Noel Tovey has had an extraordinary life by anyone’s standards. Now 75, the acclaimed director, dancer and West End choreographer who has worked with the likes of Judy Garland, Vera Lyn and Kenneth Branagh, and the principal dancer with Sadlers Wells Opera Ballet in London, has turned his attention on the rights of the gay elderly.
A long time political agitator, caught up in the Stonewall protests in the late 1960s, Tovey has penned an open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the recent changes to legislation for same-sex couples and what that means for the community’s elders.
The letter contains, as does Tovey himself, an authority and eloquence which seems to step over the dry, bulky political-speak surrounding the new laws, which some bemoan will mean gay pensioners are worse off.
The point he makes is an interesting one -” that the government has no right to harass the elderly into revealing their sexuality.
Old people have suffered great hardship and trauma in the past and you moved to apologise for this and acknowledge that pain, he wrote.
As an older indigenous man, who is also gay, I am deeply concerned at the suffering of gay elderly people who, like me, have experienced severe trauma in the past due to the ignorance of those around us.
Tovey said it is the changes to legislation which force people to come out that will leave the elderly population feeling exposed.
I have worked tirelessly to improve the lot of my own people, and by that I mean both indigenous and gay. he said.
People of our vintage still have these fears -” they were ingrained, like racism is ingrained.
There is an age group -” doesn’t matter if they’re rich, poor or whatever -” they still live in fear of being blackmailed if they come out.
Echoing the sentiments of many queer rights groups, Tovey has asked the government to implement a grandfather clause into the legislation to protect gay elders from harm. A grandfather clause ensures existing long-term situations are not adversely impacted when new legislation comes into effect.
I am mindful that had my own life story not become a fortunate one, I would still more than likely be a hidden gay aged pensioner myself, Tovey wrote in the letter.
Tovey’s own life sounds like a movie script. Taken away from his family in 1940, he experienced a troubled childhood, was sexually abused and lived in poverty.
In what seems a miraculous escape, Tovey hit the bright lights of the London stage where he became a great success.
He published his first autobiographical story of survival and success, Little Black Bastard, in 2004 which was turned into a one-man play and is showing as part of Melbourne’s current Melbourne Midsumma Festival.
One of the reasons I’m doing my show again is basically for young people, to see that you can be whatever and rise above it and have a life.
At the moment I haven’t opened the script, because once I do open the script it’s like opening Pandora’s box in my mind, so I start going through nightmares and not sleeping, it’s full-on.
Tovey said for all the apparent openness and acceptability in today’s world, he feels there is just as much non-acceptance, especially in terms of racism.
The big thing people in Australia haven’t really grasped, and I don’t think the government has either, that there are two distinctly separate indigenous communities, he said.
There’s the traditional, where English is not their language, where they live and perform the same ceremonies that have been performed for a 100,000 years, then you’ve got people like me who are mixed blood.
There needs to be a deeper understanding of all things indigenous. There has to be an understanding of gay indigenous people.
Working on a follow up to his first book, Tovey said the second installment will be focused on his political past rather than the glamour of the stage -” dedicated to his political awakening when visiting a slum in Soweto and hearing Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.
The book will also focus on the AIDS epidemic, to which Tovey lost his long term partner, Dave.
If you’re born black, you’re born political, Tovey said.
Asked whether the same applies for being gay -“ after a pause he answers, yes.
info: Little Play Bastard plays in Melbourne as part of Midsumma Festival at Gasworks Arts Park, Gasworks Theatre, February 5-“7, 8pm. Details: www.gasworks.org.au