Hi I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories 2020. Yes, I know it’s 2021 now, but has much changed, really? We’re still in this strange state of fear and waiting, wondering if normal will return, wondering what normal was, and then wondering if normal is even something to strive for, anyway.
The first story today, is actually by me, and it’s one I’ve been meaning to share on Queerstories for some time now. It’s a story about risk taking, disaster striking, and being young and stupid, so it’s certainly en point for a podcast series about 2020.
When I was 18 I was involved in what was – at the time – one of the largest land rescues in Australian history. There may have been larger land rescues since, but I’ve chosen not to find out.
Being raised by lesbian mothers, I was taught to always strive always to be the best at what I do, even if that is risking lives and costing the government thousands in personnel and equipment.
I grew up in an inner Sydney bubble where being queer, or having a queer family really wasn’t too much of an issue. So, the choice to move to Bathurst to study theatre was admittedly an odd one. Bathurst sits about 3 hours west of Sydney – or, 2.5 hours if you’re speeding in your best friend’s beat up Camry.
Wide streets on a grid, flat earth except for the famous Mount Pan racing track, the town is situated on beautiful Wiradjuri country and while it may not be everyone’s idea of picturesque, when I visited it in year 12 to check out the campus, I fell in love.
I used to walk outside my house each morning and fling my head back to shout at the sky. I was obsessed with the clouds, with how open it all was compared to Sydney, with the patterns and streaks and sense of possibility.
Most of the students in Bathurst, and there’s a really high student population there, most have moved away from home, either living on campus or in the countless sharehouses lining the streets. Young people wrenched out of the structure of high school, let loose under those big fat clouds. It was mayhem.
I moved into a dilapidated terrace nestled between the train station, a vacant lot, a café that served the best wedges with sour cream & sweet chilli I have ever eaten and ever will… and the Tattersalls Pub, where the theatre kids would assemble to drink shit beer, perform terrible poetry, play the out of tune piano and curl up by the fire in trackies and uggs.
On really cold nights – and Bathurst has a lot of cold nights – I’d walk over wrapped in my doona still and sit on the floor to enjoy a shoulder massage from my pal Cameron, who I immediately attached myself to after I saw him at the uni bar proudly wearing a purple midriff shirt that spelled out “bi” in sequins. Cameron would give anyone a chaste and platonic shoulder massage if they bought him a Kahlua and milk. He remains one of my best mates 20 years later.
There was another bar a stone’s throw from the Tatts, and yet another round the corner. In 2002, Bathurst had the highest number of pubs per capita, and the highest rate of sexual assault.
The uni had a 7 to 1 ratio of women to men, which should have been lesbian heaven for me, but instead lead to a concentration of entitled straight men with way too much choice, who’d sing write songs cleverly rhyming ‘7 to 1 ratio’ with ‘increases your chances of fellatio’ and perform them at the uni bar. I didn’t get laid much, and I didn’t fit in.
The abseiling trip that led to our rescue was ill-advised to say the least. We were supposedly training for a physical theatre show titled Blue Flame in which I was to portray Mother Earth, a curvacious figure embroiled in a fierce contest with Father Time.
Dressed in a skirt fashioned out of home-made lanterns, I would play Billy Joel songs on my violin to a clown-like character my housemate created, the performance of which I now believe to be pretty ableist. Many have been understandably outraged about the government’s complete disregard for the creative industries during the pandemic but, looking back at this particular production, I find myself sympathizing with old ScoMo in this regard.
Maybe art IS bad.
“We’re going to abseil down Kalang Gorge,” said one of the consistently stoned uni tutors charged with organising the trip. “I used to be a cadet leader, I’ve done it before.”
Sure, sure, cool, cool, sounds good, we all said, imagining the charming little boulders we’d scampered down at school camp just a few years prior. On the eve of our escapade, all 24 of us stayed up late into the night, drinking, smoking, joyful.
Now, Kalang Gorge is a stunning spot. You emerge from the bush track for the first descent and are greeted with a wide open valley facing an epic wall of steep red cliffs. It was one of those perfect Autumn days in the mountains, bright sunshine and crisp air. This is what I left Sydney for, I thought, wind and sky and… adventure sports.
On the first couple of descents, I was giddy, easing my body backwards over the ledge I started out gingerly but was soon attempting little jumps, testing out the ropes and my own bravery, chasing adrenaline and attempting to impress my new friends.
Who was watching the time, when in between each climb we could perch on a rock gossiping about the ins and outs of everyone’s love lives, a web more tangled than the queer community; lean back in the sun and watch each other bound down the cliffs, running our hands through the waterfall, gasping when someone slipped, cheering when one of the more athletic among us did somethin’ fancy.
I don’t remember at what point in the day I came to understand the sheer scale of what we were attempting, whether it was when the third piece of equipment broke or the fourth, when that cadet leader explained they usually did the climb in groups of 8 not 24, or when one guy put his knee out and we had to fashion a splint from the branch from a fallen tree.
‘Shouldn’t we just leave, surely we can’t expect him to keep abseiling? Oh, I see, so you can climb in to the gorge, but you…can’t…climb…out?’
Google wasn’t a verb yet, and besides we were out of range, so I couldn’t reach into my pocket for useful bits of information like:
“One of the most extreme abseiling sites in the country, this breathtaking 280-metre gorge is the domain of serious outdoor pursuits specialists. With up to 10 consecutive abseils, this trip is suitable for those with strong skills, able to cope with a very steep and long climb out of the valley.”
Fun fact: you don’t need to do the long and steep climb up the valley if you’re flown out by helicopter at the taxpayer’s expense.
We were not outdoor pursuits specialists, we were theatre students.
We were only halfway down the gorge when night fell, gathered in an area about the size of your average lounge room, sheer drop to one side, waterfall on the other. We were hungry. We were cold. And one of Mother Earth’s fairies had already started cheating on her boyfriend with Father Time.
We built a small fire on the rocky outcrop we called home and created a human centipede around it, taking turns in the inner and outer circle of warmth.
The next morning, having barely slept, we watched the sun rise slowly across the valley and scrambled through the scrub to find the next descent. Our climbing slowed, our mood was less giddy, but there was still an air of adventure among us when we heard cries above and spied an orange speck making its way through the trees. The SES had found us, following our path, strewn with mandarin peels and broken dreams, with a view to helping us complete the climb.
A few hours later, a helicopter descended over our motley crew, the noise and wind of the rotor violently shaking the birds out of the trees above. They were able to winch out the guy with the bum knee, but we soon heard over the radio that the winds were too high for them to come back. We saw a second helicopter arrive in the distance, but it was just Channel 9.
We should keep going, said the SES. We’ll have to finish the climb.
By nightfall day 2 we were one big drop from the base of the valley, on a sloped muddy patch next to a clifftop pond. But we were delirious. Cold, exhausted, injured, the SES looked us up and down and decided we should just stay another night. Paramedics climbed up to us from the base of the canyon with silver space blankets and food.
Fun fact: Paramedics love it when you say you can’t eat the food they’ve literally carried up a cliff because you’re a vegetarian.
Ugh, good times.
By now our tiny campsite was swarming with swarthy men in uniform. The straight girls attempted to flirt with them, a fascinating inclination given they clearly thought we were all idiots.
Four of the volunteers made a wall around my friend Brietta as she crouched over the pond to change her tampon.
Instead of sitting quietly and thinking about what we’d done, a few of us made up a song about the whole experience. Insufferable. Well, no, we made up a medley of popular songs and we rewrote the lyrics, no doubt the foundation of my career as a cabaret artiste.
At first I was afraid, I was petrified, kept thinking I would never make it down the mountainside.
Or, my personal favourite:
I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it, when we touch equipment, we usually break it.
Under the space blanket that night I got a little sleep, waking up to hear they’d put out the fire because we kept rolling into it in our slumber. At dawn, the helicopter returned. They would winch out as many of us as they could, 4 at a time. If the winds picked up, whoever was left would complete the final descent to the bottom and then that long and steep climb out.
“Alright, make a line here, girls first then the boys.”
Now, look. Some would say that when you’ve spent 48 hours in the cold, hungry because you wouldn’t eat the canned ham, deranged and frightened because you thought your friends might die, you aren’t in prime condition to deliver a feminist lecture.
Some would say that a bunch of blokey SES guys who’ve left their families for the night to volunteer their time and risk their lives to save you are not the prime audience for a feminist lecture.
But I was 18, and I was yet to understand the complexity of the audience / performer contract, so I gave that feminist lecture, oh yes I did.
“UM, EXCUSE ME SIR BUT SOME OF THE GIRLS HERE ARE ACROBATS AND MOST OF THE GUYS SACRIFICED THEMSELVES LAST NIGHT BY SITTING FURTHER AWAY FROM THE FIRE IN ORDER TO IMPRESS THE GIRLS THEY ARE SLEEPING WITH AND NOW THEY HAVE HYPOTHERMIA. SO, I’M NOT SURE THAT QUEUING UP GIRLS THEN GUYS IS ACTUALLY THE BEST APPROACH.”
Abandoning the gendered system we made our own queue and, being a surprisingly agile climber for my frame, it was decided I would be winched out 13th. I tried not to be superstitious and focused instead on the fact I was apparently better at abseiling that 11 of my fellow theatre students.
Either that or they were just happy to sacrifice this self-important little lesbian to the falls.
When the helicopter descended it whipped up a wind so fierce the inertia made the waterfall flow backwards. Each time it approached us, the stream of water cascading down the cliff would rise, as if compelled by otherworldly forces, twisting its way upwards til it arched away from rocks, defying gravity. To watch this magic meant accepting scratches and bruises from the sticks and stones dislodged by the winds, whipping towards your face. Eyes full of dust, I kept risking injury to watch the waterfall, to watch each of my friends clipped in to the harness and pulled through the air. Look, dodge. Look, dodge. It was worth it.
I tried to take a moment as I was winched out to admire the view, aware at least that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, after two nights in the same underwear huddled on damp earth I had developed a horrendous case of thrush and so my enduring memory of flying through the air above magnificent Kanangra Boyd National Park is thinking, ‘when the fuck am I gonna be able to itch my vagina?’
Days later, dodging Prime News reporters as we walked to classes, I heard about the two students from Newcastle Uni who’d died in the gorge the year prior. But I didn’t think about it too long. I was too busy fretting about what to wear to the uni bar.
When I sat down to write this piece, I was struck by the madness of youth, the fearlessness, the belief that death is a thing that happens to other people. The willingness to hurl one’s body down a cliff in the pursuit of fun and adventure… or perhaps to queue up outside a pub in the middle of a pandemic.
In the past year, even before world events made us all consider our own mortality, I experienced loss and grief in a way that’s brought that tenuous grip we have on life into stark relief. I think if I were invited on a little abseiling trip today, even if it were in pursuit of making theatre, I do a little research. Pack spare thermal underwear and snacks.
I’ll leave the last word to CEO of the helicopter rescue team Stephen Leahy, quoted in 2002 in the Sydney Morning Herald in a report titled ‘A Comedy of Errors’.
The scene that greeted the rescue consortium of police, SES, and paramedics, on Monday afternoon was horrific.
“We have absolutely no doubt that if our team had not got in on Monday night there would have been at least one fatality.”
“The message is clear. If we are going to undertake outdoor recreation, we have to take responsibility for our actions. We have to stop for a minute and consider the risks.”
The next story is also about taking risks, though of a slightly more more personal nature.
Trent Wallace lives on Gadigal country and is a First Nations Advisor and Pro Bono Lawyer in a global law firm – the first and only Aboriginal person to hold this position. Prior to this, Trent was the first Aboriginal lawyer on the Disability Royal Commission and was with Australian Government Solicitor. He is a serious Haigh’s aficionado and pop culture quoter.
March 14, 2020, I started working from home. The day after I got myself a new car. I’ve got a real knack for timing, it seems.
Malfunctioning tap and go Opal card machines were replaced by me turning my phone alarm off at 8:50 am. I wake up to the soothing sounds of India Arie’s Video as my alarm. My dear friend, now a drag queen, used to wake up to the Bloody Beetroots tune that goes “1,2 WHOOP WHOOP” and he could easily sleep right through it. The idea of starting off my day with a nightclub anthem just doesn’t feel right. But I guess if I had to choose an anthem it would be ‘I Will Survive.’
Mornings spent getting preened to look like the love child of Gina Liano and Walter Mercado were now replaced with a dressing gown emblazoned with my initials in hot pink and ugg boots (a nod to my noughties girls Britney, Paris and Lindsay). Underneath the gown was a variety of Peter Alexander PJs. Each morning, I walked past my collection of designer work bags, wondering why I spent so much on things I didn’t really need in this new world.
Oh, but of course everything just had to be transformed into a webcam call. Having piled on weight in the first few weeks, I was more self-conscious than usual. We all create narratives about ourselves, none of which are ever very accurate. I mean, I self-talked so much shit on me that my internal dialogue was like a fight between two real housewives on a reunion show.
Still, I made the best with what I had and I werked my angles, mawma, and I held my laptop up like it was the famous Lion King scene, as high as those cameras that capture you as you walk into Coles.
Sorry peeps, I wasn’t looking at you or your puppy in the new Brady Bunch opening credits way of doing business. The continual lags, the pausing, the “can you hear me” the “you’re on mute,” the “quarantini” jokes got old real quick. I was staring at my reflection, judging all of the flaws.
As an introvert, I felt my space swallowed up in lockdown. My home is my haven. It’s my safe space, my oasis…and now I had to share it with bloody strangers. I appreciated people were missing connections, but to me, it felt so forced. I’d quickly pull on a jacket over my pj’s and plaster a smile on my face to try and connect and appease people. I wanted them to seek comfort in me. I wanted to help them feel some semblance of regularity. My work headshot is of me wearing sequins and a Gucci bowtie, so I’d try to keep up that façade when I had the energy. I wanted people to feel good during their time with me, despite how I felt which I’d rarely, if ever, reveal. Vulnerability meant weakness and weakness means I lose. I have many people who rely on me, so complaining and losing is never an option. And I was so used to hearing people say, “you’re the haspiest person I know!” But in reality, it was often a performance.
No more laser clinic. My formally smooth skin was now looking like a wrinkled piece of paper, the illusion of being a natural blonde was revealed to be complete bullshit and I did not dare try any formal clothing on. I started a tracksuit collection that would rival Sporty Spice and Missy Elliott’s. With a face mask and gloves on, hell I could rival McDreamy and McSteamy, I’d be McIceCreamery or McPanini – food was where I sought comfort and control. Can you imagine a lawyer being a control freak? No way.
My untamed newly brunette hair would go into its natural state of curl and frizz. I had ditched the fake tan and could rival Caspar – although I’m Aboriginal, my melanin is about as existent as my free cars, free education and free housing. Mic drop. But not yet, cause I’m not finished.
My work life melted into my home life. There was no divide or magical home office that people would often speak about – yes, I’m a lawyer. But a social justice lawyer who resides in a shared apartment with a couple who are also social justice lawyers. Our idea of an office is the dining table in the kitchen. Our living space looked like the tech area of a suburban cash converters. All that was missing was a Nintendo 64 and a Mario Kart cartridge. Do you remember the days of informal tech advice where it was simply “just pull it out and blow on it” and where such advice wouldn’t be found as a joke on some lame dating profile?
My birthday came around, April 27. A Taurus. Stubborn. Turning 31. Lizzo and I share the same birthday and physique it seems. My dear friends tried to make it as special as possible. I was given Haigh’s (my favourite chocolate ever) and other beautiful gifts, including a gift card to my new favourite clothing store, Peter Alexander. I had two outfits that day. A sparkly velour tracksuit that Nicole Richie would’ve stolen off me in 2004, and a black and gold Adidas tracksuit that would’ve made the boys in Range Rovers in Bankstown jealous.
I kept trying to see the bright side, but I yearned for my family. I’d normally be with them for my birthday then I’d be on my way to Brisbane to see two of my favourite people, also fellow Tauruses. Reminiscing wasn’t allowed for too long though, as an emergency fire drill saw us needing to evacuate. As I pulled my newly redundant Gucci work bag over my tracksuit, I contemplated the positives of a free cremation. But my phone was buzzing full of texts and notifications and I had work emails to reply to. We used the stairs, my hands coated in my Grey’s Anatomy get up, although I’d prefer to use a Von Ryan and All Saints simile here, God bless 90’s Aussie tv dramas.
My best friend and one of the only people on the planet I could bear living with is named Monte Carlo, well, not actually. It’s my nickname for her. Yes, pretty much everything important in my life relates to food! Monte Carlo’s reads me so well and has broken through my facade, but finding my words to speak my truth on my birthday felt impossible. Again, vulnerability means weakness which means I lose. I wanted to be out on Darkinjung country with my family that day. It hurt. Monte Carlo’s boyfriend’s family made me dinner that day and my favourite chocolate cake. They’re Jewish and as much as they’ve adopted me, I’ve adopted them. I’m their meshuggeneh wild child with tattoos and sass. Just to clarify, if anyone I consider dear to me is dating someone, I’m also in that relationship unofficially. I expect gifts and attention!
Lockdown was still in full force when I started to feel niggles in my body. Fuck. My own body was being vulnerable. I was being weak. I was going to lose. 500 steps and I was in agony. I went six minutes without oxygen at birth and my parents were told I would be left with severe brain damage. I defied the expert medical opinions as a child. I’m never one to give in, remember? I’m a fighter. That’s my story. My confidence is silent but whenever I’m doubted, it is my aim to prove others wrong, which I have done over and over again. It’s exhausting, but this is the narrative I have created. Anything I’ve set my mind to, I’ve achieved.
But now, the pain had me shuffling around Waterloo, I was moving around like Ozzy Osbourne whilst dressed in Adidas tracksuits that Sue Sylvester and Vicki Pollard would envy. I was determined to sort it out, and as I rolled into my mid-life crisis coupe, and let’s be honest, with the gaps in life expectancy, 31 is pretty much mid-life for an Aboriginal man like me, I set off to the Moore Park Supa Centre aka the land of coupled homosexuals in their 40s. I rolled out of the coupe to the sound of Boss Bitch by Doja Cat, but I can assure you I wasn’t feeling like much of a Boss Bitch that day. I decided my sequinned velour tracksuit was the best costume for the day, as Little Edie would opine, and I hobbled along to satisfy the reason I arrived: to get something that would massage me, to help break up the pain! Yeah, that’s right. I solve my own damn problems and will fix everything, cause that’s what I do. I fix everything by myself.
As I perused the array of massage devices, I paused the music on my earphones. Annie Lennox’s Walking on Broken Glass was playing and couples of all combinations were in surrounding aisles. “Hon, should we get the 55 inch or the 65 inch screen” – the inane conversations washed over my body as the lyrics rang in my ears:
I’m living in an empty room
With all the windows smashed
And I’ve got so little left to lose
That it feels just like I’m walking on broken glass
The “inane” conversations were simply couples communicating. Relying on each other. Making decisions together. I was in an aisle looking at self-massage devices, trying to see if the handles would reach to my back and I had never felt so alone. Not knowing how to process the emotions, I grabbed a piece of equipment that would fit on my chairs at home. It even had a heat function, to replace the embrace of another human, I imagined.
The couples I saw were slender and therefore palatable. Fat people aren’t really considered palatable, unless it’s down to being fetishized. How many of us fatties have yarned about our weight only to be told by friends we are beautiful, as if that’s a consolation…”hang on, I said I was fat…not ugly!” Courtney Love once said “they will forgive you all the drugs in the world but they will never forgive you for getting fat”.
Well, I am not seeking forgiveness nor redemption. I do not need that. Society has rejected my very being, whether it be my Aboriginal identity, being left-handed, being fat, being heavily tattooed in the legal profession and/or wearing weird clothes. For most of society, my existence is incorrect. I am an outsider and that is why I’ve had to create my own path. It’s why I’ve been the first, or first and only Aboriginal person in my various jobs. I have only ever known being alone. I have only ever known being able to turn to myself. My resilience is derived from trying to thrive in a world that was built on my oppression.
I don’t necessarily perceive resilience as a positive thing, in fact, I think it reinforces what’s wrong with society and feels rather patronising. Every day should not feel like a battle because I’ve been assigned particular attributes at birth. In fact, next time you define or perceive someone as being resilient, look at how you’ve been complicit in underpinning and reinforcing their oppression. As Madonna once sang “I’m not your bitch don’t hang your shit on me.”
After a night of zero sleep, Monte Carlo convinced me to see a physio. Restrictions had eased. Despite my trust issues, I trust my Monte Carlo. She’s the first friend I let see me wearing my tanning attire (hair tied up like Bam Bam, wearing an 09 Ed Hardy singlet). I miss those days when Ed Hardy was a thing.
I went to the local physio, relinquishing some of my power. The physio I saw was an award-winning gymnast who looks like he stepped off the set of Home & Away. I had to take some of my clothes off as he assessed my body. Well fuck, that sleeve of Oreo’s didn’t feel so good at that moment. He asked me to do an exercise that involved me leaning and sitting back onto a bench. I put my arms behind me to hold the bench as I sat, and he said he wanted me to stop doing that. But I physically couldn’t. I didn’t trust the bench would be there, I told him.
As I realised what I had said, I started to laugh and tried to scan the room to make sure nobody heard me blurt out such an embarrassing admission. I bloody admitted openly to a stranger that I had trust issues… with a bench! He didn’t notice that at all though, and because I laughed, he laughed too. Internally, I knew I had awoken a vulnerability, which meant I was weak…but I didn’t lose. In fact, in that moment I realised that maybe I was alone because of my trust issues not the reasons I gave in my internal monologue. And in that moment, I was able to recognise what needed healing. I was like a middle-aged white lady reading Eat, Pray Love. But John Candy was dead, so who was going to play me?
See, the self-deprecating jokes still sit in me because there is a script ready, the internal monologue is there. But I don’t want that life anymore. I want to lean into my vulnerabilities, I want to focus on things that have failed and learn from them as opposed to covering them over. Being vulnerable is not weak and it does not mean I will lose. In fact, it’s not even about losing or winning, it’s about being human. It’s about telling your truth, no matter how ugly for the external world. It’s about the balance of the lightness and darkness. It’s not my job to be the happiest person, you know. It’s not my job to perform for you. I don’t need to apologise for being fat. I don’t need to apologise for being me. It is my job to be my authentic self and to live the fullest. It’s not that easy, of course, and there is much work to be done – but as my girl Tina sang “I’ve been thinking about my own protection, and it scares me to feel this way.”
Thank you so much, everyone.
Thanks for listening.
This project is supported by the City of Sydney through a Creative Fellowship Fund. You can support Queerstories for as little as $1 per month by signing up to my Patreon – look up Maeve Marsden on Patreon or follow the links in the podcast description.
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