Steph Sands

SSM: An open letter to those about to vote on my fate

As the postal plebiscite is being shuttled to letterboxes around the country to define who I can marry, I thought I’d take this opportunity to not let a label define me. I’m a person, just like you. So here I am.



For those who don’t know me, I’ve been on the board and the co-chair of Mardi Gras twice. First in the early 2000s and then around 2010. About seven years in total.

I also founded an event called Women Say Something, which aims to give women, who are more often than not overlooked by other events, an opportunity and platform to talk about what is important to them.

In some ways you could call me a professional gay!

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I could write about that actually defines me. Something that people wouldn’t know about me. And then a few things happened over the past few weeks that have actually defined what I want to say.

Firstly, it was Father’s Day this weekend and that always makes me a bit melancholy. I lost my dad when I was 18 and he never really got the chance to know who I really was. My true self.

Secondly, the CWA (Country Women’s Association) came out in support of Marriage Equality. Being country born and bred, they were probably the last group I would expect support for the Yes campaign from.

Thirdly, I went to a town hall type meeting last week to hear about how we needed to co-ordinate the Yes campaign for this stupid postal survey thing on my rights. They said that all the research shows that 80-90% of people will vote within three days of receiving their ballot paper if the high court challenge fails. That is only 14 days away.

And that is why it’s important to share my story for the past 30 years. Because this issue is not about lifestyles or school programs and children even; what it is about is people. Like me.

I grew up in a small country town where the cows were cows and the bulls were bulls and if your bulls were gay you were… rooted.

At high school I remember wanting to spend all my time with other girls and not the boys. I remember choosing a boy to “like” but not having the physical feelings of liking them. Spending time in art class taking photos of girls and hours in the darkroom developing them. I didn’t know what a lesbian was but I was teased for being a tom boy and even called a “lezzo” at one stage. I asked Mum what it was once and she said it was a horrible word. I had no clue whatsoever.

I remember finding a Dolly magazine once where a fashion photo shoot had two women hugging each other. I ripped that photo out and kept it folded in one of my books and looked at it all the time, and I couldn’t work out why I liked that.

It was the ’80s and I rejoiced in the sounds of Queen, and Frankie goes to Hollywood, Madonna, Billy Joel and Simple Minds, and of course… then there was Boy George. I don’t think many parents knew really how to explain him.

I think I knew what gay was (not lesbian) and I think I knew he was maybe gay, but I didn’t think that two women could be gay.

I remember once having a sleepover with a friend where we practiced kissing boys through a bed sheet. I wanted to keep practicing. She didn’t. I knew that I wasn’t the normal one here – this was a time in a small country town before the Internet; there was no safe schools programs, no alternate sex ed; no nothing – I just didn’t know why or how I was different. I simply knew that I was and that was more frightening than anything. Because I knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal.

When I was 17, we found out my dad had cancer. He died a year later when I was 18. What this meant though was I ended up going to uni at Wagga Wagga Ag College rather than Sydney Uni so I could be close to the family. It was the only school within a two hour drive.

An agricultural college in the ’80s was like a series of heterosexual stud mating sessions masquerading as B&S balls in muddy paddocks with kegs of beer on the back of the ute. I never wanted to be a part of it all but I put on the pale blue taffeta and lace frock and heels that I wore to my school formal and did my bit to try and be normal.

It was 1987, and Siimon Reynolds had just made the grim reaper ad for the government, an ad made to show the devastation of the AIDS virus on the community which showed a grim reaper with sickle and a bowling ball, knocking out all types of people.

And all everyone could say about AIDS was that the gays were killing people. That gays were bad. And gays should die.

“Go get aids and die you faggot.”

“The gays” were banned from swimming pools, denied basic medical treatment in hospitals where nurses refused to nurse them. Ministers warned their congregations not to drink from the communal cups; parents afraid to send their children to school and drink from bubblers. You didn’t shake people’s hands or sit on toilet seats. There was even a call to have AIDS victims tattooed so people knew they had the disease.

It was a horrible time to be different in a small (minded) country town.

I was trying to live in a world where I was fearful of being found out as different.

So I was in denial.

Or numbness. Probably both.

After uni, I stayed in Wagga and started teaching at a Catholic High School. I started to lie about my relationships to and with other people. I even sent myself flowers to work once to seem like the other women in the office.

I had to bury how I felt and who I was and I picked up boys in pubs and clubs for awkward kisses to show others that I wasn’t that different to them.

And I was still teased and yelled at from cars.
And I was still bullied by women who looked different to me.
And I was bashed in a club once.

I was sacked from my first teaching job and they didn’t give a reason why. And they didn’t have to. But I know it was because I was different and I didn’t ever teach again.

I found solace and I hid in the shadows of the backstage and in the pages of writing within amateur theatre and at last, finally, I met some people who were gay in Wagga. Two of them!

And I listened to Joni Mitchell – a lot!

And I wrote intense one-act plays of friendships between women which had so much subtext and angst that I couldn’t even bear to read them today.

I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t found the escapism of those scripts and the alternate thinking of those people who became some of my best friends. They probably saved my life.

I know others who did not survive. Who choose a different path.

It was after one of my plays was performed in Wagga that a young woman approached me from Sydney and asked straight out if I was a lesbian. I think I said maybe, I didn’t know… she said, “Cool – so am I.”

I got my first lesbian kiss that night and it was brilliant. And I was so excited I followed her up to Sydney and made such a fool of myself fronting up to her front door with flowers but I had been awakened.

And then I was living in a city where I could be whatever I wanted to be in the small bars of Oxford Street, where it was safe as long as you didn’t step aside and show any signs of public affection for fear of gay hate crime and violence.

Knowing you are different and discovering what it is, is one thing. However, the hard bit was only just starting. Coming out!

I remember coming out to my mother and her saying to me, “And I’m Presbyterian, so what?” before saying she was worried that I had chosen such a hard life…

From that point on, I have had to come out pretty much every single day of my life. And I’m tired of having to do it.

Every job I’ve had, every friend I’ve made – being gay becomes a part of my descriptor. And the narrative, and sometimes the opinions and assumptions, of others…

Like, “You know, the dyke that works in Raymond’s team,” or “Those lezzo’s are having dinner tonight. Put them in the table in the far corner,” or “Oh, you want a queen bed, not two doubles…?”

Or worse still, “Only immediate families can visit in ICU. You’ll have to come back tomorrow…” – or – “I know she just died, but I can’t tell you about her estate. You will have to ask her next of kin – her immediate family.”

Enough now. We have come a long way since those days in the ’80s where a young country girl came out and started a new life in Sydney and ended up leading the biggest annual night time parade of human rights in the world.

In this role, I’ve seen many things change through changes in law and rights, and many attitudes change through a changing generation or two, but we still have a way to go.

Over the next few months you will continue to hear the No campaign say many hurtful, damaging and blatantly untrue things. I try not to read the comments under news stories and I try not to waste my time reading or noticing their campaign. But I do want to say this:
I am a person, I am not a lifestyle choice,
I am not a gay lobby and I do not have a different agenda, I am a person.
I am not political correctness and I am not a way of life. I am a person. Just an everyday person who wants to be able to love the same way as everyone else.

My name is Steph and I have a loving partner, Fran, whom I would rather not have to ask every person in Australia if I can marry. But if that is what it takes to get equality for me, for us and for the future generations of queers, I will.

I have a loving mother, Margaret, and loving in-laws, Mary and Bill. I am a sister to six, aunt to nine, a caring boss to 11. I am a good corporate and global citizen who believes in trying to be a decent human being.

And I have wonderful friends who have become my other family as they find some of their blood families fall on the other “side” of this heartless campaign.

We just want our relationships to be treated and recognised in the same way as any one else’s.

Because we are the same as everyone else. We are equal, and although different, we are the same. Because love is love is love is love is love.

The sad thing about this postal survey thing is that we already know that Australia is in the top ten approval ratings for marriage equality in the whole world. This means that Australia has a higher approval rating for marriage equality than most countries that have marriage equality.

And it’s sad because most Australians are sick of hearing about marriage equality and we are sick of talking about marriage equality.

But it is going to take all of us to help us get this over the line. And getting this over the line is not just important for us, it’s important for the type of society we all want to live in and all want to unite in. There is nothing more uniting in this country right this moment than marriage equality, and the unity that will flow within our communities when we achieve this.

So I am asking everyone reading this, because it is too important not to use this opportunity to do so, to help. We have just 14 days.

Please make sure you vote and you take your votes to the post office boxes and mail them, and that you ask your friends and family to do the same. And then ask them if they have posted them and then ask if they can ask their friends and family. If we have any chance of winning the process that follows this one, it must be with an overwhelming Yes vote to take to parliament.

We only have 14 days to achieve this.

We cannot be complacent in this regardless of how resounding the outlook is. Look what happened in the US when they became complacent around the election of Hilary Clinton? Donald Trump happened.

And we only have 14 days to ensure everyone we know votes.

I don’t want to live in a country where the result is a No!

LGBTQI youth today are already six times more likely to commit (or attempt) suicide and the existing counselling helplines are already increasing by 20% each week since this postal survey and associated campaigns were launched. How can anyone expect me, us, to front up to the world, to work, to the supermarket, if the vote is returned No! Where do I go? Where do we all go from there?

We have just 14 days.
So please, can you commit to doing this? For your family members who are gay or lesbian or queer or trans, for your friends, your work colleagues, your neighbours and…well, me.

Can you please do this for me, because I’m really tired of being that person that talks about that thing that defines me – as being gay.

There is more to all of us than the people we love, but not for the next 14 days.

This story was originally written and performed by Steph for the live show ‘This Is Who I Am’ . The next show in the series is on Sept 27, here’s the link for show, ticket and cast details.



Steph Sands

Steph Sands was born and raised in Leeton, NSW and is the former Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. She is a Lifetime Achievement recipient from the organisation. She founded the event and movement Women Say Something in 2011 and was awarded the ACON Community Hero Honour Award in 2015. She is an out and proud lesbian and works in digital transformation for a top tier consulting firm. She lives in Sydney with her partner and their cat.

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