August.

As many in our community know all too well, lesbians don’t always get the opportunity to define themselves for the world: to put their real selfies forward. Lesbians have been medicalized, stigmatised, pathologised, categorised, and misunderstood for years. In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study where he identified lesbianism as pathology. For Kraft-Ebing, sexual inversion (the reversal of gender roles) was the result of poor breeding and poverty. A little later in 1897 Havelock Ellis published Sexual Inversion. Ellis associated lesbianism with sadism and bestiality as sexual deviations. For Sigmund Freud, who began writing at about the same time, all humans were born bisexual, where proper healthy psychological development resulted in heterosexuality, not homosexuality. When teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme conspired to kill Parker’s mother in New Zealand in 1954, their apparently lesbian relationship was used as evidence of a medical illness during the trial. Internationally, this postwar period saw women who loved women medicalised as promiscuous, predatory, and psychopathic. Many of us live and have lived under this shadow.

In a world where others have always had the job of defining us, the Charlotte Museum Trust believes the selfie is an awesome medium for reclaiming ownership of what it means to be a lesbian.

And selfies are also a whole lot of fun. Let’s not forget the fun.

And thus The Charlotte Museum Trust wants your selfies! As an added incentive we are also offering a tidy little competition. Our judge Jac Lynch will select two selfies to be professionally printed and mounted by Imagelab, to be sent to the winners at the close of the show.

Selfographer and CMT judge Jac Lynch avoiding the paparazzi

Selfographer and CMT judge Jac Lynch avoiding the paparazzi

Entries for both the exhibition and the competition close 29 July. Email us at charlottemuseum@gmail.com for an entry form, but do be quick!

Open to New Zealand residents only. Terms and Conditions apply.

For lesbian lips only.

Genderqueer, Herstory, History, Lesbian, Transgender

The Charlotte Museum Trust contains within its archives a selection of lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines from the 1980s. Run by collectives and penned by volunteers, these publications were hell bent on, wait for it, a lesbian revolution. Lesbian Lip and Circle moreover were explicit in their preferred readership, featuring the censoring ‘For Lesbians Only’, and ‘For Women Only’, on their covers. Why such exclusivity? Why such separatism? A lesbian revolution required an authentic (patriarchy-free) sense of womanhood (womyn/wimmin/womon, et al, hood), so these magazines embraced the idea of women-only and lesbian-only spaces. Gawd, if you wanted to know what women were really capable of, best you figure it out without men telling you what to do, right? Right on sister!

As a director becoming newly acquainted with the Museum’s collection, flicking through the articles featured in Lesbian Lip and Circle coincided for me, with what we might call the ‘Bruce Jenner Effect’ imploding upon the interwebs on the one-hand, and the related correspondence received by the Museum regarding lesbian-only spaces, and how they might be preserved within wider issues of queer and trans politics, on the other. An intersecting juxtaposition you might say, and one that got me thinking about the relationship between lesbians (or lesbian-feminists), and transgender issues, from within the archives of the Charlotte Museum Trust. So what can the Museum’s collection tell us about this relationship, or at least, what are a few of the many things it can tell us? I thought I would reflect on two counts, firstly, on the perspectives found within 1980s lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines, and secondly on the scope of the collection itself.

Who has lesbian lips?

For some of the writers of 1980s Circle, intent as they were upon moving beyond heterosexuality and patriarchy alike, a bloke was a bloke was a bloke, and nobody raised as a boy was welcome within the closed circles of political lesbianism. However I would like to pay more attention to the articles featured in Lesbian Lips in the May-June newsletter for 1982, because in this issue the lesbian feminist authors contemplated the relationship between ‘women’s liberation’, and ‘lesbian liberation’, arguing in turn for a new definition of ‘woman’, one which would incidentally lead to that lesbian revolution they were looking for. To be fair, I am myself taking a liberal interpretation of the political position expressed by these women, however, one way of understanding lesbian politics, is to understand the need to redefine ‘woman’ in a way that breaks free from heterosexuality (women attract men and breed: full stop) and patriarchy (men are normal and make all the rules; women are not and need to be taught the rules). Under the heading ‘lesbian and queers’, one author argued that ‘woman’ exclusively meant white, middle-class, and heterosexual. In turn lesbians couldn’t be women. They may be either invisible or hated, but they were not accepted as women. Aberrations – sinners – perverts, but not women. So lesbian feminists of the 1980s? Some argued against their white cis-gender middleclass heterosexual feminist peers to create a utopia where ‘woman’ could mean non-heterosexual, and moreover, where ‘woman’ existed outside of patriarchy, that is, outside of the rules created by men.

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If we fast-forward through to 2015, then one way of understanding the relationship between lesbian and transgender politics , is that transwomen are, like cis-gender lesbians of the 1980s, capable of redefining ‘woman’ in ways that are neither patriarchal nor heterosexist. Should she want to be, a transwoman lesbian feminist may be the most radical revolutionary of them all. So trans politics and lesbian politics? Yes. But wait, there’s more:

Lesbian lips in drag: what we collect

From the perspective of a historian, lesbians are always hard to find. That’s not because they didn’t exist, it’s because they didn’t always go by that name, and sometimes straight women behave like they might be lesbians. Gender and sexual identity are what historians like to call ‘historically contingent’, which means what counts as being homosexual for one generation, doesn’t for another, the edges shift, and if you go far enough back, no special category for lesbian sexuality even existed.

Reflecting this situation, the collection of lesbian culture at the Charlotte Museum is not clear cut in its inclusion of lesbians and its exclusion of all others. It couldn’t be. There are too many grey areas in the past for it to be otherwise. Take the case of Amy Bock, popularly described as ‘a Tasmanian-born New Zealand female confidence trickster and male impersonator’. Amy was a con-artist, participating in criminal activities that culminated in her attempt to marry Agnes Ottaway in 1909. Having used many aliases throughout her life, Amy lived as Percy Redwood until she was caught out in her attempt to secure access to generous patrons through her marriage to Agnes. Some consider Amy Bock’s 1909 cross-dressing marriage as proof of Bock’s lesbianism.

Postcard depicting Amy Bock as the Female Bridegroom, collection of the Hocken Library, University of Otago.

Would we include her in a lesbian museum? Sure, because we may never know if her feelings for Agnes were sincere, or if given the opportunity she would have chosen to live as a lesbian, but we do know that she is part of lesbian culture, for she did seduce and marry a woman, and thus she fits within the bigger grey edged picture.

But Amy is also in one of our grey areas for another reason. In living as a man to marry a woman, Amy is both a historical lesbian and transgender man. And its often the case that our lesbian heritage does include women who may have lived as women their entire lives, but expressed their lesbianism in terms of being ‘born with the soul of a man’. In a way, our collective understanding of lesbian heritage is deeply entwined with the experiences of people we might now think of as being trans men. Our collection has favoured the experiences of people raised as female, who then went on to love other people raised as female, irrespective of whether or not either party may have wished to be identified in that way had they been given the choice. It’s a clumsy way of expressing it, but it’s how it works. In a sense, historians are bound to the nuances, or lack thereof, that made up the lived experiences of those in the past. When bodies are allocated one sex or the other upon birth, and peoples’ lives were explained in terms of their ability to fulfil or otherwise, the roles of that sex, then ‘lesbian’, ‘spinster’, trans man or gender queer, are all going to look pretty much the same when we look backwards. In turn the ‘lesbian space’ created by the collection, reflects the past, and as such already includes the history of trans politics within it…

For more on contemporary trans politics see http://frufruscrub.tumblr.com/post/91765505896/language-tips-for-cis-feminists-speaking-on-trans

For more on gender and safe spaces see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdua6xvcalg

For more on Amy Bock see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b30/bock-amy-maud

For more on Circle and Lesbian Lips see The Charlotte Museum Trust collection in person, 8A Bentinck Street, New Lynn, Auckland. Open Wednesdays and Sundays 1-4pm.

We also welcome comments on this and other blogs.