SYDNEY’S lesbian history in the 20th century is remarkable and interesting — including the story of the lesbian who shot a taxi driver and went on to become the longest-serving female prisoner in NSW — but until now it was not well known, thanks to a first-of-its kind book.
Written by Macquarie University academic Rebecca Jennings, Unnamed Desires: A Sydney Lesbian History documents the city’s lesbian community from the mid-1930s up until the first Mardi Gras in 1978.
[showads ad=MREC] “As a lesbian myself, I am fascinated by the experience of lesbians in the past,” Jennings told Star Observer ahead of the book’s launch on Thursday.
“I moved to Sydney from the UK in 2006 and took up a research fellowship at Macquarie University and started to carry out oral history interviews with lesbians.
“Their stories drew me in and I soon realised that the experience of lesbians in Sydney was quite different from that of gay men in the city or of lesbians in other parts of the world and it was a story which needed to be told.”
Unnamed Desires: A Sydney Lesbian History is the first book to focus solely on the history of lesbians in Sydney, which was one of the reasons why Jennings decided to write it.
“The book focuses on the mid-20th century, from the 1930s to the first Mardi Gras in 1978,” she said.
“This period saw a big shift in lesbian life, from a culture of silence and isolation in which women felt unable to tell anyone about their same-sex desires for fear of losing their jobs or being ostracised by friends and family to the beginnings, in the 1970s, of a more visible lesbian culture with increased possibilities for lesbians to find each other and socialise together.
“Learning about our own history is really important for lesbians. Understanding our history helps us to build a positive identity and, particularly for lesbians, who were hidden in the past, it’s important to understand what that meant for the women who experienced lives lived in total secrecy and fear of discovery so that we can support them and work towards changing that culture in the present.”
During research for her book Jennings came across the story of Sandra Willson, a Sydney lesbian who shot a taxi driver in 1959 and became the longest-serving female prisoner in NSW.
“It is a fascinating story of life as a lesbian in Sydney in the 1950s, including Sandra’s experience as a psychiatric patient and, subsequently in jail, and I am currently gathering material for a biographical history of her experiences,” she said.
“If any readers knew Sandra Willson and would be willing to share their memories of her, please contact me,” she said.
Jennings said there were many elements she found surprising about Sydney’s lesbian history, including how pervasive the community was despite having to live in secrecy.
“The aspect of Sydney’s lesbian history which struck me most forcefully when I was carrying out interviews with women for this book was how profound the silence around female same-sex desire was in Sydney in the past,” she said.
“I came to realise that lesbians have had a major impact on broader society in Sydney, so knowing about lesbian history can help everyone understand Australian society in the past more clearly.
“For example, lesbians were central to a lot of what the women’s movement was trying to achieve in the 1970s, shaping ideology, organising and attending demonstrations and contributing their time and labour to a range of projects and I don’t think it’s possible to really understand the history of that movement without acknowledging the role of lesbians in it.”
Sydney’s Pride History Group will hold a special launch event for the book where Jennings will not only be speaking but some of the women interviewed will share their stories.
Unnamed Desires: A Sydney Lesbian History book launch, Thursday 25 February, 7pm at Benledi House, 186 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe.[showads ad=FOOT]