This is a seniors’ dance like no other. Beaded, bewigged lesbian couples foxtrot, transgender guests frock up in diamante, an octogenarian resplendent in bow tie eyes a young male trapeze artist in red high heels. It is a night for celebration as elders of the LBGTI community take to the floor at The Coming Back Out Ball last October 2017, filmed as part of a wider story by documentary maker Sue Thomson.
Created by production company All the Queen’s Men headed by Tristan Meecham [pictured top with Thomson], the Ball rose out of the LBGTI Elders Dance Club and a desire to celebrate elders in the LBGTI community at a highly visible event in Melbourne’s Town Hall, the city’s largest civic space.
Meecham himself comes across as full of heart, dressed in tux and 6 inch heels as he runs up the steps to meet, greet and introduce Robyn Archer as host, and performers including Carlotta and a thirty piece orchestra.
While in the UK in 2014, Meecham was inspired by Duckie, an arts organisation that successfully ran a weekly LGBTQI club night in London. Meecham adapted the idea to set up the LGBTI Elders monthly Dance Club to provide a safe, inclusive space for – to date – around 50 elderly participants.
When he came across research on aged care, Meecham decided to expand the dance club into the celebratory public event of The Coming Back Out Ball. The research revealed that LGBTI elders may hide their sexual orientation or gender identity to protect themselves from judgement and insensitivity from social services.
Old age is a vulnerable time for everyone, but this community lived through a time when being LBGTI could mean rejection, forced ‘cures,’ even imprisonment. It is understandable that they may feel the closet is the only safe place to return to.
Many gays are able to come out by making a move to the city. Housing affordability drives the elderly back to regional areas, which for an LBGTI senior may put them back into a less tolerant environment.
Thomson, director and co-writer of The Coming Back Out Ball Movie attended a preview screening to talk about the film. She describes herself as a human rights filmmaker, who “wants to use documentary to give a voice to the voiceless.” Her previous work includes Tempest at the Drop-In (2004) with Eric Bana.
“The film was three years in the making,” she says. “Tristan is a friend and performance artist. He read a paper about people going back into the closet, and said ‘I want to know about these pioneers.’ He was inspired by the gay and lesbian balls of the 1970s.”
Thomson describes the challenges involved in finding subjects for the documentary. “They live isolated lives, so finding them was complicated. It took about two years to find the main cast, mostly by word of mouth. People were reticent, very suspicious. They came out of a time when people didn’t talk about sexuality. It was a challenge to break down the barrier to get them to go to the Ball, to be open and revealing.”
The main characters whose stories we follow are a wonderful cross section of ordinary people who are sexually diverse. Thomson deliberately steered away from celebrity. “For example, Magda Szubanski attended [The Coming Back Out Ball] and I could have probably got an interview, but I didn’t want it to be about well-known people.”
The first moments of the documentary are black and white footage of seniors getting ready in their own homes. We track to the exterior of Melbourne’s Town Hall, also black and white until it transforms with rainbow coloured lights and The Coming Back Out Ball opens its doors.
Meecham organised studio portraits of elders to create hero images for the Ball’s advertising. The faces are full of character, but we are reminded that we as a culture struggle with ageism as well as sexual prejudices. The subjects are, of course, elderly, sometimes frail and clumsy; they don’t fit into standard categories of attractiveness; their outfits range from eccentric to flamboyant to conservative and back again. They express anger, grief, fear.
“I thought I’d come out, then when I went grey it’s like I have to keep coming out,” complains a female elder, reflecting the LBGTI particular brand of invisibility in old age. Another elder lesbian is defiant, sporting a full beard, a combative attitude and a t-shirt that says: ‘This is what an old lesbian looks like.’
“Where do you go when you age out of the club scene?” comments another.
The cast includes Judith, a champion shearer in her day, now less mobile in her 80s and sporting bright lipstick and a headband for the Ball. David speaks about being a Christian and his anger at the lifetime of guilt. He was aware of being gay when he had infatuations for men during his wartime service. Like many others, he left the service and masked his sexuality in order to marry and raise a family.
An Indigenous elder describes how the twin issues of adoption and sexuality can leave a legacy of not feeling good enough. “There are no role models,” he says. “Then there’s poofter bashing, fear of exposing yourself.”
An intersex subject speaks about having no genitalia and the fear of being exposed as a freak in the standard aged care system. There’s an irrepressible 87-year-old who dances the night away at the Ball, and describes his life-long attraction for men.
As they share their stories, one thing becomes evident, a person’s essential self, which includes sexuality, can’t be repressed, and you never ‘get over it’ or ‘grow out of it.’
The documentary is being released at a time when LBGTI is being discussed on many platforms. The same sex marriage vote was being held at the time of the Ball. The documentary is being released on a circuit that includes Boy Erased about conversion therapy and Bohemian Rhapsody reminds us that homosexual prejudice was still rife in the 1980s.
The 70 and 80 year olds of the documentary bring a cultural history with them. They were in their teens and twenties when 1973 saw a motion put forward in the House of Representatives to decriminalise homosexual activity between consenting adults.
The motion had no legal effect until state and territory governments repealed sodomy laws bit by bit between 1975 and 1997. Discrimination against LBGTI people wasn’t made illegal until 2013 even though that community numbered at least 3% of the adult population.
Archival footage in the documentary is mainly through the subjects’ own photos and memorabilia. The pictures trace threads of personal history and also social themes of diversity.
“I took cameras in from day one,” Thomson says. “I went with Tristan to meet them, he would talk about the Ball. We went several times then maybe after 6 months I started actual filming. Once we had the trust, I got more assertive as time went on. As far as editing goes, I had the shape of the documentary already in my head so the shooting and edit fitted into that.”
Thomson describes how the cast attended a premier screening of The Coming Back Out Ball Movie in Melbourne. “Watching themselves back and hearing their narratives has changed their lives. They say, you asked me things I hadn’t considered about my life.”
The filmmaking experience was also a game changer for the director.
“Before the film I had awareness of diversity,” she says, “but since making it I’ve become more political as a woman, more determined to fight for my rights too.”
The Coming Back Out Ball Movie is previewing on December 1 and 2, and in cinemas from December 6, 2018. For more information, head to the website.