Same-sex marriage Down Under in a tense contest

In Australia this week, it will not be business as usual for commuters on the tram. For a group of elderly lesbians with a sparkle in their eyes and attitude to boot, it’s time to reclaim the train, and reclaim their history. To commemorate a historic act of lesbophobia which occurred there in 1977, they will board and they will hold hands. And they will be proud.

The women will hold hands on the tram from Melbourne to Saint Kilda to remember and celebrate the act of bravery of two women who publicly held hands there years before who were then taken off the tram and officially charged with “offensive behavior.” The identities of the women actually still remain unknown, and their ordeal was nearly forgotten until recently. That was in 2016, when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews mentioned their fate in a speech apologizing for the way the LGBT community had historically been treated by the government. “I learnt that two women were convicted of offensive behavior in the 1070s for holding hands – on a tram,” he stated in the speech.

He then issued a call to the LGBT community and those who love and support them: “Next time you’re on a tram in Melbourne, hold their hand. Do it with pride and defiance. Because you have that freedom.”

The search for more facts about the two women continues. “We don’t know anything else about them,” says Dr. Catherine Barrett, the founder of a national organization called Alice’s Garage, which aims to build respect and empowerment for LGBT elders and promote healthy LGBT ageing. The incident happened in 1977, but “all that we have at the moment is the notes from the Victorian Law Reform Council.”

But Barrett says it’s quite meaningful that the “Tram” project is happening in the midst of the same-sex marriage postal vote, currently underway to determine if Australia will become the 25th nation to permit same-sex marriage. All over the country, voting began last month in a postal ballot to inform the government on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared that there will be a vote in Parliament by the end of this year if the majority of returned surveys favor changing national laws to legalize same-sex unions. If there is a “no” majority, there will not be a vote introduced in parliament.

Barrett notes that the campaign has been bittersweet for many senior LGBT Australians.

“The older LGBT people I speak to, they’ve got old wounds. They’ve had historical experiences of discrimination. They tell me, ‘They’re using the same language, they’re using the same arguments,’” she states about the discriminatory and homophobic language used by the “No” campaigners this fall.

She says the Tram Trip is still vital in today’s world because, “Two women holding hands in a public place still raises eyebrows, you get a few stares.”

Barrett’s Alice Project pays homage to “Alice Anderson, a motor mechanic who set up an all female motor service in Kew in 1919. Alice was described as “unconventional” – women were not expected to be independent and a garage was considered men’s business. Undeterred, Alice provided training and opportunities for women to work as pupil mechanics; she also offered women driving classes, mechanical instruction and the opportunity to work alongside mechanics on their own cars. We recognize Alice empowered women with information, opportunities and respect for their capacities. Almost 100 years later we build on Alice’s principles to empower LGBT elders through information, opportunities and respect for their capacity for autonomy.”

So far, ten million Australians, or 62.5% of eligible voters, are estimated to have voted in the same-sex marriage survey and returned their forms. Though weekly estimate on the number of surveys returned is being released, no information is being revealed about the way the vote is going, and there is still more than a month to go before the result is announced on November 15th. Meanwhile, the response rate already surpasses the 60.5% reached in Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, and is already higher than the 55.5% of Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential elections. Here’s to November 15th Down Under!