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“The art of changing lives”

A gift made possible by two of South Australia’s most significant arts figures is changing the lives of vulnerable LGBTQI+ people. Simon Royal explains how one scholarship rescued the dreams of the young person who received it.

Education and opportunity have an uncanny, unwavering ability to change lives. Together they coax dreams out of imagination into reality. But while it might all end up with grand sandstone cloisters, a mortarboard hat, and a glittering career, the foundations are often far more humble. For Elder Conservatorium student, Abigail Sutherland, her big break arrived dressed as dinner and a roof.

“With the money that I’ve been given I’ve been able to find housing where I’m safe,” Abigail told me.

“I’ve not had to worry about whether or not I can eat in three weeks. I can really take more interest and focus on my music. In the previous few years, I’ve had to cut my music interest because I couldn’t keep doing a full-time load.”

Then aged 18, Sutherland had been through a harrowing time. She had told her family who she is – a transgender person. Their reaction to that news remains too confronting for her to speak of publicly. Then, at the end of 2019, with exams in full swing, and reports of a worrying new respiratory disease emerging in China, Abigail’s phone started to ring… right when it was most inconvenient.

“I was in a library studying for my year 12 exams, so I had a few things on my mind. I was like, ‘should I answer this phone call or not?’ I’m very glad I did.”

The call was from the Pinnacle Foundation, a registered charity set up by four Sydney-based business leaders in the early 2000s, and of which I’m a committee member in South Australia.

Its aim is to improve the lives of young LGBTQI+ people, which it does by offering scholarships in whatever field the successful candidate chooses – medicine, journalism, music, and so on. They were ringing to tell Abigail her application had been successful.

“It was really amazing, and it was really hard to study afterwards,” she said.

“I was so excited to know I’d be supported… and to have an organisation that was going to be able to help me.”

And, in more than one way, Abigail Sutherland also found out she is not alone.

Anne Nixon, chair of South Australia’s Pinnacle Foundation Committee says, more than two dozen scholarships have been awarded in the state.

“For 2021, we’ve got nine scholars out of 51 nationally, so we are doing really well as a state. That said, this year I want us to increase our profile and attract more corporate and donor support so that ultimately we can offer more scholarships.”

Abigail Sutherland’s scholarship is specifically for an SA student to study in the performing arts – in her case, the French Horn.

The scholarship is awarded in the names of two of the most significant patrons of the arts in the state – Frank Ford and Sam Harvey. But while Sutherland is the inaugural scholar, the award itself had its beginnings more than four decades ago.

Essentially the scholarship is a story of love, loss, and legacy.

Sliding doors or just Adelaide

In 1978, deep in the bouffant-haired, platform-heeled and flared depths of disco, Sam Harvey pulled up at a set of traffic lights in suburban Adelaide. With the engine idling and the cassette player blaring, Sam didn’t realise the red light was really signalling ‘go’ for the defining relationship of his life. Sitting in the car alongside was the man with whom Sam would spend the next 42 years – writer, director and arts educator, Frank Ford.

“I’d been invited to the theatre that evening by a friend,” Sam said.

“Frank and I had looked at each other across the crowded auditorium. It was at the old Red Shed, so there wasn’t a lot of space, but somehow we didn’t meet at interval. On the steps after the show, my friend uncharacteristically said, ‘come on, let’s go’, so I didn’t get to speak to him at that point either. Then, as luck would have it, our cars pulled up at the lights together. Frank and I did the eye thing at one another across the way and that was it!”

Perhaps it wasn’t so much a Hollywood sliding door moment – ‘but for the red light, they would have never met’ – as it was an inevitable Adelaide, ‘everyone knows everyone else’ moment.

Sam Harvey was a 25-year-old primary school teacher with an abiding passion for the arts. Frank Ford was well on his way to becoming one of Australia’s most respected forces in the theatre. He was the founding chair of the Fringe organisation, initiated the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and headed Adelaide University’s drama department. In short, before the two men loved one another, they loved the same things. What distinguished Frank and Sam as a couple, according to theatre veteran and ABC presenter Peter Goers, is how they used their shared love to encourage artists in South Australia.

“They were always extremely supportive of the arts, both as a couple and individually,” Goers said. “It was the sort of support they offered that is crucial. Frank always saw the best in people’s work. He was a very positive and optimistic person, and I think that is very important.”

Sam and Frank also fundamentally believed in the power of education. Returning to university helped move Sam out of the classroom and into an arts administration career. It was another of those inevitable moments that the couple would marry their commitment to the arts with their faith in education. They found the perfect vehicle in the Pinnacle Foundation.

“Frank and I became aware of the Pinnacle Foundation about 10 years ago. We were invited to a dinner at Parliament House to hear more about it, and meet the scholars. Both of us came away from that acutely aware that it was a very positive organisation and a very positive thing to be involved in.”

They decided to make a bequest to the foundation when they updated their wills. The donor pamphlet they’d been given at the dinner was carefully tucked away in a folder containing all their legal papers, titles and deeds, and good intentions. Then, the day to day of everything else bustled in. The will didn’t get redone. Life swept on, until the day it didn’t.

“Unfortunately Frank passed away in 2018. It was very sudden and quick. I wasn’t prepared for it, it wasn’t on the horizon at all,” Sam recalled.

“As part of the process of that, it was time for me to make a new will. I could see how Pinnacle had grown and how it had such gravitas in terms of the people involved, and so I decided that I’d create a scholarship in his memory.”

Sam was at the announcement ceremony early in 2020 to see Abigail Sutherland, (with her phone switched off), formally receive her award. He describes the event as “full of warmth” and “like a homecoming”.

When asked what it means personally, Sam simply speaks of the “intrinsic reward of giving”. Then he gently, but surely, steers the conversation back to territory in which he’s more comfortable – talking about what others get from the gift.

But it’s not just the opportunity of a decent education he wants share. It’s all the other things Sam’s had, besides a career, that makes for a good life.

“I often thought how lucky I was in my life with Frank to have found someone who gave me unconditional love and support. He was such true gentleman, really.”

Sam Harvey and Frank Ford

Love. Family. Friends.

We forget that within the grand sweep of a generation’s collective experience, individual lives will differ wildly. There’s no doubt a young person coming out now likely faces an easier road than a person who came out in the 1970s. But these more comfortable and accepting times disguise an uncomfortable truth – for some LGBTQI+ young people coming out still meets with rejection and hostility, rather than an embrace.

They face homelessness at a far greater rate than their heterosexual peers, and that’s just one of the potential consequences of disclosing who they are.

Sam Harvey knows he was fortunate to hit a sweet spot in South Australia’s social history – sandwiched between the 1972 killing of gay law lecturer, George Duncan, which prompted the state to decriminalise male homosexuality, and the onset of AIDS in the early ’80s, which brought a fresh wave of fear and discrimination.

“It was a very generous time for coming out, especially in South Australia with the new legislation. And, in terms of my own family, I was supported.

“I came home very early one morning when my mother was already up for breakfast, and I remember her making a comment and I then replied, ‘not everybody likes girls…’

“Later on we went out for a lovely dinner one evening… and I was able to explain to mum how happy it made me living with Frank. That was what really cemented the rest of the 40 years.

“Frank adored my mother, the same as I adored his mother. It made for a family unit… I was very lucky indeed to have had that.”

As a major donor, Sam was part of the scholar selection panel. He read the barely begun life stories of the applicants, and he couldn’t help but compare his experience with theirs.

“I do look at some of them and think, ‘God, I wouldn’t have survived that’,” he said.

“I think what some of them have been through, not having a supportive or accepting family, and I would find that very, very crushing… it’s remarkable these young people have been able to stand up and be so resilient.”

None of us, though, should stand alone. The scholarship isn’t just about the money. Scholars are paired with a mentor from their chosen field to help guide them through their studies. And then there’s the support and friendship they find together. For some, that’s a second family. For others, it’s a new one. But that’s been tested this past strange year, when isolation has been key to caring ourselves and the people we love.

Changes…

Sam Harvey and Abigail Sutherland hadn’t been in the same room since last February. Just before Christmas, on a balmy evening at Norwood Town Hall, the pair caught up again.

Abigail dashed into the hall wearing her performance attire: jacket, white shirt, long trousers. She had a gig on later that night. The French Horn was secured under her arm, and a big smile was spread wide across her face. And then she told Sam Harvey exactly how his gift had changed her life – a young trans person who started out worrying about a roof over her head and where the next meal might come from.

“So, I’ve been studying a double degree,” Abigail said, still catching her breath. “I’ve done the Elder Conservatorium symphony orchestra, as well as the wind orchestra. I’ve done Norwood symphony orchestra. I’ve helped out with Woodville concert band, the Marion City brass band, and I’ve done quintets, and I’ve recently started conducting for the Adelaide Gay and Lesbian choir… some of my days this year have been 14-hour days.”

Astonishingly, among it all, she’s found time to work on other things, too.

“I value that my mother and I have grown as people,” Abigail said. “ You know as a teenager it is not the best time, as a parent, and I understand that and my relationship with my mother has definitely improved since she has accepted me.

“She’s opened up and she’s learnt all these new things…calling me her daughter, using my right name and I’m like, ‘thank you mum’… that’s something I’m really grateful for.”

As Abigail finished talking about her year, Sam Harvey was wearing the same broad smile as her.

“It’s infectious isn’t it? Her enthusiasm is just infectious,” Sam said. “It’s so good to see a young person like that. I hadn’t quite realised what the scholarship would do, at least not to the extent that Abigail indicated.”

Sam paused a moment, and added: “Frank would have enjoyed seeing it so very, very much.”

Article written by Simon Royal (an ABC journalist and a member of the SA committee). This article originally appeared in InDaily

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