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

Jumping on board the flag wagon: union jacks and rainbow stripes

flag, union jack

Flags are an excellent way of identifying things from a distance – Raleigh Choppers parked at the end of a suburban street – for example. Flags are especially excellent ways of identifying things that can change ownership – like castles, parliaments, borders – anything of strategic significance during times of warfare, times when you need a rough and ready way of letting people in the distance know who is now inside the building (so back off), or on the other side of the border (or we will shoot you). White flags of surrender are also useful. But these days, what flags seem to be really good at, is attracting controversy.

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‘Colours of NZ’, Designed by: gaygamesblog from Auckland, submitted as a new flag design by Lisa McFarland.

For reasons unknown and unfathomable to a large percentage of the New Zealand population, we as New Zealanders are currently being asked to design a new national flag. The current flag was first used on New Zealand ships in 1869 and became New Zealand’s official national flag in 1902, and there are great reasons for keeping it as it is. It’s an honest depiction of our past, for one thing. But does it really represent contemporary New Zealand? Or is there a better way of depicting our bicultural past – or of symbolising our multicultural present? While these issues are gaining traction, the most controversy a flag has brought to New Zealand was probably in 1845, when Hone Heke cut down a flagpole displaying the British flag – and it wasn’t because he didn’t like the design.

Oddly in synch with New Zealand politics, the USA is also debating flag appropriateness, but for somewhat different reasons. When Dylann Roof recently killed nine at the African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he did so in an attempt to reignite the American Civil War. He did so to honour the ‘confederate’ flag, a flag flown across America, and a flag which is a relic from the American Civil War. As Sidney Blumenthal describes it, the confederate flag is an “ensign of a slaveholders’ republic, revived a century later as the symbol of massive resistance to civil rights, [which] became an iconic code for the Republicans’ Southern strategy.’ That is, the ‘confederate’ flag is associated with racial oppression, and as such Americans are currently arguing for its removal from public buildings.

In response to the push to have the confederate flag removed, Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, recently declared ‘if we come to the point where we say any flag that represents bigotry, any flag that represents hatred, any flag that represents slavery or oppression needs to be removed, then I want to suggest to you that the next flag to go ought to be the rainbow flag of the Gay Reich.’

The rainbow flag has, of course, become a widespread symbol of pride for LGBTIQ communities. The Charlotte Museum Trust has a rainbow flag within its collection. But who knew – or remembers – that “hot pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise blue for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.” Rather than being uniquely ‘gay’, or collectively queer, the rainbow flag was designed to symbolise the kinds of things that any 1970s free-spirit would aspire to embracing. The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in the late 1970s to replace the pink triangle popularly used at the time. The pink triangle, much like the confederate flag (and Bryan Fischer’s remarks), has its origins in oppression and hatred, where the pink triangle was the symbol used by Nazi Germany to stigmatize homosexual men. While the pink triangle had been reclaimed by gay communities as a symbol of identity, the rainbow became the official symbol of gay activism after San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978.

While our government insists we reassess our national flag here in New Zealand, I wonder if we might reassess our LGBTIQ flag in New Zealand too. Like any exercise in rebranding, the shift to a rainbow flag in 1978 obscured one thing in favour of another – it shifted our gaze from the pink triangle of bigoted hatred, to a rainbow of joyful resistance. Changing the flag of course, didn’t actually make bigoted hatred go away.

Moreover, since the rainbow flag became widespread, variants appeared for bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality, among others. Lesbians have also used interlocked female symbols on their flags instead of rainbows. The Charlotte Museum Trust has one of these, too.

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Asexual pride flag

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Bisexual pride flag

However the full rainbow flag remains the symbol most synonymous with LGBTIQ pride across New Zealand. Any regional festival proves as much. But should it? Does a rainbow of joyful resistance still work in 2015?

And more importantly, does a flag originating with 1970s American gay activism, best symbolise LGBTIQ pride in New Zealand in the 2010s? Is it time we jumped on board the flag wagon and reassessed our own symbols? Or should we keep the rainbow… just so people like Bryan Fischer can see when the Gay Reich have stormed the castle.

The Charlotte Museum Trust welcomes information about flags used in New Zealand as part of lesbian activism over the years, if you have photos, even better! Contact us at charlottemuseum@gmail.com if you have information to share, and don’t forget to follow us on our facebook page.

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.