Eddie Ayres: A Tale of Two Women
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and welcome to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQI+ storytelling night I host and programme. Queerstories events happen regularly in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, and I’m also now hosting them in regional towns. If you enjoy these stories, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast, and consider buying a copy of the Queerstories book: A collection of 26 of the stories edited by me and published by Hachette. I’m really proud of this collection and I hope you enjoy it too.
Eddie Ayres learnt the viola as a child in England, studying in Berlin and London before eight years with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He presented a long-running and extremely popular breakfast radio program on ABC Classic FM while teaching music privately and professionally. In 2016, he accepted a teaching position at the world-renowned Afghanistan National Institute of Music but returned to Australia to begin transitioning. He’s written two books – Danger Music and Cadence: Travels with Music, as well as a children’s picture book, Sonam and the Silence, published last year. Eddie performed this story in Brisbane.
Looking out at you this evening, I’m guessing that most of you will have grown up in a time when being gay, while perhaps not always celebrated, is at least legal, so here we are sitting with our queer family, and we have our Facebook, our SnapChat, our Twitter, maybe our Instagram account, and they give us contact with people who understand us. We’re with our people, right? And, as much as we choose to be, we can be part of this glorious queer and gay and lesbian life.
But, what about 50 or 60 years ago? What would we all have done then? Would we have had the bravery to gather like this to support each other, to love each other? How many of us would be here if it meant arrest, or public shaming, or imprisonment? I was talking with my partner Charlie, and she suggested whether instead of telling yet another story about myself, maybe I could tell a couple of stories about other people, older people, about people who did have that bravery and that self-knowledge to live and to love as they knew they must, that they had to do. So here is a tale of two women.
Let’s start with Joan. It is 1959. By the way, both of these stories are completely true. 1959. Joan is 16 years old. She’s academically very gifted at school, but her dad tells Joan that school isn’t something that girls do, and she must leave and get a job. So Joan goes from her beach-side suburb of Carrum into the big smoke of Melbourne and she gets a job working in a maternity hospital. Joan becomes what used to be called a Flower Girl. She keeps the flowers fresh, she cleans, she makes cotton buds, and she does more cleaning. And all Joan can hear – day after day – is the screaming of women giving birth. Remember, this is still Baby Boom time. Joan lives at the hospital in a tiny room, and she is unbearably lonely. She’s 16, but all the nurses around her are sisters – and that’s not sisters how we know sisters.
That’s “sisters” as in senior nurses with all that and everything, and they’re much older than Joan, so no one talks to her. In fact, no one really notices her. Joan bears it for six weeks, which is a lot longer than probably most of us would bear it, and she finally goes back to her dad and her step-mum in Carrum. But then, a bit of luck: Joan gets a job as a playground leader in Carlton on the corner of Rathdowne and Newry Street. There’s still a park there now if you ever go that way.
Joan meets a young woman who is doing the same job as her. Her name is Marg. And Joan and Marg, now around 18 years old, they become lovers, ardent lovers, as Joan’s dad and stepmother hear them through the walls of their bedroom, and send Joan to a psychiatrist.
Joan has no idea why she is going. “It’s so you can sort yourself out around our divorce, Love,” says her dad. And the first question from the psychiatrist? “Joan, do you have close relationships with women?” It all pours out of Joan, and after she has told the psychiatrist everything, she begs her, “Please don’t tell my dad.” Joan still has no idea that this is the whole reason she is there, that the psychiatrist now tries her hardest to persuade Joan against being a lesbian. Joan, being super smart, understands and realises that the only way she can escape is to convince the doctor that she isn’t really gay, it’s just a passing phase, and the doctor pronounces, “Praise the Lord,” that Joan is now cured. Is she, fuck.
Joan leaves that office. She goes out into the world. She falls in love with women. They fall in love with her. And Joan becomes known in the hospital, where she is now a midwife, as the Alpha Lesbian.
Joan eventually decides to have a child with her partner. Now, some of you may have had IVF, as a single woman in a partnership – gay, straight, whatever – but try getting a doctor to give you IVF 30 years ago as a single woman, let alone a lesbian. It’s impossible. So Joan and her partner, they now live in Canberra, they ask their circle of gay friends but no one is up to the task, so to speak. Joan and her partner meet a friend from the past, a gay man called Colin who agrees to father a child.
Now, the good thing about being a midwife is you have access to really good syringes, and just in case you need to know – and you may do – it’s the smaller ones you need, there’s more thrust. And so Tom is easily conceived, and he is born healthy and free of the HIV that Colin, the father, now knows he has. There will be no brother or sister for Tom. Tom and his birth mother have had a lucky escape.
Joan, this 16-year-old Flower Girl who left school with virtually no qualifications, this young woman who was challenged by the psychiatrist in the most confronting way to change her life, her very self, this woman is now a professor. In fact, the Professor of Nursing Research at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. She has held this position for many years. She’s 75 this year. She is still working, she has published around 150 papers in international journals, she’s travelled the world, and she has become a mentor to a whole new generation of researchers. Joan shows me, every time I meet her, the strength we can all have by being our true selves.
And, as this is a tale of two women, let’s turn now to Carole. It is 1963. Carole is 16, waiting to turn 17 so that she can begin her nurses training her in Brisbane. Carole’s dad has refused to let her stay at school, and she has to get a job while she waits to go nursing. Carole gets a job at Myers. Now, Myers in 1963 is a very, very different place from now. Carole works in the packing room where they pack up fashion items and send them to farmers’ wives out in Queensland country towns, the items that often returned a few weeks later to be refunded, and there’s sometimes the suggestion that the clothing has been worn for maybe longer than just trying on: A whiff of body odour, a slight stain of country party.
Carole is warned in the packing room by an older colleague, “Be careful of that girl working with you.” *Whispers* “She’s a lesbian. Carole becomes friends with her.
Good friends. The best of friends. Her name is Diane. When Carole finally goes to nurses college, Diane follows her. All the nurses live on-site at the hospital just up the road from here, just up at the Royal Brisbane. They work inhumane hours and then sleep. Their work is their strongest bond. Diane is friends with a woman called Jane, and Carole soon learns that they’re lovers. Jane used to be a student nurse at the hospital. She had had sex with the daughter of one of the doctors. The daughter had told her father. He had reported Jane to the Director of Nursing, and Jane was expelled from the hospital and banned from ever setting foot there again.
Diane brings Jane, her lover, onto the campus. The Director finds out and orders all Diane’s friends into her office. “If I ever see any of you consorting with that woman again, you will meet the same fate as she has.” Carole invites Jane back to her parents’ house for a meal, but little does Carole know that all the mothers of the student nurses have been calling each other, talking about why Jane has been expelled. After Jane leaves, Carole’s mother, Cybil, asks Carole if she’s a lesbian. Cybil is chopping yet more vegetables as she asks her daughter, her firstborn, and Carole weighs up the decision to say the truth. It doesn’t take long. She knows her family life is so miserable that if the Catholics are hated in her family, what chance do the poofs and dykes have?
To be queer? That’s the end of the world. That’s the worst of the worst. Cybil, now with her vegetable chopping knife in her hand, chases Carole from room to room, around the kitchen, down the hallway, up the stairs, into the bedroom. Carole denies it. There is nothing anyone else, any of us, would have done. After that, Carole never spends any real time with her parents. And Jane? Jane is left alone in her misery, in her sexuality. There is no time to see friends off campus, and Jane, in the end, drifts to Cairns where she continues her nurses’ studies. She and Diane split up. Jane will ultimately commit suicide by throwing herself out of a hospital window.
After such brutally long hours of nursing, it’s time for a month’s holiday. Carole and Diane decide to go to Sydney. They stay with Diane’s great-aunt Dorothy and her husband, Fred. Dorothy smokes cigarettes, which become tunnels of ash in her mouth, precipitous over the soup, the tea, the kitchen sink. Fred, even though he’s 80, does push-ups and chin-ups every day in his [inaudible 00:12:39]
Carole and Diane become lovers on this holiday. They make love for the first time, listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing Just Like A Rolling Stone. Diane and Carol, the girl who, just like Joan, was kicked out of school by her dad, they topped the state when they graduate from nursing. Carole goes on to work in London at one of the most prestigious hospitals; where the Royals are born, by the way. She spends six years studying Buddhism and Sufism in Indonesia. She returns here to Brisbane and becomes one of the city’s most beloved midwives. Fiercely feminist, fiercely protective of her young mothers within the system. With her kind, knowing hands, Carole brings hundreds of babies into this world.
Joan and Carole. They were never arrested for being lesbian because being a lesbian was never illegal. It was never illegal because Queen Victoria could never conceive of the pleasure one woman could bring another. Queen Victoria literally didn’t believe in lesbianism, or lesbianity as some like to call it.
But Joan and Carole, they believed in it.
You believe in it. We believe in it. We, as a community, believe… actually, we know that the love that we have for each other is true, necessary, and perfect. We know that by listening to our elders’ stories, we deepen our roots and we make ourselves stronger for the onslaught that is to come. The hurling of abuse, gender whisperers, paedophiles, lifestyle choices – it hasn’t finished.
We may have marriage equality, but there is a much deeper power and evil that is still being unleashed. There is another wave of hatred coming and we must be ready. So remember Joan and Carole, remember their bravery, and carry them in your heart because it is only through remembering our shared history that we will all survive. And I’d like to say that Carole and Joan are in the audience tonight. Can you please give them a round of applause.