I went to university when I was seventeen. Just. Still. That is, the day my parents drove me the six and a half hour drive from our house in Tokoroa to Wellington (I have a feeling the roads are much faster now, is that right State Highway 1-ers?) I was 17. The next day I turned 18. I was the first in our family to go to university. Mum and dad had paid for my first term’s accommodation, I had to pay for myself after that. (Not tough parenting, just no money.) I knew no-one doing my course, only one person staying in the same halls as me, and had no idea what the hell was coming – or what was expected of me.
Nor did I really know who I was yet. (Nor would I expect any 17-almost-18 year old to fully know who they are, the thing I’m liking so much about being middle aged is I’m finally starting to get a hold on that one! even as it continues to change …)
I did know that I wasn’t entirely heterosexual. Sort of. I mean I sort of knew that. I had fancied other girls and I didn’t find the idea of lesbianism disgusting. (Which, at my high school, was pretty much enough to mark you out as a dyke.) I’d ‘experimented’ the way kids do and that didn’t disgust me either. I’d had, er, not one but two gay boyfriends, who were going out with each other. (But that’s another story.) BUT I still knew nothing, really, about my own sexuality. I knew I might be straight, might be gay, wasn’t horrified or put off either way, had never met a lesbian (as far as I knew, though later that was proved untrue), and I most certainly didn’t know what being a lesbian looked like, sounded like, could be like. I didn’t know it might look like me. Even though I had a fairly strong idea I might be.
And then … Orientation (what they call Freshers’ Week in the UK), first night, the night of the day I was dropped off by my parents knowing no-one. The night of the day that my Dad had cried because he was so proud of me going to university. (The second time I’d seen him cry in my life.) There were quite a few of us who knew no-one, and a bunch of us agreed to go off to the student union (the big building on the hill) to see what was on.
I have no idea what else was on that night.
But the Topp Twins most certainly were.
Dressed as angels I think (my friend Gill also recalls the angel outfits in orientation week 1981 and it’s always good to get that kind of recollection verified!), singing like angelic devils, and being … lesbians. I was from Tokoroa, they were from Huntly (these things matter when you’re brand new in the ‘big’ city!) and they had voices that worked amazingly well, they were so funny (this was before the sketches) and they were just … gorgeous. Really. Gorgeous.
And out. At least I think they were out (this was March 1981, ever so just pre-tour, not that many people were out, it was much more about innuendo than anything else) and if they didn’t speak the words, the word, they certainly sang it.
They looked cute as well as stroppy, they were funny AND political, they were smart-mouthed and … sassy. I can’t think of a better word. They were sassy. And maybe a year or two older than me. And lesbians. Two of them. At once.
And they were definitely part of what made me the woman I am today. Not just that time, but many concerts and street shows after. They were a defining part of being a young feminist in NZ in the 1980s. (Which might explain why I never quite bought into the Madonna-is-a-feminist idea!)
In my mind now, I look round at that audience and see myself, upstairs at the Victoria student union, sitting on the floor with a bunch of other (young, so young!) new students, all of us probably hoping we looked grownup and insouciant and probably all of them as terrified as I was, and I see that we were an incredibly varied array of young women (some young men too, but my recollection is of mostly young women), and some of those young women were gay, and some of those gay young women were wearing AMAZING op-shop frocks (and that, as many of you will understand, was also a major joy for me, gay women in great charity shop frocks – woo hoo!) and I acknowledge that while we had to, in many ways, grow ourselves up in 1981 (the tour being a huge part of that) – having to be our own gay role models – whatever else we didn’t have, we DID have the Topp Twins. For which I am hugely grateful.
And REALLY excited to be seeing them tomorrow night at the Union Chapel in Islington. (Oh, you too, every NZ woman, and no doubt some men, in London, of a certain age? Yay. See you there.)
ps – yes, I had, of course seen/heard of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, but they seemed very distant, were from another world. Two Huntly girls were always going to be more accessible role models to me, and it’s the accessibility of role models, the fact that they might be ‘just like us’, that makes them successful. It’s why the work of Diversity Role Models is so valuable.