How women confronted sexism in the LGBTI community

Robyn Plaister

As a lesbian feminist in the early 1970s, I worked in coalition with gay men to bring about change, not only to gain equal rights but to change the world views on institutions that supported male privilege and men having more power than women.

Some of the gay men I worked with at that time were supportive of the aims of lesbian feminists to eradicate sexism and racism; however, the majority of gay men were concerned with equal rights. They wanted to change the law that made male homosexual activity an offence, provide an avenue for men to meet each other and provide a counselling service. They were not about changing the institutions in society that oppress lesbians and gay men.

This meant that lesbian issues were overlooked in the alliance between lesbians and gay men.

We talk about equal rights in the homosexual world as having rights equal to heterosexuals. Certainly since the 1970s we have gained many of these rights:

  • Up until 1973 homosexuality was identified by psychiatry as a disease;
  • There was open discrimination in employment, especially in roles such as teaching. Even now religious schools can choose not to employ homosexuals;
  • The Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 did not include actual or presumed homosexuality as a ground for discrimination until 1982 and homosexual vilification was not added until 1993;
  • Homosexual partners were not recognised as next of kin;
  • Lesbian mothers lost custody of their children;
  • There was no ability to adopt or foster children for a known lesbian or gay man;
  • Homosexual couples were not recognised as de facto couples until 1999 or allowed to marry until this year;
  • Male homosexual activity was illegal until 1984;
  • Lesbian and gay families were not recognised for medical benefits purposes;
  • Superannuation could not be given to a homosexual partner on the death of the superannuant;
  • Homosexual couples were not counted in the census;
  • Out lesbians and gays were not tolerated in the armed forces, intelligence forces or justice areas.

Power differential

There is a power differential for women compared with men in this world; and there is a power differential between heterosexual women and lesbians. Lesbians are still subject to a double oppression.

Equal rights means having the same opportunities, but what about the same outcomes? If we don’t change the basics of society, such as the power differential where women have fewer resources and access to resources, then we are not truly liberated.

Part of our analysis in the early 1970s was not only to study the present situation for women and lesbians in society, but also to look at how various institutions reflect and support the ongoing power differential and how these may be changed to benefit everyone.

The late 1960s and early ’70s were also the beginning of women’s liberation in Australia. Lesbian feminists started to look at how women’s conditioning affected the outcomes for women and how sexism and heterosexism was rampant. Only a few homosexual males were interested in the liberation of women and lesbians, as they did not want to give away any power, especially since they felt they had less power in a heterosexual world.

Lesbian mothers

One of the areas of concern for me was lesbian mother custody cases. This was an area that was overlooked by gay men because it affected lesbians far more than gay men.

I decided that an alliance could be made with the Women’s Liberation Movement as I thought they would be more responsive to lesbians losing their children. I thought they would take it up as a cause, along with providing refuges, supporting abortion rights, providing rape crisis centres and childcare.

Unfortunately, I soon realised that although the women’s movement was sympathetic to the cause, there was a fear that by identifying with lesbian causes they would not get as far with their arguments for change. By the mid ’70s these women’s services were gaining funding and there was a fear of losing what little gains they had. It was easier to seek support from the growing lesbian feminist movement and forgo other alliances.

So why was there the need to argue for lesbian mothers retaining custody of their children?

The telemovie Riot, (available on ABC iview until August 24), features me (played by Jessica De Geow) and my-then partner Marg McMann (played by Kate Box) embroiled in a custody case for Marg’s daughter and son. The case was tried before the Family Law Act started in 1975 and we lost custody. The magistrate was very concerned as to where I slept and whether I could support Marg’s son in what were deemed male sports at the time.

Even after the Family Law Court was established in 1975 as a “no fault” divorce court, many lesbians lost custody of their children because of the views about lesbian mothers at the time. It was thought the Family Law Court would be very forward thinking: people were to be provided counselling beforehand, the court situation was to be informal and the judges only worked in family law.

During the ’70s, I and others from Campaign Against Moral Persecution provided training for these court counsellors to aid them in dealing with homosexual custody cases.

But the Family Law Court initially made moral judgements on lesbianism based on heterosexism and homophobia. They did not see the lesbian mother as fit to have children. They thought heterosexuality had to be modelled by the parents, that a son had to have a father as a role model and that children would be warped by seeing any show of affection between two women.

Lesbian child custody

I started the Lesbian Mother’s group in Sydney in 1975 to fight the historic view that lesbians were not fit to have children, to collect money to help women fight custody cases and to organise supportive social functions where lesbians and their children could come together for support and not be isolated.

Women then and now are disadvantaged by having less full-time employment, earning less money, dealing less often with the finances in the home than men and having less self-esteem. All these factors affect the lesbian mother having the resources to fight a custody case. Lesbian mothers also had their own internal homophobia spurred on by society’s view at the time.

A case in England of a heterosexual woman belonging to the women’s movement is an example of how society treated women who stepped out of their role. Much was made of the woman having subversive literature in her home, including magazines such as Spare Rib. The judge described the household as “a milieu of fanaticism”. He felt the daughters would grow up with little or no respect for the “ordinary obligations of family life” and “be exposed to propaganda about sexual morality which could expose them to quite extraordinary risks in adolescence”.

In Cartwright v Cartwright (Melbourne, 1977), the lesbian mother did obtain custody of her children but judge Murray J. made the condition that the mother “refrain from any act or word which would reasonably be calculated to suggest to any of the children that she or any friend of hers is a lesbian”. He went on to state that “homosexuality seems to me to be something of an affliction and is certainly to be avoided if possible”.

In Spry v Spry (Adelaide, 1977), custody was given to the father with access by the mother on the condition that she and her lover undertake there would be no display of sexual affection between them in the presence of the children.

In O’Reilly v O’Reilly (Western Australia, 1977), custody was given to the lesbian mother as the father drank heavily. Judge Ferrier J. stated “the real question to answer in this case is whether the unusual life the mother has adopted is likely to have a more detrimental effect on their welfare than the behaviour of an irresponsible father”. On a scale of social acceptability, the lesbian mother was one up on the alcoholic father.

In N v N and W (Sydney, 1976), the full court upheld the refusal of judge Allen J. to give custody to a lesbian mother. One judge Evatt C.J. considered lesbianism as a relevant consideration “not because of the suggestion of immorality but because the relationship could be relevant if it were likely to affect the children adversely”.

Together with the desire for the older children to return to their father’s house, these were considered decisive factors in a case that was otherwise evenly balanced.

With all of these cases the responsibility seems to be placed on the lesbian mother to prove that her children will not be harmed in any way by her “lifestyle”. The onus of proof did not fall on the heterosexual parent, proving that heterosexuality is the basis of good parenting.It was assumed that heterosexuality was the dominant institution and moral judgements were being made on any alternative, rather than recognising there are equally valid choices for parenting that can be made.

True liberation?

Where are we now? We have gained many human rights, changed laws and how they are applied, and are moving towards lesbianism being seen as a legitimate lifestyle choice.

But is this true liberation? Aren’t we still hampered by having to fit into those institutions that have dominated society for a long time, that are heterosexist in nature, and provide privilege to men?

There has been a constant push/pull between seeing homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and wanting all the accoutrements of the heterosexual society versus homosexuality as a political choice that wants to change those institutions in society that are sexist and heterosexist and, in the long run, improve our society for all in it.

To fight for true liberation, I believe, as a lesbian feminist, we need to interrogate these institutions to see if they are really working for us.

Should the family be the unit of society on which money is provided for childcare and how taxes are worked out, or should we be working on the individual being the unit of society, as in other countries?

We devalue ourselves if we constantly want what heterosexuals or men have. We need to look at the values in society and question the hierarchies of traditional male skills being seen as more valued than women’s. We need to be constantly vigilant that seeking the same rights as heterosexuals does not keep us locked in a substandard way of organising society.

We also need to think about the way to achieve these outcomes. Sometimes working in an alliance with other groups can work for our benefit. But, when there are differences between the aims and objectives of each of these groups, we need to be wary of energy wasted on trying to convert those who are said to be in the same alliance.

For some issues it has been convenient to work as the LGBTIQ alliance, but the institutions in society now think we are all in agreement over what we want and therefore treat us the same.

There are subtle differences and not so subtle differences, and while sexism is still alive and well we need to look carefully at our own values and reassess them as to whether they will bring about change for the greater good.

[Robyn Plaister, a 78er, gave this talk at the Pride of Place Conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras held on June 25-26 at the University of Sydney.]