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Article
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History
Queer politics

Remembering Roberta Perkins

Pindi remembers running from the cops with Roberta at her side. It was Darlinghurst in the late 1970s, when being a sex worker was a crime, and transgender sex workers in particular were targeted by police.

Scared of being arrested, Pindi stuck out her leg, apologised, and sent her friend flailing to the ground. Through the tumble of her own limbs, Roberta may have seen Pindi dart around a corner and disappear.

Roberta was arrested and released the next day. Over the years, after countless other skirmishes, beatings and narrow escapes, the incident became just another story Pindi told about life as a transgender sex worker, and her fierce friend, Roberta.

Forty years later, a small crowd gathers in Sydney’s inner city to hear stories about Roberta Perkins. She spent her adult life fighting for the communities she lived in, the transgender and sex worker communities. She died in late June this year, aged seventy-eight.

The service is held during the day at a theatre decorated for a night showing of a play set amongst the ruins of World War II. Superimposed over the rubble, the memorial feels like a gathering of veterans from another war.

The survivors trickle into the service, a patchy collection of old friends and a few young people who never met Roberta but have shown up to pay their respects. It’s lead by Cameron Cox, CEO of the Sex Worker Outreach Project.

‘If sex is the oldest profession,’ Roberta writes in her book, Working Girls, ‘then it is also the oldest social debate.’

The service hears of a legendary moment in Roberta’s early days as an activist. It was just after her first book, The Drag Queen Scene, was published in 1983. With its combination of first-hand accounts and meticulously collected data, it made a big enough splash that she was invited to talk with Frank Walker, then State Minister for Youth and Community Services. Cameron tells the crowd how Roberta showed up armed with an arsenal of data, laying out for the Minister why it was that so many people in the transgender community hit rock bottom.

The result of this meeting was Tiresias House, a refuge for transgender persons. It still stands today, now called The Gender Centre, although by the time the name had changed, Roberta was no longer involved.

Both as a researcher and a founding member of the Australian Prostitutes Collective, Roberta laid the foundation for change. The Collective’s activism brought the decriminalisation of sex work to the table. Today, New South Wales is only one of two places in the world where sex work is decriminalised. It’s been this way since 1995.

Sex workers, Cameron says, are hungry for their history. They just don’t know they have one. But perhaps that is changing. With the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year, Julie Bates became an officer of the Order of Australia for her activism as a sex worker and injecting user.

Julie is also at the memorial. She admits to the gathering she and Roberta weren’t always in agreement. But they were on the same side of what often felt like a war.

Likewise, there is no bad blood between Roberta and Pindi. They later became activists who together lobbied for transgender people to be protected by discrimination laws during the Attorney General’s Legislative Committee. She remembers Roberta blasting down the halls of Parliament House knocking on doors and bashing fists on tables.

Their efforts forced the government to change the act, but the cost was Roberta’s seat on the Committee.

With that, Roberta began her withdrawal from public life. When activism turned digital, Roberta didn’t transition with it. Her legacy feels muted.

Hovering over the proceedings is a painting of Roberta. The canvas is propped up in the rubble of the set of ruin. She sits in the frame with her cat on her shoulder and a tired smile. Her five published books sit on the shelf behind her. History is quick to wash away the achievements of the marginalised. That doesn’t mean there are no heroes to be found.

 

Image: Portrait of Roberta Perkins by Nada DeCat

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