This is a transcript of the talk given by Samuel Townsend at the special March Feminartsy event, Queer Meets Feminism.
In January of 1983, The Divinyls released their first record, Desperate. Weeks later I was born. Their song, ‘Boys in Town’, featured in the film adaptation of Helen Garner’s, Monkey Grip, a book that was considered a breakthrough feminist novel in Australia. Our home video library held a well-worn copy of the VHS and at age five I remember pushing the tape into the machine and watching the film. Repeatedly. Seeing Noni from Playschool without clothes was shocking. Seeing a naked Colin Friels was perfection. At age five, the image of a naked man piqued my interest. I was born this way.
At about the same time I remember seeing the music video for Bananarama’s ‘Venus’. It might have been the campy vampy costumes worn by the pop creation of Stock Aitken Waterman or the near naked men writhing beneath the She-Devil of their worship, but again, my eyes were fixed.
Dear, I think he’s Queer.
My folks had an inkling from early on, as did my cousins, aunts and uncles. Perhaps inkling is the wrong term. When I wasn’t brushing my Barbie’s hair and asking family friends or strangers ‘Isn’t Barbie’s hair pretty?’ I was miming to songs by Madonna and Samantha Fox in front of the telly, or lost in a world of make believe; dressing up in my mother’s silk scarves, pretending to be Ann Darrow in King Kong, struggling with my giant gorilla captor. Looking back it seems unnecessary that I had to ‘come out’ at age 20. There were quite a few tell-tale-signs in those early days.
I was born Queer, no doubt; but my feminist embrace came later on. I guess it was more of a calling. In a catholic high school I quickly became accustomed to an array of new nicknames; poofta, homo, fag, fairy, Sambo, Sammy, lanky and Spike. I had spiky hair.
Attacks, verbal and occasionally physical, were a daily occurrence. I sought regular council with my spiritual guides; Tori Amos, Courtney Love and Tank Girl. For some reason I almost exclusively looked to strong females (in film, music and pop culture) for guidance and wisdom. I also sought them in real life, and was lucky enough to be in some good company.
My big sister was and remains a mentor; literature frequently arrives in the post – Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman and Destroying the Joint edited by Jane Caro are a couple of recent offerings. I grew up with Aunts and family friends who were married but kept their own names – something I never questioned much as a teenager, but now consider a rebellious and worthwhile statement, especially as I now watch my female friends strangely adopting this outdated practice by changing their surnames after they’ve tied the knot.
Back in high school, I became close to a girl in my year, someone who was also on the receiving end of daily attacks. Together we would champion equality – calling out injustices when stumbling across them in class texts and bravely standing up to school bullies, on occasion. Naomi was a proud practicing feminist from an early age. I somewhat idolized her, forever enthralled with the value system she possessed and operated by. Desperate to be part of such an impressive movement or group I remember telling her, ‘I wish I could be a feminist!’ She looked at me like I was a fool. ‘You can be! Just because you’re a boy doesn’t mean you can’t be a feminist!’ I couldn’t believe no one had told me this yet. I signed up immediately.
A friend from Art School once hosted a night called ‘Man-Shandys’, at Toast. He called me one day and asked if I would perform at their next club night. I said yes. I made up a name on the spot, and I got busy rehearsing for my drag debut; and so began my foray into costumes, makeup and lip-synching. The birth of Fannii Minogue.
After relocating to Byron Bay I continued cutting my teeth as a Queen. It was trial and error. Mostly error. A gig at a 35th birthday party almost broke me. There was an ‘80s theme and the birthday girl requested a few classic tracks from the decade of excess. With a cubby house as my stage I blundered through ‘Venus’ by Bananarama and Madonna’s ‘Lucky Star’. A grown man still playing dress-ups – reliving my childhood, this time with an audience.
I floundered in front of guests who sat wide-eyed, nervously watching with children firmly planted on their laps. One kid pointed up at me and asked, ‘Mummy, what is that?’ I retreated to an empty bedroom and contemplated leaving the gig before my contractual three-song set was finished. My friend, KJ, who had come along for support and tech assistance, encouraged me not to smoke-bomb my way out, but to put my wig back on and get the job done.
On the deck of a house in suburban Byron Bay, I plugged my iPod into the stereo system and without warning I launched into ‘Boys in Town’ by the Divinyls, a nostalgic nod to my childhood. Something aligned during that performance. A piece of the jigsaw puzzle finally fell into place. As I mimed to Chrissy Amphlette’s shrill howling, ‘Get me out of here!’ I meant it. I wanted out – not just from the party, but I wanted an out from those troubled teenage years. Performing this track had given me an ‘ah ha,’ moment (not the ‘80s kind). I was exorcising demons. Drag was my therapy.
The more I performed the more I seemed to confuse audiences. Under the moniker of Minogue, people expected a Kylie or Dannii impersonator. They wondered why I wasn’t shaving my legs or armpits, or face. When I took out the crown at Cubes Drag Idol the compare looked at my crotch and to a packed audience suggested I see my gynecologist, referencing the fact that I didn’t bother ‘tucking’.
On stage, I wasn’t fooling anyone. For me it was never about ‘passing’ as a woman, but instead the theatre of performance – drama and tension. I was exploring aspects of storytelling through song; tales of empowerment and triumph, love and sex, strength and resilience. Fannii Minogue eventually died, making way for the birth of Venus. Venus Man Trap. The pop songs were replaced with rock ‘n’ roll. ‘I Need a Man’ by the Eurythmics, ‘Rock n Roll Nigga’ by Patti Smith, Martha Wainwright’s ‘Bloody Motherfucking Asshole’. I got into the habit of hurling my chicken fillets into the crowd, removing my wig mid song and sometimes stripping myself naked. At the end of a show, a friend once remarked that my performance was ‘iconoclastic’. I wasn’t yet aware of the term, but I took the compliment and ran with it.
I’m here tonight because I was asked whether my queer identity intersects with feminism. I think it might. I identify as both, although I’m not entirely sure I’ve answered the question. If I were to perform tonight, I wouldn’t be chanting the crescendo of Boys in Town (Get me out of here, Get me out of here!), but instead perhaps the poetic break from Rock n Roll Nigger.
Those who have suffered, understand suffering
And thereby extend their hand, the storm that brings harm
Also makes fertile, blessed is the grass
And herb and the true thorn and light
Image: Eun Ju Kim-Baker