It’s a hard-blue sky Sunday morning in the desert. I rose late, with New York on my mind.
It was sleeting, with car tail lights shining on the flooded asphalt, that day in March, 2015 when I went to speak at the United Nations.
I was ambivalent, but curious, about the UN. UN Headquarters accommodates a bunch of scoundrels, children of ruling classes and bureaucracies kept in dull sinecure. And there are also terribly earnest people, sincerely looking to make things better. There was a delightful acappella group from the Midwest ringing rounds in the high-roofed foyer. But then on the way to the upstairs cafeteria one passed a graphic display of the children starved and bombed in Syria, their tortured bodies meant to haunt you over your drab salad.
That week in New York, Claudia and I stayed at a Hilton several blocks away. An old, narrow building of dark brick, its small rooms, stuffed with oversized furniture, looked onto each other across a dim light well or onto the construction site next door. Clangs of the scaffolding and thrums of hammers were probably what made the hotel affordable that week. You had to turn up the television at the end of the bed.
I knew I was lucky to be there. I attended the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women as a representative of my sister-doctors and medical students in the Australian Lesbian Medical Association (ALMA), which has the hard-earned right to be at the United Nations as a non-government organisation. In the acronym-afflicted world of UN-speak, even I knew what an NGO was.
We arrived the day before the big meeting I was scheduled to attend. Another ALMA, Dr Ruth McNair, met us at the bottom of the escalators at JFK airport on her way out, handing over advice and inspiration. ‘You need to talk to the chair of the meeting to get put on the list to speak,’ Ruth said. ‘It’s a very big meeting. You’ll be lucky to get a chance at all. But just being there to observe what goes on and represent us is a good thing. You might be the only identified lesbian in the room.’
Later that day at UN Headquarters I lined up to be credentialled. In front of me was a teacher from Burkina-Faso, fabulously dressed in a brightly patterned turban and skirt. The woman behind me was a grey-suited American lawyer, too cool to talk. ALMA’s who’d attended another international meeting some years earlier had warned me that they met women from African nations—doctors and health workers—who did not then understand what homosexuality was. But I told the woman from Burkina-Faso why I was there and she remained polite.
We lined up for over two hours. Claudia was not permitted to attend the meeting—she’d not been through the security vetting. She went to the coffee and gift shop downstairs to work on her photography among the lacklustre souvenirs.
We’d traveled five days to get there from Tjuntjuntjara, the remote desert community where I write to you today.
Claudia had a gig photographing the old-soul artists at work in the fifty-degree steel shed that was their workplace then. Photos were used in a catalog of the artists and their work. Perhaps other photos from this desert place gave her a colourful mental holiday from the grey suits and white Laminex surrounding her while she waited for me.
The next day I woke feeling excited and a little apprehensive. I zipped myself into the red dress we’d bought for the occasion on sale at Macy’s in San Francisco. (In San Francisco I flipped through racks of polyester dresses and jackets in bobbled fabrics. ‘These are copies of the kinds of suits Hilary wears. Maybe that’s the sort of thing.’ Claudia scowled and kept looking).
I pulled on little black boots my Mum had handed up to me, black tights, a snazzy jacket Claudia chose at the Macy’s sale. It was still dark when I bundled myself into my black duffle coat and donned a blue angora beret to catch the sleet on the walk to the UN. My neck was protected by a blue silk scarf, decorated with yellow batik campsites from Utopia, a gift from my wife.
She farewelled me at the bleak intersection of East 42nd Street and FDR drive, where the predawn traffic roared up and around a curve. She waved, pulling her collar up and turning as she saw me safely across the street. I smelled, but could not see, the gelid Hudson river beneath the subway steam and diesel fumes.
I arrived early to find one of the meeting’s organisers. A retired lawyer, she was immediately sympathetic when I told her that I was speaking for lesbian, bisexual and trans women who were persecuted internationally. She came out to me. ‘Nobody ever speaks for us here,’ she said. ’You only get two minutes,’ she warned. ‘The six panel members get twenty minutes each, thirty-nine member nations get five minutes each, NGO’s get two minutes.’
‘But my speech is five minutes. I’ve timed it for five minutes,’ I was aghast. They’d said I’d have five minutes.
‘Take five minutes then,’ she said kindly. She showed me her list. ‘NGO’s have to wait ’til the end.’ I saw her write my name down. I was last on a list of forty-nine speakers.
I had a cup of tea in the cafeteria downstairs and read my speech through again. Other ALMA’s, in particular two women doctors passionately committed to social justice, drafted the speech for me. I built on what they wrote to reflect my own experience.
I came in to the hall early. The NGOs had a gallery at the side, overlooking the huge theatre of member nations. Names of member countries were on their desks. The cavernous room was semi-circular and had the scent of the golden wood that lined the walls and made the desks. There was also that damp, dusty smell of New York in the winter. Each seat had headphones and a mike for contact with the chair and the impressive, hidden, translation staff. There was a little console with ’50’s era lights on it. Representatives of the nations drifted in with coffee in cardboard cups. Many had old-fashioned briefcases.
The meeting began with a speech from the chair. First there was a panel. Each panel member had twenty minutes to present. The speaker from Columbia talked about women’s share of non-cocaine crops. The penultimate speaker arrived very late, just when everyone was hoping she wouldn’t. She was an Indigenous woman from South America who ranted for over forty minutes without saying much. She was disabled as well as Indigenous so nobody up there seemed to be able to stop her talking. I ran my eyes carefully over my five-minute speech. I wondered if I’d get to speak at all.
The panel finally finished, each member nation was meant to address the progress or problems of their nation on the question of women’s equality in the past five years. Many speakers were uninspiring.
Some speeches were mendacious, which brightened things up a little. A man representing a nation where a woman could not inherit property, and her testimony in Court had only half the legal value of a man’s testimony, spoke smoothly of great progress made. The man speaking for Spain seemed cynical, too, as if it was beneath him to be there.
There was a stimulating intervention from a Pacific Island Nation whose people are sinking under the water. That passionate woman was the sole one to mention Climate Change.
The only lip service paid to the rights of LGBTI people was by the US representative. In the run-up to Hilary Clinton’s electoral campaign she mentioned us as part of a list of marginalised and oppressed—a standard Democrat’s spiel.
We’d been there for over four hours when some of the NGO’s finally got a turn to speak. Everybody was getting hungry as the woman beside me spoke up for stateless women in the wasteland camps in France. Then it was my turn. I adjusted my microphone. A green light came on and I pushed the button to speak:
My name is Janelle Trees. I am a medical doctor from Australia. I have a good life. I am beloved and cared-for. I have good access to food, shelter and medical care. I am respected, listened to. I feel safe in my home and at work. In short, I live a life of great privilege in the world at this time.”
The hall was hushed. My voice rang clearly. I spoke slowly and firmly.
“As I speak there are millions like me living in terror, jailed by a stony prison, or imprisoned psychologically by their own legitimate fear of being found out. There are many facing execution for being like me. Untold numbers have already been executed, judicially or on the streets — shot, poisoned, beheaded, stoned, beaten or tortured to death, for being like me. Untold numbers live in the shadows of their communities, having been psychologically and often physically harassed and tortured — just for being like me.
I am lesbian, gay, homosexual. This way of being is called many names, some of them derogatory and abusive. People like me, attracted to their same gender, loving others of the same gender, that is, homosexual people; or people facing a different reality — experiencing themselves as a different gender than that the world has judged them to be, so-called transgender people; people who are born without a definitive gender who are called intersex; those who disregard gender in their attraction to a partner who might be called bisexual. All of us constitute a rainbow of diversity; diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. All of us suffer to some extent because of the attitudes of some powerful, backward humans to how and who we are.
I am attending this meeting as a representative of the Australian Lesbian Medical Association — an organisation of same-sex attracted women doctors and medical students and their partners. Some of our members have done excellent research in lesbian and bisexual women’s health — notably Dr Ruth McNair, who attended the first week of this meeting. Some of you will have met Ruth last week.
Even in such a wealthy country as Australia, same-sex attracted women endure at least twice the levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, as a reflection of marginalisation, misogyny and hatred of gay people.
My wife and I were legally married in New Zealand in 2007 in a civil union ceremony, but this formal relationship is not recognised in Australia, where gay marriage of any kind remains illegal.”
This was in 2015, remember? Australia legalised same-sex marriage only after a divisive referendum in 2017. I continued. People seemed to be listening.
“We did not invite family and friends to our wedding because we did not want to impose extensive and expensive travel costs upon them. We didn’t want to provoke conflict in our families about our wedding either. So we married quietly on our own, with strangers who became new friends. It was nevertheless a joyous occasion. We are, every day, happy to be together. There is now robust evidence that same sex attracted people living in jurisdictions that legally recognise their relationships have significantly better health than those in jurisdictions that do not.
Many of you are aware that in Australia, the Indigenous peoples are marginalised and deprived, enduring death and sickness at a rate many times that of the non-Indigenous peoples. Many people in Australia live in poverty. There is hunger and homelessness. Thousands of refugees remain imprisoned in camps. Alongside the economic and social deprivation which is a product of racism and the class system, having different sexual orientation and gender identity is an independent risk factor for poorer physical and mental health. Many of the asylum-seekers imprisoned in Australia’s detention centre — jailed indefinitely — have run for their lives because they are suffering oppression because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 2013 I was working as a doctor in the community on Christmas Island, an Australian Territory in the Indian Ocean which has been used by the government as a place of indefinite detention of thousands of asylum seekers. It was Friday night and my partner and I were relaxing with my work colleagues — doctors and nurses. Watching the sunset, having a cool drink, waiting for our dinner to be cooked.
The conversation turned to one of our patients in the hospital that week. This man was from a privileged layer in his country of origin. His mother was a wealthy and highly-respected doctor. This man had a terrifying experience coming to Australia seeking asylum.
His physical and mental health was damaged by the experience. ‘Why did he do that?’ asked one of the doctors. The conversation following seemed to imply that the man was a fool, perhaps a greedy one. My partner spoke up, ‘I haven’t met the man, but obviously this man is gay. He lived in a land where gay people face execution. His wealthy and respected mother may have turned him out and could not, in any case, offer him protection from imprisonment, torture and execution. Of course he would do anything to find a better life.’
Hatred toward people like me, hatred of those of us with different sexual orientation and gender identity — this hatred is serving the interests of many who have power. This hatred is sustained by corrupt churches, by reactionary political leaders, by exploitative capitalists, by those who have their own interests in keeping people backward and divided from each other. This hatred, homophobia, in despising a minority, keeps the majority repressed and fearful, keeps the majority looking at marginalised individuals as the enemy, keeps the majority alienated and ignorant about the nature of love.
Opposing such hatred and deliberately dignifying sexual orientation and gender identity minorities in your own heart, mind and consciousness, as well as endorsing affirming laws, will allow us to live as full citizens, so that we can contribute to creating a better society for all.
We are all part of the rainbow of human diversity.”
It took seven minutes. Nobody interrupted me.
The meeting closed after my speech. A bevy of beautifully-robed African women approached me. They came to congratulate me. ‘Well spoken, ‘ one of them said. They were joined by a diminutive woman in a grey suit who told me that in her African nation she helped coordinate a church-run support group for the families of women, including her daughter, jailed for homosexuality or trans-identity. We had a heart-to-heart and exchanged email addresses.
The spokeswoman from the US sent me a card with a friendly handwritten note on it.
I felt pleased coming back to the Hilton to tell Claudia about my day. There were other meetings to attend in coming days. But this was a big day, in its quiet, grey way.
‘I came home after I left you and flicked on the BBC,’ Claudia smiled, coming out of a hug. ‘The artists from Tjuntjuntjara have an exhibition on at the British Museum. I saw one of them shaking hands with that big-eared Royal. He had the catalogue with my photos in his hand.’
I paused to process this. ’So you’re in New York. You dropped off your wife for her speech at the UN and went back to the hotel to see your friends from the desert on television in London? With the book you helped to make in his hands?’
‘Yes,’ Claudia replied. Her eyes shone. ‘That was quite a moment, that.’