In 1976, two women were convicted of “offensive behaviour” for holding hands on a tram in Melbourne, Australia.
The fate of the women is unknown, but their story shot from queer folklore to an issue of fleeting national interest when it was mentioned in Victorian premier Daniel Andrews’ apology to people convicted of unjust historical laws against homosexual acts.
Now, the journey will be replicated by a number of older lesbians in a project titled ‘Tram’, aimed at celebrating lesbian resistance.
The project is being run by Alice’s Garage, a self-funded national program promoting healthy LGBTI ageing and empowering LGBTI elders, in partnership with photographer Lisa White and Switchboard Victoria.
Alice’s Garage director Catherine Barrett told BuzzFeed News the project was about identifying the specific challenges faced by lesbians in Australian history and telling their stories.
“LGBTI histories are often viewed collectively – but older lesbian’s experiences of homophobia were compounded by patriarchal views – and yet these women found ways to resist and survive,” she said.
“The project is not just to recognise historic experiences of lesbophobia, but celebrate the resistance to them. Lesbians got through those terrible experiences.”
The multi-pronged project will collect archival material on the experiences of older lesbians, as well as inviting them to share their stories and submit photos of themselves holding hands.
In October, a number of older lesbians will hold hands on a tram journey from the Melbourne CBD to St Kilda, the site of Victoria’s new Pride Centre.
One of the stories Barrett wants to spread and celebrate is that of Hazel “Malloy” Rolfe, an 82-year-old lesbian who lives in an aged care facility in Campbelltown, South Australia.
Malloy realised she was a lesbian in 1954, when she was 19 and working at a telephone exchange in Adelaide.
She told BuzzFeed News it was a “scary” time, but the telephone exchange was a “haven for lesbians”.
“Not many of them ever talked about it,” she said. “It was a pretty taboo subject.”
Asked how she knew the other women were lesbians if they didn’t talk about it, she said: “One knows one by being one. It’s just a feeling.”
After six years at the telephone exchange, during which time she had three girlfriends, Malloy went through a bad breakup and lost her job. She suffered a nervous breakdown, and ended up at Hillcrest Hospital (previously known as Northfield Mental Hospital), an Adelaide psychiatric institution that was closed in 1994.
Over the next eight years Malloy underwent various therapies for depression and to try and become straight, including electroconvulsive therapy and taking the drug LSD.
She said that she doesn’t have much to do with younger lesbians these days, but a couple of decades ago when she was more involved with the community, people would often come up and talk to her about what she had gone through.
“Many of them came up to me and said I was courageous, they hoped they would never ever have to go through anything like that,” she said.
“I would imagine 20 years on it becomes even easier for them.”
Malloy still comes up against anti-gay attitudes in her retirement village, but said the staff are very accepting.
“I’ll give you an incident,” she said. “I went over to the nursing home to collect a meal for myself on Sunday night after I’d been to mass. I said to the nurses who were feeding two of the residents in the dining room that I’d been to this conference, and they said ‘Who did you go with?'”
“I said, two lesbian friends took me. And they didn’t bat an eyelid. Forty years ago that may not have been the same story. Even then I felt slightly nervous saying that, that I’d get a reaction.”
Malloy does come across older people who are homophobic, or who hold the view that it’s OK to be a lesbian as long as you don’t act on it.
“The only way I deal with them is to think that’s their problem, not mine,” Malloy, who is a devout Catholic, said. “All I say to them is I don’t see it that way.”
She said the best thing about being an old lesbian is “being different”.
“Not being the run off the mill,” she said. “[Some other old women] have an old mentality, and I can’t relate to them. So what’s good about it is that I still feel fairly young and I’m young in my ways and ideas.”
Barrett, who interviewed hundreds of LGBTI seniors in her time as a researcher at La Trobe University, said stories are integral to uncovering the structural discrimination faced by LGBTI elders.
“You can say to people lesbophobia is a problem, and you engage with their heads,” she said. “But when you tell a story, you engage with people’s hearts.
“We thought what would be really powerful – imagine younger, or middle-aged or mature-aged lesbians going out and sitting down with an elder and asking, ‘What was it like for you?’”
On four days each week Malloy heads across the road to the nursing home part of the aged care facility, to keep company with older people who are less mobile and independent than she is.
Her partner of 20 years died two years ago – “I’m still getting over all of that” – and she has recently decided that she wants to get involved in the LGBTI community again.
Malloy attends a weekly meet-up in a local pub for older lesbians, though she’s yet to find another lesbian as old as she is kicking around Adelaide: “I still appear to be the oldest one around.”
She’s also considering volunteering with various LGBTI charities – including one that visits older people who are housebound.
“Doors are opening now, once again,” she said. “It’s a good journey.”