Some LGBTI elders have lived through a period when being LGBTI could result in imprisonment, enforced medical cures, loss of employment and rejection by family and friends. Even now, in a community which is under increasing scrutiny and attack, division still exists, and these same elders that should be respected, face exclusion and isolation in the day to day.
Hosted by the much-loved Australian arts icon Robyn Archer, The Coming Back Out Ball will be presented at the Melbourne Town Hall as a premiere event of the 2017 Victorian Seniors Festival in association with the 3rd National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Conference.
TAGG Arts and Entertainment Editor Jessi Lewis spoke with Cameron Menzies over coffee at The Arts Centre, about this importance of this event, history and more recent times.
Let’s introduce ourselves.
My name is Cameron Menzies and I’m the event director of the Coming Back Out Ball.
And what is the Coming Back At Ball exactly?
It’s a celebration, essentially. It’s like an old school ball at the town hall.
It’s part of collaboration with All The Queen’s Men. For the last year, they’ve been doing a monthly dance club for LGBTIs over sixty-five. From that, it’s grown into a more formal celebration as part of the Seniors Festival, and also as part of the third national aging LGBTI conference. It’s now turned itself into this ball of 500 guests at Town Hall on the 7th of October.
Do you think some of the importance of the actual event is the misrepresentation or the overrepresentation of youth in the gay and queer community?
I think obviously there is a focus on youth. But, what we’re finding is that a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different walks of life have bowed out of the so-called ‘gay community’ – or whatever that means – many years ago, even though they were really instrumental in helping us create it. And because there’s nowhere for them to go, there’s nothing to do that’s specifically geared at them.
So, it sort of is addressing the youth, but not at the expense of them. It’s just creating an event that is particularly for LGBTI, for over-sixty fives. It’s not exclusive to them – anyone can go – but the event is created for that age group.
What are some of the other important factors of the actual event? For you personally, what do you think it gives?
I think visibility is a huge issue for that age group as well, but also visibility in terms of people having fun at that age. There are a whole lot of considerations around getting that kind of an age group into a room.
It’s also about getting people with some sort of life experience together. Even though everyone has their own individual story, it’s going to be a room full of people that have had a life experience, just purely historically, and their journeys coming out.
I think some of those big issues are addressed monthly with the dance club, but I think this will be a great event for these people to come to. It gives them something to look forward to; it gives them something to come to. It also gives them an event that is specifically designed for their interests and their needs.
Who are some of the entertainers that you’ve got?
We’ve got a really great, broad range of entertainment. We tried to stick to LGBTI performers, and predominantly over sixty-five.
Our MC is Robyn Archer. She’s also performing on the night. Carlotta’s agreed to come down from Sydney to performance for us, which will be great.
And then we’ve got people like Deborah Cheetham. She’ll talk about her experiences, but she’ll also sing opera for us.
It’s a really broad variety of what’s happening. We’ve got the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus coming to perform for us. We’ll have our own orchestra on the night.
So that real sort of old school glamour?
Yes. So we can go from really old school balls with orchestras, and then after all of that live proceeding happens, the dance club that have been working with All The Queen’s Men will do a lead dance. Then we turn into a nightclub at the end, which will be fun.
There’s such legacy within the older, elderly community and the queer community with the 1980s. How would you say that they could pass on that knowledge to the younger queer generation? I think a lot of them don’t quite understand that they’ve have gone through so much, you know – Stonewall, AIDS epidemic, and the rest of it.
Yes. Predating all of that, there’s a fabulous woman that will come and speak at Coming Back Out Ball. She was a champion shearer, and she lived her life out as a lesbian for a long, long time, so even pre-dating eighties sort of history. She will be at the ball and she wanted to shear a sheep for us! We can’t achieve that for her, but she will definitely be at the ball and she’ll be talking about her experiences as well.
But I think what the issue is – or what a consideration of this is – is that people are not taking these oral stories down. You look at things like Holocaust history and there are a lot of oral histories being recorded. As part of the night, there will be vox pops moments, and people will get up and tell parts of their stories. I think that will help in terms of making the people that have the stories feel like there’s an interest, but also we’ll also be able to capture these stories.
Why do you think that is?
Maybe it’s because there are no groups that are coming out and meeting en masse just to talk to people. I’ve done a little bit of work with Living Positive and they have the speaker’s bureau where people living with HIV go and speak about HIV to groups. You know, there aren’t necessarily those groups available because it’s such a disparate sort of group of people that have moved into nursing homes, or who are still in their homes but are finding it hard to get out.
That isolation would be incredibly difficult as well.
Yes. We’ve just spoken to Uber and they’ll come on board to help us get our guests over sixty-five home. So, when they’re leaving around ten o’clock at night, they won’t need to worry about public transport or the cost of a cab.
Are there any other corporate sponsors of the event that have surprised you by coming to the floor?
There’s a couple that are still kind of under wraps a bit because we’re still trying to work them through. But everyone that we’ve spoken to – we originally started with All The Queen’s Men, and we went to the City of Melbourne to talk to them about it – they’ve since taken it on as one of their major events. I feel like everybody that we’ve spoken with has come on with generosity and absolute interest in what we’re trying to achieve, but also in an acknowledgement that this group of people do need support and do need to be visible.
Corporate stuff aside, the over sixty-fives don’t have to pay. It’s a three-course meal; it’s an entertaining night. The state government, the City of Melbourne and all our other sponsors have come on board to essentially take the food and beverage bill off us.
Is there anything else you want to touch upon today?
There will be some poignant moments, but it’s a celebration of this group of people. It’s about understanding the experiences of people going into nursing homes. Some of them have to go back into the closet and deny what they’ve lived their entire lives just to feel safe within a nursing home context. I understand the Uniting Church has just done a whole lot of work on trying to make nursing homes safer spaces. We have real instances of people having to go back into the closet because they don’t feel safe where they’ve been allocated. That’s a major concern.
It’s horrible to think about that.
Yes, it has a far-reaching social impact. But I think it’s about having fun and really acknowledging these findings. Marriage equality comes into it still.
The elephant in the room.
Yes. That’s not the major focus of the ball, but it’s certainly one of the components.
But I think the biggest thing is that it’s a party; there is a serious reason for the party. There will be some really poignant moments, but it’s also not dumbing it down. It’s not putting on, for want of a better term, an “old folks” show, because sixty-five is not that old.
That’s what we’re classifying as being an elder because that’s just legally what it is. But a lot of our guests will be in their eighties. They’ll be greeted and looked after the entire night. We have a volunteer base of about forty people that will come on board. We don’t want anyone to be a wallflower. So, if there are people sitting by themselves, there’ll be hosts just to talk to people; or, if someone needs a bit more physical help somewhere, they’ll be available. These forty volunteers are all vetted, and all inducted for the evening to be there on hand just to help people and talk to people, and make everyone feel welcome.
I think the biggest thing is that the underlying issue is really serious, but it’s a fun night to acknowledge and honour the LGBTI elders that have fought and advocated and lived their lives, and need to be seen.
The Coming Back Out Ball takes place at Melbourne Town Hall on the 7th October for more info click here