It’s all about you: finding community in a museum

Community, Herstory, History, Lesbian, Museums, Participatory Museum

There is no doubt in the mind of anyone affiliated with the Charlotte Museum Trust, that preserving lesbian heritage and culture is an important and powerful endeavour. The museum claims a slice of what Nestor Garcia Canclini referred to some time ago as a patrimony, it creates a symbolic turangawaewae for passing and evolving generations of lesbians, it celebrates communities while creating community.

During 2015 I had the opportunity to think about how we might best use this gendered, queer space, not just as a well-deserved commemoration of the lives of New Zealand lesbians who faced what was at times abhorrent treatment, but as a way of presenting the past fairly and inclusively. Also, because I am a supporter of Nina Simon’s ‘participatory museum’, it was important to me that my time at the Charlotte Museum present opportunities for community participation in exhibitions. And this is why I offered Invulved and Me Myselfie I as community exhibitions during 2015.

In Invulved I sought to supplement ubiquitous yet isolated stories about lesbian disenfranchisement within and from the military, with the clicking of knitting needles across a virtual community of lesbian and lesbian-friendly knitters. And this is the principle of a participatory museum – the idea that it’s not the museum’s job to teach, preach, or demonstrate to its public, but rather to facilitate the public’s creation of meaningful exhibitions and experiences themselves. It is, to be fair, suspiciously akin to performance art, and is also in many ways very similar to earlier approaches to women’s galleries, where the participatory museum as an ideal, acts as a catchment area for community expression and co-understanding. It aspires to be anti-hierarchical, where knowledge/art/meaning/history, is co-created within rather than by, a museum space.

My job then, was to design projects and exhibitions that would create meaning for lesbian culture and heritage by looking outwards, to you, as much as inwards, towards the collection. Admittedly I began upon this path cautiously, retaining a high degree of agency over what the final exhibition of knitted vulvae would look like – I arranged it into the shape of a fern and afterall, it was me who decided that we would commemorate women’s participation in World War One by knitting vulvapoppies in the first place. But each and every vulvapoppy we received was a part of each of you, and in knitting them you had become a community of lesbian knitters. That was a start. What I learned from that first show, was that not everyone knits: I had at my disposal a dedicated team of craftswomen rather than the lesbian community at large. The image heading this page is from an envelope that contained one of the vulva poppies sent to us in the post.

Which led me to the Charlotte Museum Trust’s selfography exhibition, Me, Myselfie, I. For this exhibition I asked for selfies. I also looked outwards in this exhibition, by allowing you to tell me where the edges of our community lay. I was asked the difficult yet timely question that amounts to, which kinds of lesbians are welcome to participate, to which I answered, anyone who feels that being lesbian is a significant or primary part of their sexual and/or gender identity. I let you tell me who ‘we’ are, by creating an exhibition whose edges were shaped by your own choices, not mine.

Looking outward as a way of creating communal identity and co-creating heritage and culture, creates an archive of the now for future generations. It is also, I believe, integral to ensuring that we do not streamline lesbian history, cleaning it of its stragglers, its misfits, its ethnic others, its outsiders. Which also means, that it is imperative that the stragglers, misfits, ethnic others and outsiders find participation desirable. Did Me, Myselfie, I succeed in doing this? We appeared to receive submissions from a pleasingly diverse range of lesbian demographics, old and young, butch and femme, Pacific, Maori, and Pakeha. But were any of my entrants the stragglers or misfits? That is, were they those who might wear the lesbian mantle loosely or alongside many identities, amongst many experiences? And I have to concede that I have no idea. Me Myselfie I wasn’t about life stories, it was about participation. You were allowed to keep your secrets.

Allowing for anonymous participation is one way that we can grow our community involvement in these kinds of shows – sure we now have a series of beautiful selfies in the museum’s collection, but there was an option on the entry form to choose to not have a photograph made public online, and an artist’s statement about the photograph was optional. While we know what some of you look like, we know nothing about how you got to be in our show. And for me, that anonymity within visibility was a powerful aspect of the exhibition.

Dr Nadia Gush

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Vanishing Lesbians? Dr Alison J Laurie considers the history and significance of lesbian spaces

Feminism, Herstory, Lesbian

Are lesbians vanishing?

Or has the way we understand visibility changed?

World wide, it seems that there are very few lesbian bars, clubs or public meeting places that survive. Even in Paris, there are now no lesbian bars. The few once lesbian bars that survive, are now for gay men. In the US, in city after city, lesbians report the loss of bars, clubs, and bookshops.

Here in New Zealand, there are now no lesbian clubs, and in many cities, no regular meeting places. In Auckland, the Charlotte Museum holds lesbian events, as does the Lilac Library in Wellington. There are occasional women’s dances, regular lesbian walks in Wellington, lesbian potlucks on the Kapiti Coast, and some other places. Some lesbian magazines continue to survive, in Auckland and Christchurch, and a few newsletters. The Wellington Lesbian Radio Programme continues, now for 31 years. The Lilac Library, Radio Programme, and some lesbian events, are financially supported by the Armstrong and Arthur Charitable Trust for Lesbians. The Women’s Bookshop remains, as do some women’s centres, but of course these are not specifically lesbian.

There are bars, meetings, and other gatherings, in the main centres for the Rainbow communities that include a range of people. And it does seem that in the big, wide, and ever-expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQI there is a less noticeable presence from lesbians. Public events like the Hero Parade remain dominated by gay men.

What has replaced the former physical meeting places for lesbians now seems to be the Internet, with a myriad of lesbian web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter connections etc. A virtual world, for discussion, dating, contacts. In this, younger lesbians are no different from others in their age group. And older lesbians are learning to do this too. Though many sites are also rainbow inclusive, and not only for lesbians.

We have always struggled for inclusion in mixed groups with gay men. In the 1960s, “kamp girls” as we called ourselves then, could not be members of kamp men’s clubs, like the Dorian Society in Wellington. New Zealand was a highly sex segregated society, especially following the return of two generations of men damaged in overseas wars, who established the RSAs, the custom of men only public bars, and much besides. Gay men and lesbians are products of the cultures in which we live, and gay men were no more used to socialising with women present than were heterosexual men. After the extension of licensing hours to 10pm in 1967, many hotels set up mixed bars, though public bars remained men only for some time.

Eventually lesbians responded to being excluded, by setting up our own clubs, the first being the KG Club in Auckland, and Club 41 in Wellington. Following the introduction of Gay Liberation, lesbians worked with gay men, to gain human rights and to change the criminal law against male homosexual acts. As these groups expanded, the sexism of many gay men meant that lesbians embraced the new ideas of lesbian feminism, also introduced from the US. Lesbians formed our own groups, soon joined by women coming out through Women’s Liberation, lesbians leaving gay liberation, and lesbians from the old kamp culture. For the heady years of the 1970s and 1980s, lesbians established clubs, magazines, lesbian centres, bookshops, organizations, summer camps, and held many events, including dances, conferences, and much more. All for lesbians only. Safe spaces, where lesbians could meet, talk, relax, and develop a lesbian culture. Lesbian separatism was one response to the male exclusivity and separatism of New Zealand society generally, and especially of the more conservative gay men.

New Zealand lesbian culture became inclusive of race, class and disability, and was politically active around anti-racism, peace and employment issues. Many lesbians worked in coalitions, and worked with gay men, leading up to homosexual law reform in 1986. During the law reform and human rights campaigns, it was difficult to have the word “lesbian” used by the media, or by gay men, many who thought “lesbian” could be subsumed under the term “gay”. We did achieve specific inclusion in the Human Rights Act 1993, arguing that “homosexual” was mostly understood as referring to men, and that “lesbian” needed to be specified to make it clear that women were also included, and that “bisexual” also needed to be specified.

As we have moved into more recent times, “lesbian” is always included in the alphabet soup. But more often as a letter, than as a reality. For example, there is little attention given to lesbian health issues, such as the high incidence among lesbians of breast cancer. Or of the importance of pay equity to lesbians, who remain disadvantaged, as are all women in New Zealand, by the pay differentials between male and female wages, compounded by the additional factors of race, class, age and disability. Same-sex marriage has brought some relief to lesbian mothers and co-parents, but the issues of maternity leave, breast-feeding in the workplace, child-care, and leave to care for sick children have not been resolved. Men in the alphabet soup show little interest in these issues.

Among rainbow youth, “Lesbian” may be regarded by some as an old-fashioned, unpopular, unattractive identity, despite all the Ellens and Hollywood stars coming out. Famous people have always been allowed to be different, and it may not change things that much on the ground, in schools, workplaces, families, and all the many places where lesbians fear discrimination and exclusion. It remains difficult to live as lesbian, in a society where women who refuse to be sexually available to men threaten the gendered structures of patriarchy. However, there are increasing numbers of young women who do live as lesbians, marry, have children, and socialize only within their family groups. Perhaps they no longer have any need for lesbian spaces, events, or cultures.

So – are lesbian spaces vanishing from the physical world, into the safer spaces of the virtual world? Can lesbians retain visibility within the alphabet soup, or do we need to move away and rebuild more lesbian spaces like the Charlotte Museum and the Lilac Library? And to what extent should we welcome others from the alphabet soup into our lesbian spaces? Would these others take them over, dominate, so that these places could become rainbow areas, mainly reflecting the interests of men. As girls and women, we are taught to put the interests of men first, to make them feel comfortable, and look after them. And not to make them angry, for fear of the consequences. It’s hard to break this socialisation. And those who have been socialised as boys and men, can speak with such authority and confidence, that it seems natural to defer to them, and to put their interests first. A Rainbow Museum might be financially sound, if men supported it, but would it still display adequate lesbian material among large new Rainbow collections? And, the Charlotte Museum advertises in a blog post, that a “lesbian-feminist transwoman may be the most radical of us all”. If they were many, and a critical mass, what kind of “lesbian” culture and history would be reflected? Alix Dobkin sang, “every woman can be a lesbian”. Today, perhaps “everybody can be a lesbian”. Otherwise, there are Rainbow events overseas and in New Zealand, with an ever-increasing alphabet soup of genders and sexualities, dominated by gay men, queer men, flamboyant and keen to prioritise their own visibility and their own issues.

These are all questions to consider for the future. Will lesbians vanish? Become more visible? Move in completely new and unimagined directions?

Dr Alison J. Laurie, 2015.

CMT experiment crop