Jen Cloher
Jul 26 · 7 min read

This is a photo of me in 1980 after my mother relented and let me dress myself. For the next 9 years I was gender bullied by nuns, teachers and some of the kids at the Catholic girls school I attended in Adelaide. I was asked point blank by kids in the playground if I was a boy or a girl. The truth was I didn’t have an answer. Once the principal of my high school, a Catholic sister, saw me on the street outside of school hours. She looked me up and down in disgust and then remarked, “we don’t have boys at our school.” As I got older and realised I was gay, I assumed that my not conforming (fitting in neatly) with either gender was because of my sexuality. But I have since come to understand that sexual preference and gender are two separate things.

I look at this photo and feel so utterly sad for this person. Entirely on their own with the dilemma of not conforming. How I wished that terms like non-binary or gender non conforming had been available to me. It’s not that I wanted to be a boy, I just felt so far away from the girls around me, their activities and interests.

My first experience of the queer community was at Flinders University in Adelaide. I went into the drama stream at the age of 17 and was taught by staunch feminist queer academics, brilliant women who had come up through the alternative theatre movement in the UK during the 70s. Theatre was about social change, not being a star. When I auditioned for NIDA at the age of 18 and was accepted, they saw me as a sell out and disowned me.

At NIDA I was told by the gay male teaching staff to stay in the closet so that I wouldn’t be ‘pinklisted’ by the industry. In second year, one of the conditions of me coming back to train at the school was that I wore a dress and make up to school everyday. I had just moved from Adelaide to Sydney at the age of 18 to train at my dream school, I went and bought the dresses. These men had just survived the trauma of the HIV epidemic, I know they thought they had my best interests at heart but once again the message was that I didn’t fit in.

When people talk about the queer community that supported them and helped them see who they truly were, I mourn for the 17, 18 and 19 year old person who spent their teens trying to make their elders happy. And this was the creative arts! Imagine if I had been in the military or competitive sports.

In my mid 20s I finally found a group of queer people who accepted me. They were a household of nurses who lived on my street in Sydney. Nurses are badass and they party hard. I was ripe for addiction and the next 8 years of my life saw me grapple with alcohol abuse. During this time I got to be part of the amazing Drag Kings Sydney movement, watch Girlesque rise up and conquer and attend many Mardi Gras, Sleaze Balls and alternative queer events. Then I moved to Melbourne and got sober.

Part of being sober is leaving the old environment. A lot of the queer events for young people happen in clubs where substances prevail and so I had to find a new way of life. Thankfully I found music and although drinking is a big part of a musicians life, the reason I was there was to perform, and there was nothing I loved more. No drug has ever come close to the high of being sober onstage and in the moment. So much has happened in the queer movement since and I haven’t been close to it. Outside of a Pride march or two, most of my time has been channelled into creating opportunities for women and gnc artists to be seen and heard. In the last three years I have met some incredible people who have helped me to claim my own story. For many of us in our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, this journey of putting the puzzle pieces of our past together to make sense of where we are today, is painful and at times confusing. I have had to learn to listen, to read, to do the inner work and ask questions of those who are further down the path.

When I wrote the lyric in the most recent Dyson Stringer Cloher song Falling Clouds, “Nothing against Paul or Nick, but if you want to be remembered then you better have a dick.” I had only started to understand my own journey with gender, one that is ongoing. Three years later and I can see how fraught and problematic it is. Not all men have dicks and not all women have vaginas.

I spent many hours talking to my gender queer friends about this line. Should I change it, should I leave it? One friend told me that once having a dick hadn’t made her anymore memorable. It was rather a source of much frustration, dysphoria and anxiety. Another friend told me that since transition even his worst nights behind the drum kit have not been criticised and yet some of his more technical performances in the 20 years prior to transition always blew some helpful ‘feedback’ in from the cis dudes in the audience.

One friend felt the lyric would do harm and I would need to own the impact of the harm if I chose to leave it there. The other felt that if I was clear about the intention, then they saw no harm in leaving it there. Both friends reminded me that they didn’t speak for anyone else and that views for trans folk would be divergent.

I knew the line would make an impact. More so than if I were to have written “then you had better be on the right side of the patriarchy.” In this instance ‘dick’ is being used to symbolise the patriarchy, the systemic hierarchy which sees white cis gendered males at the top of the pyramid. It is a naïve use, it is incorrect and I own my ignorance at the time of penning it. I also own that it has done harm and made people feel excluded. When I go deeper, to the core of what I’m saying I don’t believe there are many trans, femme or gnc artists who identify as feminist, that would disagree with what is being said. How it was said is another issue.

There is a stark absence of women and gnc artists who are celebrated with the same reverence as their cis male counterparts. Yes this is changing — finally. But when we talk about Australia’s great songwriters it’s the same names — Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, Don Walker, Tim Rogers e.t.c Very occasionally Chrissy Amphlett might get a high five and she deserves to be there. But where is our Joni Mitchell, Anohni, Nina Simone, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith? What woman or gnc artist over 50, 60, 70 is touted for their EXCEPTIONAL SONGWRITING AND IS SELLING OUT VENUES THE SAME SIZE AS THEIR MALE COUNTERPARTS? WHAT WOMAN OR GNC ARTIST IN HER SIXTIES IS BEING BILLED AT THE TOP OF A FESTIVAL LINE UP LIKE EMMY LOU HARRIS OR MAVIS STAPLES? WHERE ARE THEY?

And if for some reason we are led to believe that it’s because there isn’t a woman or gnc artist that is good enough to be there. Then why? What is it about Australian culture that has managed to ensure that this person never makes it there?

I would never write a lyric to intentionally exclude other women or gnc folk and I know some of you felt that way hearing the lyric. I am sorry. I know how it feels to not be seen or acknowledged, to try and find your way in a world where you often feel like you are on your own. I hope that my own story fills in some of the gaps, and if you need to talk more, I am here and listening to you.

The first half of Falling Clouds is about seeing the Falling Joys and The Clouds play in my hometown in Adelaide when I was 16 and the lasting effect it had on me. They all took breaks from music, became mothers and pursued other projects. They are loved by many but aren’t where they deserve to be today, not by a longshot.

We snuck in to see the band

Falling Joys, The Clouds

A killer double bill ‘91

Never heard guitar so loud

Suzie Higgie, Jodi Phillis, Trish Young

Turned things upside down

Underage in Adelaide

I stood up front head-banging

Hit a speaker

Knocked myself out

When I came to

I was changed

You kicked the door wide open

So I could walk onto that stage

Underrated, overlooked

A woman’s work is never done

Or it’s erased from history books

Nothing against Paul or Nick

But if you want to be remembered

Then you better have a dick

Jen Cloher

Written by

AMP and ARIA nominated recording artist and co-founder/label-manager of Milk! Records. Founder of ‘I Manage My Music’.

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