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Deviant dykes

Tue 26 Apr 2011 In: Politics and Religion

Later this year, the Australian true crime series Underbelly may deal briefly with Iris Webber, a lesbian gangster in 1930s Sydney. But this lethal lesbian isn't alone... Several months ago, I did an article on people who we'd rather were nowhere near our sexual orientation, but display 'biographical and incidental' homosexuality. Not all gay men are serial killers and psychopaths, but there are some serial killers, psychopaths, gangland figures and dictators who just happen to be gay men. Until recently, I thought the same about lesbians. After all, surely lesbians don't usually have sufficient opportunities to display their dark sides, given the double whammy of misogyny, homophobia (racism, class oppression, ad nauseum). Or haven't had. It's true that mass lesbian and gay communities only became possible after the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth century enabled employment opportunities and large scale anonymous social networks to arise. When it comes to lesbians, there were further obstacles to realising their sexual and personal autonomy given the emphasis on marriage and childbearing. Some lesbian landowners could escape, as did Anne Lister and the Ladies of Llangollen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's also true that Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Una Troubridge, Nathalie Barney and other privileged upper class American and British lesbians had ghastly anti-Semitic and politically reactionary views, some even going so far as to applaud fascism. However, I'm not going to focus on those lesbians in this piece. Not all lesbians have altruistic feminist values. Like straight women and gay men, dysfunctional and abusive family origins can lead some to make deliberately bad moral choices to hurt and injure others. Take the cases of Aileen Wuornos (US lesbian serial killer), Tracy Wigginton (Australian lesbian murderer), Eugenia Falleni (Italian-Australian passing woman and spouse murderer) and the aforementioned thirties Sydney lesbian gangster, Iris Webber. Aileen Wuornos is the only recorded lesbian serial killer. In her specific case, Wuornos was brought up in an economically marginal, severely dysfunctional family and the backwardness of US central and state government social welfare provision contributed to her marginality. As a result, a traumatised and disinhibited Wuornos became a sex worker and also had enough negative socialisation experiences to render her a serial killer. I am not denying ambiguity in this context- feminist criminology is still debating whether or not Wuornos' first victim tried to rape her. It is not Wuornos' lesbianism that is central here, it is her particular experience as an ‘underclass' woman. Some argue that she is a ‘victim victimising'. Tracy Wigginton is Brisbane's lesbian ‘vampire' killer. On reading her story, I was struck by the resemblance of her biographical details to those of Wuornos above. Born in Rockhampton, Queensland in 1965, Tracy was the granddaughter of George Wigginton, who turned out to be an intergenerational pedophile, having also abused her mother Rhonda and led to the probable development of auditory schizophrenia and/or dissociative identity disorder within Tracy after he abused her. Thankfully, the disgusting creature expired in 1979, but Tracy became a sullen, withdrawn figure on the boundaries of the Brisbane and Cairns lesbian communities, killing small animals. In 1989, the twenty four year old Wigginton murdered Eddie Malcolm, an innocent forty seven year old man. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, currently served in Brisbane's Womens Correctional Centre in Wacol. She certainly deserved to be imprisoned, but I wonder if her psychological damage is so severe that she should be confined to a high-security psychiatric institution for the rest of her life. Eugenia Falleni's tale resembles that of our own Amy Bock. However, Amy was only a serial fraudster. Eugenia went further than that. She was born in Florence, Italy in 1875 and left home in 1891, masquerading as a male sailor. Whether this gender masquerade was opportunist or a consequence of gender dysphoria is uncertain. In 1913, masquerading as driver Harry Crawford, Eugenia wed Annie Birkett, but killed her in 1917, whereupon her gender masquerade was finally uncovered. Some feminist historians have argued that much was made of Eugenia's gender at the trial and that she was sentenced to death, but that was later lifted. Finally, in 1931, she was released, became a landlady and died in a car accident in 1938. And finally, there's Iris Webber. Iris was a gangland killer during Sydney's razor gang wars over cocaine, bootleg alcohol distribution and street prostitution in the late twenties and thirties. They took their names from the Pistol Licensing Act 1927, which banned handguns- so gangsters used cutthroat razors instead. Iris was quite a character, killing four men, two of which may have attacked her first, admittedly, over wounded heterosexual privilege when she managed to capture the amorous attentions of a bisexual sex worker who had previously been companion to a straight male gangster. Due to homophobia and sexism, this woman's extraordinary life hasn't been adequately explored until now, apart from anecdotes in Sydney LGBT historical publications. Mind you, her straight male counterparts were no better and as for straight women, Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh were the leading gangland figures during the razor gang heyday. Equality can provide equal opportunities for women, lesbians and gay men. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that all of us are going to make constructive or morally acceptable and altruistic choices. When that happens, they need to be treated with parity, and as much severity as is practicable. Wigginton and Falleni were murderers. We cannot and should not sanitise or excuse their actions, any more than one would Reg Kray, Spain's General Franco, Ernest Rohm, Jeffrey Dahmer or their gay male equivalents. Recommended Stacey Shipley: The Female Homicide Offender: Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos: Pearson Prentice-Hall: 2004. Larry Writer: The Book of Australian True Crime: Sydney: Murdoch Books: 2008 Larry Writer: Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the Razor Gangs: Sydney: Pan Macmillan: 2009 Craig Young - 26th April 2011    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Tuesday, 26th April 2011 - 2:43pm

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