“As soon as I realised I was attracted to women, I identified as a lesbian” says Sarah, a native Queenslander who grew up in and around the state capital Brisbane. Although it wasn’t until her early twenties that she became fully aware she liked women, for the past 17 years she has been out and proud.
Sarah’s parents grew up in Northern Europe but both later settled in Australia; her father is of Irish and Welsh heritage but spent his childhood in the UK; her mother was English and grew up in southern England. As a young child her paternal grandfather lived with them in a separate granny flat and they were very close – she thought of him as her best friend. Every morning she would go downstairs to see her grandad and he would give her a square of dairy milk chocolate and a small ‘vegemite’ branded glass of lemonade. She remembers he brought her her first bike and grew beautiful roses; he would come home from the pub on Sundays singing old Irish songs and driving the neighbours crazy. Her parents were both shift workers; her dad was a prison guard and her mother worked part-time as a nurse so they planned their shifts around caring for her.
An only child, Sarah says she had a happy childhood and thought her parents got on well, but the day after her eight birthday her mother picked her up as usual from a friend’s house with the car packed and said they were going to live in a new house. Her mother later explained that as she only had access to a small allowance from her husband she had saved for two years to be able to leave him; they left while he’d been on a day shift. They moved into social housing in a very poor area of Brisbane and, although she remembers it was a difficult time, she was happy at her new primary school.
Things went downhill when she started high school which she hated. She was always in trouble for answering back, talking, arguing; she thinks now that people probably saw her as a bit of a loudmouth. She and her mum moved around a lot meaning she attended three different schools and things got progressively worse. They continued to live in social housing when they were first on their own until her mum was able to buy a house a few years later. Then her mum met what Sarah describes as a ‘horrible man’ and they moved to the country. Neither her mum’s relationship nor Sarah’s new high school worked out, and after a year they moved back to the city. She hoped she’d get on better at her third high school as she was accepted to an athletic program and she loved sport, but she says she just didn’t fit in. There weren’t really any other sporty girls at the school and she was often called a ‘dyke’ because of her love of rugby and her tomboy clothes. She didn’t think anything of it at the time; she wasn’t interested in boys or girls:
“Because I played so much sport I was regularly called a ‘dyke’…I would just be thinking, ‘why would you even say that? That’s obviously not right’ I wasn’t with anyone or falling for anyone – the romantic stuff of teenage years didn’t hit me until much later. The giggling, carrying on stuff…I did in my twenties rather than my teens.”
She hated school so much she received terrible grades and left as soon as she could at 16. Around the time she left high school her mum saw an ad in the local paper saying that their local rugby league club was starting a women’s team. Joining the team changed everything for Sarah. She says suddenly she had a group of friends who liked her because she liked playing sport – the exact opposite from school where none of the girls had been into sport:
“I think that was also my first introduction to a whole big gang of lesbians… meeting those girls was, yeah, awesome. We just became each other’s’ best friends.”
At least half of the team openly identified as lesbian, and many of the teams they played were predominantly gay. Sarah was the baby of the team, with the rest of the players ranging in ages from a few years older up to their 30s and 40s. She suddenly felt like she had a place where she fitted in; the team hung out together a lot and supported each other – if one person was moving house, ten people would turn up to help.
Sarah began studying childcare and working in a childcare centre in Brisbane, and she also worked part-time behind the bar at her rugby club. When she was 19 she decided to move to London, something she had dreamed of doing since she first visited her mum’s family when she was nine.
She moved to London and found employment as a nanny for a few families, working in bars and doing office work data entry at night to make extra money. She spent a lot of time with her maternal grandmother in Surrey on the outskirts of London, building a relationship and getting to know her. She spent time wandering around London and enjoying the buzz of living in a big city for the first time. She returned to Brisbane after a year, but she was soon saving to go back to London.
It was whilst she was back in Brisbane, now aged 21, that she met her first love who would go on to cause her first heartbreak. They met through the rugby club and started spending all their time together, although at first just as friends. Before that she says she had met guys while she was travelling but and had just never felt like taking things further with someone so it just never happened. But a week before Sarah was due to move back to London she realised she was falling for her friend:
“I’d already developed all these feelings that I think are for a friend, they suddenly flicked over…I was utterly in love with this person…it felt amazing, it made me realise that this is why it hadn’t worked with guys.”
Her friend was about ten years older than Sarah; she was out and had had previous relationships, but her family were Mormon so she was under pressure to marry a man and have children.
Their first kiss was at a lookout over Kangaroo Point Cliffs in Brisbane, with a view of the Storey Bridge. They later went to a motel, but as they got the keys to their room all Sarah could think was “I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea what to do!”.
She says she’d slept with a few guys, although she had never had someone she would have called a boyfriend, more like people she’d been ‘seeing’ – but it was just something you did. At the time she thought “is that it? She felt that everyone went on and on about how amazing is it is to have sex with someone, but if that was it then it was just a total rip off:
“Then I was with this woman and I was like, oh my god!”
She felt like she had finally worked out why it didn’t feel right with guys. This happened two days before she was due to fly to London, and by the night before her departure her new love was seriously talking about following her to the UK. Sarah left the next day, and their long-distance affair began in earnest with letters and emails and ‘mixtapes’ flying back and forth.
During this time Sarah came out to her mum from a phone box in London. She says she hated that she had to have that conversation over the phone, but felt she didn’t have any other choice – she had to tell her. So that’s what she did, and she says her mum was fine, that the conversation was so easy that she doesn’t even remember the details, although she does remember her being very supportive. She also remembers that they discussed how her father might react, and they both agreed it wouldn’t be good.
Sarah settled into London life again and found a job, all the time anticipating the arrival of her new love. She began making arrangements for them to have a white Christmas in Europe, but two weeks before she was due to fly Sarah received an email saying she wasn’t coming. She claimed her Mormon parents had found out and were putting pressure on her to find a husband and start a family (note: the ‘husband’ she found turned out to be a woman with whom she went on to have two children).
A now broken-hearted Sarah stayed and worked in London, making friends and building a life in the city. On Valentine’s Day she and her friends decided to have a single girl’s night out and they duly headed to London’s Soho district, ending up in the notorious lesbian hangout The Candy Bar. That night she got together with Elke, one of the girls in the group, which led her into a tumultuous relationship, one that took her to Holland and ended in violence and a narrow escape:
“We never lived together in London, because she was a bit mad basically…kind of weird, jealous, really jealous, like I’d be going out with my friends from work or something for a drink and she’d want to know exactly where I’d been…she’d just turn up.”
Despite Elke’s jealousy, they had lots of fun times travelling together over the next two years, motor-biking all over Europe, but as the relationship got more serious things soon grew increasingly sinister. But Sarah says that didn’t stop her taking the decision, aged 24, to move with Elke when she decided to return to her home country, ending up in The Hague, the administrative capital of Holland.
Sarah first worked in an Irish bar whilst she learnt Dutch, and then later as a debt collector, however the relationship quickly deteriorated. Elke soon became emotionally abusive and physically violent, and also began to stalk her when she left the house. Sarah knew almost no one in the city but was able to get out with a few belongings stuffed in a backpack and stay with some acquaintances who had realised what was happening and offered to help. She was able to talk to her managers at work and they were very supportive, changing all her contact details and even setting up a roster so that someone would accompany her to and from the tram stop every day.
Despite the breakup Sarah decided to stay in The Hague; she started attending events organised by the local chapter of the COC, a long-standing national network of volunteer-run LGBT associations. She started to volunteer behind the bar at women’s events and was later asked to join the committee; she even joined the women’s choir. She says the wonderful women she met became like a protective wall around her – they even physically protected her when her ex-girlfriend turned up at the centre and tried to attack her.
Sarah stayed in Holland for another year and is still friends with many of the women who supported her during that time, but after three years away from Australia she decided it was time to head home to Brisbane. She was now 25 and found a job at the Mater hospital soon after her return. She tried hard to settle back into life in Australia, but many of her friends had moved on whilst she’s been overseas, getting married and having children, and she struggled to readjust. She soon became active in the Australian Services Union and threw herself into union work, eventually becoming a member of the Executive.
She says it took her nearly three years to settle back into life in Brisbane, but she eventually ended up staying for ten years before love took her south to Sydney. She travelled a lot during this time, particularly back to Europe. On one occasion she went on a hilarious adventure to San Francisco where she was determined to do to the ‘gayest’ things she could think of, which included going to a lesbian-owned tattoo parlour. She ended up getting a tattoo, going to a lesbian punk night at a biker bar and going home with her tattoo artist… It was such a whirlwind adventure that Sarah even momentarily considered moving to the US, but she soon woke up to herself and realised that a holiday was not reality.
Early in her Brisbane days, about a year after her return, she decided to try internet dating which at the time was still in its infancy. She created a profile on the lesbian dating site the Pink Sofa – she found a book club and arranged to meet a fellow ‘first-timer’ before going to her first meeting:
“She and I caught up this one evening and thought, ‘let’s go for dinner’…we’d got ourselves into this book club, and said, right lets meet before we go to book club so at least we know someone…yeah, so we were together by the time book club started, and we stayed together for about five years! She was just really funny, made me laugh a lot, we both were in a place where we just wanted some people to hang out with, I don’t think either of us were expecting that to be outcome.”
Her new partner was 12 years older and had a 16 year old son. They moved in together after about a month – she gave Sarah a key on their one month anniversary. Sarah describes it as a nice relationship with a person who was kind and supportive; they travelled a lot and just they got on really well. She says it was “just kindof nice, with no drama”, which was a welcome contrast to her previous relationship.
It was around this time that Sarah decided to come out to her father. They had stayed in contact after her parents separated and usually saw each other at least once a week. She remembers sitting on his back deck having a drink as they often did. He had said to her that he was sad that she had not yet found a partner to share her life with, and Sarah replied that she did in fact have a partner, and that it was a woman. She doesn’t believe he was particularly surprised, but he was certainly not happy. Her father remarried soon after this conversation and made it clear to Sarah that her partner would not be welcome at the wedding. She had it out with him but he was unrepentant:
“The thing I remember from that day, ‘cause my dad was a prison officer…was that he would rather have heard that I was in jail for murder than have heard that I was a lesbian.”
Sarah says her father and his new wife were awful to her partner back then, and she feels she owes her a debt of gratitude for her patience. They would never refer to her by name and would exclude her from conversations, and at another family wedding they were seated at the spare table for the ‘extras’ far from the family. She says they have softened over the years and her father is now wonderful with her current partner, always asking after her when he calls. Sarah believes this may be because he has realised that nothing is going to change, and if he wants to have a relationship with her he has to accept her as she is.
After five years together Sarah and her partner separated. She says nothing in particular happened, they just grew apart – it was sad and hard but there was no acrimony or bitterness and they are still occasionally in touch today.
Very soon after their separation she got into what she describes as a ‘nasty’ relationship which lasted almost two years:
“I then, very stupidly, got into a relationship with someone that was very bad for my mental health, so I’d managed to get into another, sort of controlling, emotionally abusive relationship.”
She says her partner, who she met at work, was very manipulative:
“I just completely lost all sense of who I was and was…a doormat, which is kind of the opposite of what I ever would hope to portray myself as. But that’s what I ended up as, completely lost, completely worthless…she made me feel like shit.”
Sarah tried to hide things from everyone but in the end her friends began to refuse to spend time with her partner, saying they would only see her on her own. She says at the time she felt totally abandoned, but she realises now that things had got so bad that her friends were desperate to find a way of getting her away from this woman. The relationship did eventually come to an end one evening after a row – Sarah began packing her bags but her partner then threw all her belongings onto the front lawn.
She went to stay with friends, although she struggled at first, listening to messages and wanting to answer the phone, but her friends always stopped her. A few months later they encouraged her to go down to Sydney for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, and she called her friend Katie who suggested she join her riding with the Dykes on Bikes who traditionally open the parade.
“So I‘d gone down (to Sydney)…and, well the rest is history, because here I am!”
Sarah and Katie had originally met whilst she had still been in her previous relationship; Katie had temporarily moved up to Brisbane from Sydney to work for the same union that Sarah had taken a sabbatical to work for on a campaign against then Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s ‘Work Choices’ legislation. Sarah remembered that they became friends almost instantly as they had so much in common, and they stayed close when Katie moved back down south. She says she never had romantic feelings for Katie throughout this time and nothing ever happened between them, they just got on really well.
As Sarah didn’t have her motorcycle license at the time, she was due to ride on the back of Katie’s motorbike in the parade:
“I remember…Katie was sitting there, and she’s got like a corset on, she had long hair at the time, so, corset on, skirt sort of hitched ‘cause she’s sitting on the bike…big boots on, and she’s just sort of sitting there getting this photo taken and I’ve just looked at her and gone, oh my god, my friend’s really hot!”
Sarah suddenly thought “wow, ok, what am I going to do with this?”
So they went to the parade and then to the Mardi Gras after-party and had an amazing night, and Sarah couldn’t get the thought of kissing Katie out of her head – she says she felt like a teenager – but didn’t act on her feelings. The next day they went to another party, and only after they’d got home did something finally happen between them. Sarah still remembers the squeals of excitement from their friends when they realised the next day what had happened…it seemed that they had all realised even before Sarah and Katie had.
Over the next few months they shuttled back and forth between Brisbane and Sydney, with one particularly memorable visit in Sydney where Katie surprised her with a night of opera under the stars in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
By this stage they had decided they wanted to be together, and, given that Katie’s legal studies didn’t allow her to transfer to another city, Sarah decided to move down to Sydney as soon as she could find a job she was happy with. It was another nine months before she made the move, but by December 2012 they had moved into their first apartment together.
Today, almost exactly three years later they have just moved into their own home – they recently bought an apartment in Redfern in the centre of Sydney. Sarah is now looking forward to her future with Katie – she says she fell in love with her best friend which seems like the nicest thing in the world. They talk about the possibility of spending some time living and working overseas at some point in the future, but for now they are happy in their new home in Sydney.
At the end of our interview Sarah says she is surprised at what she ended up talking about – she thought she would focus on her trade union work around LGBT rights at work and activism in the community rather than her relationships. Sarah says she’d like to start getting more involved in women’s and queer equity campaigning, both issues she is very passionate about:
“I love being a lesbian, to feel part of our community and I want the hate to stop. This is worth it if one person changes how they view me, a feminist dyke that is a good person that happens to love a woman rather than a man.”