Although Australia is looked upon as one of the most gay friendly countries in the world, especially after a landslide victory in favour of gay marriage in 2017’s controversial postal vote, this progress has only manifested in recent years. The country didn’t vote to legalise homosexuality until the 70’s, and even then, it took another couple of decades for each Australian state to actually put this law into practice. It’s no wonder then, that despite obtaining the appearance of one of the world’s most accepting countries, that Australia’s historical precedent of draconian laws still reverberates amongst its older LGBT population.
The Coming Back Out Ball Movie is a documentary that follows a wide cross section of Australia’s ageing LGBTQI community before they attend a major dance event at Melbourne Town Hall. Held days before the postal vote, The Coming Back Out Ball was coined by organisers to celebrate the new found acceptance granted to older members of the community, many of whom hadn’t publicly come out until they’d passed their 60th or 70th birthdays. Sue Thomson’s documentary naturally features enough historical context to establish why so many were more comfortable denying their true selves for the bulk of their lives – but mainly, it overlooks the negatives to focus on the glorious present, and the long gestating happiness that has arrived with their coming out.
The documentary follows both the organisers of the ball, and those who are planning on participating. The planning committee of the event are pulling out all the stops to make sure it goes well – after concern that people as old as 80 might not want to attend a dance, they even arrange weekly dance classes so that they can learn some moves in time for the big night. But naturally, there is less time afforded to the planning, in favour of the stories of the disparate individuals who will be attending.
There are a number of moving stories told in a microcosm within this film. I was particularly moved by the various people who didn’t come out until later in life; one married couple divorced because they realised both were attracted to the same sex, while an 87 year old widower came out following his wife’s death and started acting on his own sexual desires. He now attends a weekly leather night at his favourite gay bar – significantly older than his fellow patrons, but this proves irrelevant as he’s finally experiencing happiness and a sense of community.
These stories are contrasted with those who came out in a time of persecution, and were heavily involved in LGBTQI political activism in the past. But The Coming Back Out Ball Movie isn’t an overtly political one; it’s a series of human interest tales rooted in a wider historical context. The film doesn’t lean on its political backdrop, realising that its more effective to tell the story of Australia’s chequered record of LGBTQI rights via these various character studies. We have a trans woman who came out at the age of 60, after she couldn’t conceal the issue any longer; she tells of dressing up in women’s clothes at the age of 6, before realising that she wouldn’t be able to pursue her true identity in such an adverse world. Politics aren’t directly mentioned here – instead, the oppressive policies levered at transgender people through the ages are keenly felt in the most human way possible.
The ball, as previously stated, took place a couple of days before the results of the postal vote were announced. The “Yes” campaign won in a landslide, which provides a spiritual happy ending to the story onscreen. But in one brief moment, we see a bizarre advert from the “No” campaign, which used a bizarre anecdote from a woman concerned that same sex marriage would lead to her son wearing a dress as its key argument. That 38.4% of people still voted for “No” despite the ridiculousness of the campaign’s argument is a cause for concern – Australia remains accepting, but there’s still an undercurrent of adversity.
The Coming Back Out Ball Movie is a wonderful tribute to the LGBTQI elders who are often ignored in society. These are stories that deserve to be told, that manage to find uplift beneath the tragedy.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Sue Thomson