Culture

The Community And Joy Of The Coming Back Out Ball

"I thought to myself: is there anything better in this world than watching old queers grab ass on a dance floor?"

Throughout the night, the ballroom dance floor fills with couples slow dancing, elders doing the nut bush with their carers, groups of friends throwing their hands in the air. I thought to myself: is there anything better in this world than watching old queers grab ass on a dance floor? I can’t think of anything.

My friends and I will often cite ‘the club’ as one of the few places we can express our queerness with true freedom, with ‘gay abandon’ let’s say. But what doesn’t often come up in these conversations is where we will go when we age out of the club scene. Will the mesh clothing and smeared lipstick and horned up dance moves come with us? Will they still have a stage? I guess we just assume we will.

Last Thursday night I attended The Coming Back Out Ball in Melbourne’s Town Hall. As I posted Instagram stories of performances by Meow Meow, Briefs, and Electric Fields, my friend Mark replied in my DMs, “wait, we have to come back out? How many years until the first time wears off?”

The Coming Back Out Ball is an annual event, now in its second year, started by Tristan Meecham and Bec Reid, artistic directors of All The Queen’s Men, a production company that champions social change. The ball is free for LGBTI elders (aged 65+) and runs in tandem with ongoing social projects, including a monthly dance club which has been held at the Fitzroy Town Hall for the past three years, and has recently expanded throughout regional Victoria.

The Coming Back Out Ball. Image (C) by Bryony Jackson.

I went along to the dance club a few weeks ago and spoke to Tristan and Bec who explained that the ball was conceived as a gift to honour the ageing LGBTI community (and this spirit of generosity became immediately evident as Bec offered me “a glass of bubbles or a lamington”). Tristan tells me that the events started out of an acknowledgement that “there are a lot of older people in our community who don’t feel connected.”

The event got its name and ethos when All the Queen’s Men became aware of research that revealed some LGBTI elders conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity when accessing aged care services, mostly due to concerns about their safety. For a generation that lived through criminalised homosexuality and initiated the long fight for equality, entering old age can mean either going back into the closet or risking a lack of companionship and quality care.

The ball encourages these elders back into the queer community without restraint. From the red carpet entrance, to the gold-themed makeup stand, and giant mirrored disco ball suspended above us, the night spins around a spirit of joy, celebration and connection.

The Multi-Generational Family

This year, All the Queen’s Men partnered with Val’s Ageing and Aged Care, who hosted an Aged Care forum the day before the ball as part of Victoria Seniors Month.

One of the presenters at the forum was LGBTI elder, Andrew Rogers, who also attended the ball. He described himself to me as a “quiet activist”.

I spoke to Andrew on the steps of Fitzroy Town Hall and what struck me most as we spoke was the perspective he brought to the ‘queer family’ rhetoric. When Andrew first came out forty years ago he says, “there was this older chap who said to me, ‘we’re your family now and families are multi-generational’, and that’s always stayed with me.”

We hear it all the time as queer people, that we get to choose our family.

Andrew says “when you come out you also step into this culture and this community… People often talk about coming out to their biological families and their straight friends and all that, that they’ll lose them terrifies them. We need a community here to say that there is that risk, but know that we’re here to catch you and we’ll hold you when we do.”

The Coming Back Out Ball. Image (C) by Bryony Jackson.

What Andrew loves about The Coming Back Out Ball, and the community he has reconnected with, is the transgressive spirit. He told me that he loves that the event begins at 6pm on a Thursday night, queer elders dressed in gold chaps and glitter eyeshadow ascending the steps of Town Hall as the rest of the city commutes home.

He says that while we continue to fight tirelessly for equality, “we don’t want to lose that quirky, transgressive sense of otherness as we become normalised… We do live differently, we respond differently, we see things differently, and that gives us a strength.”

The ball itself is a spectacular celebration that never loses sight of its mission — to encourage LGBTI elders to assert their social agency and value and combat ageist assumptions — both in the wider community and within our own queer community.

Giving Back To The Community

This year, director Tristan Meecham acted as MC for the event, in a jaunty crown and high stilettos. He opened the night with the acknowledgement that the inaugural event last year was held amidst the marriage equality debate, and this years’ is set against the backdrop of international transgender discrimination.

As one of the younger people at the event, what Andrew said about multi-generational families stayed with me.

I spoke to an ex-drag queen who told me that back when she was performing, her friends were mostly older queens who looked after her and taught her, and shaped her performance. They’ve passed away now and she feels isolated: this event brought her back into the community. As I got up to leave she thanked me for introducing myself, for sitting down next to her.

The Coming Back Out Ball. Image (C) by Bryony Jackson.

I think of being taken care of and also taking care. To be present at the event feels like a gift, regardless of the age. Gabriel, a volunteer, tells me he wanted to give back to the community that has done so much for his way of life.

“It’s less about volunteering and more about being with these people and sharing this time with them.”

It reminded me that a queer family doesn’t need to be guarded, doesn’t need to be held close. I felt my family expand a little, grow richer with an added generation, deepen with history and continuity.

Glamorous And Beautiful

Before I left, I said goodbye to a woman Tristan introduced me to at the dance club, Markie Linhart.

She began transitioning 13 months ago and was two weeks post-op at last year’s ball, and couldn’t stay for the dancing. We had chatted when we met about what she might wear. Last year she wore a vintage gown “with a high neck that unbuttoned to the thigh”. This year she had been thinking about wearing something inspired by the Bell Shakespeare production of Antony and Cleopatra where Catherine McClements as Cleopatra wore a tailored suit with French cuffs.

It’s a feminine androgyny Markie has found herself gravitating towards. In the end, she had come in a black gown and sharp silver bob. She looked glamorous and beautiful.

The Coming Back Out Ball. Image (C) by Bryony Jackson.

I wondered if I would need to come back out again one day. Then I remembered that the collective efforts of the people in the room, young and old, to dismantle heteronormative assumptions and laws, meant that was less and less likely. I thought about meeting Markie at elders dance club. I remember her pausing and looking at me.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s like a reset, you know. My war is over. My war with myself. I’ve been fighting all my life and now I feel so fucking great, I really do.”

Chloë Reeson is an essayist and screenwriter. They are one of the creators and writers of Homecoming Queens, a web series on SBS On Demand.