Home' LOTL : December 2004 Contents PARTIES17
ERIF BENHAM, AND THE TROPICAL FRUITS PARTY
Northern NSW is host to a large and growing queer
population but with fewer venues and opportunities for
socialising than in the cities. It's diverse: the largest group of
people with HIV/AIDS outside of Sydney is living next door
to traditional National Party stalwarts, environmentalists, old
hippies, bureaucrats, university students, families of all
descriptions, a large welfare community and transients
checking out the north coast's well-known tourism and
recreational drug scenes.
"Belonging is key," Erif says. "I belong here. Children are
not usually the focus in queer culture, so we don't all meet each
other at soccer practice, or go to the pub with all the mums and
dads, and while there are many more children in our culture
than there used to be, the hets have their format for social
development, whereas parties are our way." Erif credits her skills
as party queen to the influence of Maori culture. She was born
in Fiji and raised in New Zealand. "In NZ on the maraes, if
someone marries, everyone pitches in and everyone contributes
and it evolves and I grew up with that," Erif said. "I feel very
comfortable with Black culture, it's in my nature."
Erif came to Australia in the early 1970s with her two
girlfriends, Hazel and Christine, and Hazel's baby. They soon
immersed themselves in the Sydney dyke scene. "We were
very promiscuous, doing what came naturally," Erif said. "We
had no elder lesbians out and about with us so we had no pre-
conceived behaviour patterns given to us. My first experience
of a dyke bar was the Cricketer's Arms in Sydney," she said.
"We must have looked really daggy in our countrified clothes,
skirts! We soon clicked on what to wear. I know and I have
known some of the most amazingly powerful women. Women
who started Elsie's, Rape Crisis Centre and put hours and
hours of work into submissions. I'm not sure that young
lesbians know about the role that a handful of lesbians had in
moulding the modern Australia welfare system!"
By 1978, Sydney gays and lesbians were preparing for the
first Mardi Gras march. By then Erif had found herself drawn
to the bike dyke scene and had bought a Honda twin cam
500. But a few weeks before that first famous march, Erif was
in an accident. "I lost my left leg below the knee, coming
home from work on the bike, so I was in St Vincent's
Hospital," she said. "I was in intensive care with about 150
visitors, but I was off my face on morphine, and used to wake
up to lots of notes pinned to me by my sisters. I was very
loved and supported by the lesbian community in Sydney.
"By the second march, which was a daytime protest
against the arrests and brutality suffered by the first marchers,
they paraded past the hospital. They called out my name
through loudhailers, but they didn't realise that I was with the
doctors at that moment. My leg had been sewn back on, but
it wasn't working though I'd had 13 operations. I could move
my toes, but I knew I had poor circulation, and the doctors
were telling me I'd have to spend another year in hospital and
wear calipers. I was crying and telling the orthopaedic
surgeon that I'd had enough and they needed to take my leg
off, while the marchers were r unning up and throwing
gladiolas through my window. And that was the birth of
Mardi Gras. Me and Mardi Gras are pretty tied together."
Erif spent some of her accident compensation funds
buying Bracken, a piece of Women's Land on the NSW mid-
north coast, where she lived communally for the next eleven
years, building houses, making fires, singing songs, riding
horses and working as a nurse in the nearest town. By the late
1990s she was visiting the far north coast and checking out
the Fruits parties.
"I knew heaps of people up here," Erif said. "I'd already
been to a few Tropical Fruits parties and helped with cleanup.
I decided to get involved as a member, but at my first AGM
in 2002 I ended up being the Chair.
"Us Fruits spend a lot of time together and we're learning
from each other about all sorts of things. I have had such an
education about boys in the last few years! I've heard stuff I
never knew existed," Erif said.
The NYE party brings in a welcome three million dollars
to the area. In a difficult regional economy, TF is a business
success story. "Tropical Fruits owns itself; we have no
sponsors, we are totally independent," Erif said. "We have a
very good standing in the community. Local businesses rely on
us for the revenue the parties bring in. We're also very cute,
gorgeous and talented and we throw a good party," she said.
This year, preparations for the party kick off in the
Lismore Showgrounds from Boxing Day, where Erif advised
LOTL "the hottest place to hang is the work crew area." The
New Year's Eve party is a full two-day event, with two parties,
three dance spaces, at least ten DJs, fireworks and light shows,
plus a pool party and BBQ. Committed partygoers just keep
on, with the camping ground open for two weeks.
"TROPICAL FRUITS OWNS ITSELF; WE HAVE NO
SPONSORS, WE ARE TOTALLY INDEPENDENT ... WE
HAVE A VERY GOOD STANDING IN THE COMMUNITY.
LOCAL BUSINESSES RELY ON US FOR THE REVENUE THE
PARTIES BRING IN. WE'RE ALSO VERY CUTE,
GORGEOUS AND TALENTED AND WE THROW
A GOOD PARTY,"
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