- “A Fully Formed Blast from Abroad”?Australasian Lesbian Circuits of Mobility and the Transnational Exchange of Ideas in the 1960s and 1970s
In 1973 three Australian women—Kerryn Higgs, Robina Courtin, and Jenny Pausacker—returned to Melbourne, having spent two years in London. Later the same year, New Zealander Alison Laurie arrived home after a nine-year stint overseas, which included periods of time living in England, Scandinavia, and the United States. The return of all four had a catalytic effect on lesbian politics in their home communities. Pausacker, Higgs, and Courtin were credited with precipitating a physical and ideological shift away from mixed gay politics toward a feminist perspective on lesbianism. As Laurie herself put it, her arrival made it appear that “lesbian feminism hit Aotearoa New Zealand as a fully formed blast from abroad, but fell on fertile ground, among many of the lesbians from gay liberation for starters.”1
Contemporary accounts certainly present the women as agents of change and their return as a significant event in the history of Australasian lesbian activism. To a certain extent their impact can be explained by the personalities of the women themselves. All were intelligent, creative women who continued to be influential writers, scholars, and activists throughout their lives. As Jenny Pausacker noted, “Kerryn published the first lesbian novel for adults in Australia. I published the first lesbian novel for young adults in Australia, and Robina’s the venerable Robina [a Buddhist nun]. So we [End Page 463] were all quite strong personalities, with quite a public focus.”2 Laurie co-founded Sisters for Homophile Equality (SHE), which was the first lesbian organization in Aotearoa New Zealand. She also pioneered the Lesbian Community Radio Programme on Wellington Access Radio and brought lesbian studies into the women’s studies program at Victoria University in Wellington.3 However, the impact the four women had can also be traced to their respective travel experiences. It is clear from other women’s memories of the Melbourne trio that their trip to London was perceived as crucial in exposing them to a radical feminist perspective on lesbianism that helped to shape Australian models of lesbian feminism on their return. Laurie, for her part, literally brought back ideas from elsewhere: she smuggled in the lesbian magazines that formed the basis for the home-grown lesbian publication Circle (later Lesbian-Feminist Circle), published from 1973 to 1986. This overseas experience was interpreted by many lesbian feminists as adding a degree of authority and sophistication to the women’s political arguments, indicating an engagement with international feminist theory and activism.
In their work on the ties that connected people and ideas through their transnational movements, Desley Deacon, Penny Russell, and Angela Woollacott have argued: “Of indefinite provenance and infinite outcomes, ideas have flowed around the globe, contained in books and print media, in people’s minds, in the very structure of cultural and political institutions. The history of that movement could never be fully narrated, but the focus on an individual life might allow us to follow some stages of the journey.”4 Following the individual journeys of Laurie, Higgs, Courtin, and Pausacker, this article will explore the ways in which circuits of mobility traversed by many Australian and New Zealand lesbians during the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the transnational exchange of ideas around female same-sex desire. The 1960s and 1970s were a significant period for countercultural organizing, as well as a transitional stage in modes of international travel. Indigenous and anticolonial resistance; anti–Vietnam War, civil rights, and student protest movements; peace activism; and, of course, feminism all built on earlier forms of activism to challenge the existing social and political order. Learning from each other and sometimes deliberately rejecting the approaches of existing groups, they adapted strategies and tactics such as passive resistance, consciousness-raising, and the provision of opportunities for the grassroots membership to develop their own organizational skills. One factor that contributed to the transnational flow of ideas was the length of time it took to travel from Australasia to Europe. At this time, intercontinental [End Page 464] travel continued to rely primarily on...