Roz Ward: Pretended Family
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Roz Ward co-founded and directed Safe Schools Coalition Victoria. She sustained ongoing personal attacks through the public debates about Safe Schools and as a result, became one of the most well-known Marxists in the country. Roz continues to be involved in a range of political campaigns, and she’s a candidate for a PhD in Education at RMIT. She performed this story in Sydney and Melbourne.
Her attic bedroom was so small that when we were lying together on the bed, not knowing what was supposed to happen next, we could walk our feet up onto the ceiling and become L-shaped, and listen to the smiths as if Morrissey was somehow going to give us the answers to questions we couldn’t quite form yet.
And if the people stare then, the people stare, oh, I really don’t know, and I really don’t care.
We were standing in the corner of the school library in the reference section, that only the students who hadn’t ripped thumbholes in their uniform sweatshirts knew about, and she handed me a card with a poem in it. There was a verse from Dante, written on turquoise paper that had been glue-sticked over the version where her left-handed fountain pen handwriting had smudged on the first attempt. On the other page were lyrics from a song by a band called The Divine Comedy that was called Everybody Knows that I Love You.
In the local and only nightclub – in the small town called Frome where I grew up in Somerset – called McGuinesses, or colloquially Gingos after the two dodgy brothers who owned it, and spent their time on the edge of the sticky patterned carpet next to the dance floor, watching 16-year-old girls dancing, and spilling their ciders and bottles of hooch on each other. We navigated our spaces on opposite sides of the dance floor, the cigarettes and cheap lager were making my head buzz.
She left out of the fire escape door at the back of the club and stumbled down the metal steps that night with some older man who had been hanging around all night by the bar. A couple of friends had come to find me and told me to look away as she exited. I would never have imagined in that moment that later that same night she would end up pregnant and that her school jumper would quickly become too small to contain the baby that stretched out inside her.
And I wanted to be able to write her poetry and sing her songs to make her laugh, and prepare her dinners that met her exact dietary requirements. She liked melted cheese but unmelted or “raw cheese” as she called it was not acceptable.
So, I said to her that I would stay in that small town, under that low roof and help her, and change nappies, and get up in the night, but she opened the door for me and told me I should really go. So, I went.
The next day at school, holding back the tears, I welcomed the comfort of my dear friend John and his Scottish accent that he would never lose, even though he moved south when he was a wee boy. John had feelings about a kid in the year below who moved him in ways he didn’t really understand, even though he was normally so articulate. And when he finally escaped to university and read English at Oxford – getting him a mention in the local paper in the process – he didn’t let himself drink until he was 24 because he couldn’t let go of the safety measures he’d put in place to keep himself quiet, to not lose control and let things out.
One of my favourite teachers was a history teacher who later wrote down her phone number for me in one of those leaving books that you do; a landline number next to a single X. And she put her hand on my shoulder, and she made deliberately prolonged eye contact with me at break time, and asked me if I was okay. She told me that she was there and would listen to anything I wanted to say, to whatever it was I wanted to talk about. But I couldn’t and wasn’t sure, even though I really wanted to believe her when she said it would be okay.
I was at a small village primary school in 1988, in a place called Norton St Philip, and my mum had finally succumbed to letting me get my hair cut by a barber who thought that my name was actually Richard, not Rosalind.
Actually, she was quite cross afterwards.
She didn’t like the wedge. I really thought it was fucking excellent. And I told everyone at that point to start calling me Roz. And that year was the same year that Margaret Thatcher and her Tory government pushed through a new provision in the Local Government Act that became known as Section 28, or Clause 28.
And it stated that any local authority – and therefore all the government schools that fell under their jurisdiction – “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality, or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality,” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” A pretended family relationship.
Schools and teachers feared that if they were caught doing anything to promote homosexuality, their funding would be cut and their staff disciplined. The small number of school groups across the country that had been set up at that time to support gay and lesbian students were disbanded or shut down. The unspoken rule, therefore, became to make being gay, lesbian or bisexual, unspoken; a pretended family relationship.
On the 18th of February 1989, the Pink Paper reported that:
“Students at Colchester Institute were prevented from holding a meeting of the college’s lesbian and gay group by the principal who was acting on advice from the County Solicitor. In a confidential letter sent to all of the area’s further education establishment heads, he advises that a director or principal of an FE establishment should not be prepared to allow such groups to meet on their premises because, in doing so, they put the local education authority at risk under Section 28 of the Local Government Act.”
Section 28 was finally repealed after a long, I would say, campaign – in fact, that people in this room were involved in – in November 2003, six years after I left high school.
At university with the help of some excellent friends, I had become a confident young lesbian and believed I could…
*Audience whoops and applauds*
Still got a bit of that in me.
I believed I could handle almost anything, but when I was faced with a suited panel who asked me to demonstrate the innovative technology of the latest model of Dyson vacuum cleaner, as part of a day of interviews for graduate recruits, I honestly couldn’t bring myself to even make something up.
I was 21 at the time, and I had a girlfriend who shared with me her detailed fantasies about getting a place of our own; a cottage with roses around the door, and she wanted house rabbits. I don’t know if people know what house rabbits are, but they’re sort of as big as dogs. She wanted them living in the house. I was so in love with her I thought I could do that, that would be my family.
Me and her and the rabbits in a cottage where I would rest my Dyson briefcase on the kitchen table when I got home from work each night, but I knew not very deep inside me that I couldn’t do it, and that I wanted the world. I wanted politics, I wanted loud noises that would probably frighten the rabbits.
So I ended up coming here – by chance actually – to Australia. I landed on the opposite side of the world, and the very first night I was in Melbourne I went to a night called Drag Kings at the Star Hotel in Melbourne, and to the Glasshouse that used to be a great club. We had to go before 10 o’clock because it was still free to get in before 10. And afterwards, later on, we ended up at a party in an abandoned warehouse in Brunswick, where I danced on dusty concrete floors with some people who had three crosses on their wrists, who looked after you if you weren’t having a good time on the pill that you’d taken. And we talked for hours about how to negotiate open relationships, and the nature of love, and how queers can make their own families out of kinship circles, and shared experiences, and bonding with the ex-girlfriends of our ex-girlfriends.
And with respect, and consent, and love, we could figure out a new way of living; a new kind of family.
And I thought then that I wanted to do something to make it okay not just in a warehouse at 3 A.M., or in some distant future, but today for young people in schools; kids in year nine and ten… and all the other years.
I thought I could find a way to tell those young people that they did belong somewhere; in an English classroom, or in a space where they could sit on the graffitied tables at lunchtime, swinging their legs awkwardly, and asking their friends what it means to be attracted to more than one gender, or to not have to be a boy or a girl. And I thought teachers were good people, and I still think that teachers are amazing people who want their students to feel good about themselves, because they know that when you feel good about yourself, you can learn, you can look outwards, you can change the world, actually. And I still think that teachers are amazing people, except my niece’s teacher…
… who, when they did their Sex Ed in year six, which is way too late, refused to answer the question that she’d put in the question box, which was, “Can two women have a baby together?” Because he said it wasn’t an appropriate question.
And then all these people in the media and on TV in Canberra, and in State Parliament in Victoria started saying that I had a Marxist agenda to destroy the family and civilisation.
And what they didn’t know was that I was trying to create a family of my own, actually, in a room with high ceilings that was filled with love, and we had one of my dear friend’s sperm in an orange cup and an orange syringe, and we laughed quite a lot trying to do that thing. And we had to put on Joni Mitchell to help us feel calm.
And they didn’t know that I actually I already have families, and I’m not pretending. I didn’t actually set out to destroy anything, I was just putting my feet on that low ceiling and pushing. I was putting my feet on the ceiling and pushing.