Phyllis Papps and Francesca Curtis are many things. Researchers. Writers. Ultra-feminists. Partners. They’re also the first lesbian couple to come out on Australian television, fifty years ago.
The two women appeared together on ABC current affairs program This Day Tonight in October 1970.
Over five decades later, Phyllis and Francesca are still together and live on Victoria’s Phillip Island. The couple are now “coming out for the last time” in a new documentary retrospective.
Why Did She Have To Tell The World? is by filmmaker Abbie Pobjoy and screened on ABC’s Compass program this week.
When both women were young, male homosexuality was illegal across Australia. Lesbians, on the other hand, were “invisible”.
“The early 1970s were very, very conservative,” Phyllis explains.
“Gay women were invisible, because people didn’t think lesbians existed.”
Francesca adds, “I didn’t know anything about homosexuality or lesbianism. Nobody talked about it in those days.”
Phyllis belonged to a traditional Greek family and was briefly engaged to a man.
“I knew I was different. But I was forced to live a heterosexual life because my mother expected it of me and society did,” she says.
The pair exchanged gold wedding rings in July 1970, which they still wear today.
Lesbian couple Phyllis and Francesca appeared on national TV together
Just four months later, the couple appeared together on the national TV program to discuss lesbianism.
“No-one wanted to go on [This Day Tonight]. They were all in the closet, so Phyllis and I volunteered,” Francesca says.
The ABC received numerous complaints. And almost immediately, the two women also faced backlash for the TV appearance at work and within their families.
“My mother took legal action against Francesca and myself to prevent us from making a claim on her inheritance,” Phyllis.
“My mother said, ‘I’m happy to see you again, but I won’t see both of you together.’
“In our personal and professional lives, [the interview] was quite devastating.
“It has been a life of struggling. But not because we couldn’t cope with being ourselves. We couldn’t get people to accept us.”
The women were members of pioneering gay rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis, later known as the Australasian Lesbian Movement.
During the marriage equality postal survey in 2017, Phyllis visited her 98-year-old mother in her nursing home.
“In a very gentle way I said, ‘Mum, how did you vote?’ And proudly she said, ‘I voted yes.’
“It’s taken this whole lifetime to get to that.”
Reflecting on their legacy, Francesca says in the documentary “the future belongs to the young people.”
“We leave it to them to carry on the wonderful work that has been done,” she says.
Why Did She Have to Tell the World? is streaming on ABC iView here.
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