The news in 2002 that the construction workers’ union was taking industrial action to defend the queer room at a Victorian university was by no means the first time that unions have supported gay people in this country. In fact they have a long and honourable history of action.
One of the earliest examples came in 1974 when Penny Short, a trainee teacher at Macquarie University, published a lesbian poem in the student paper. Explicit, in the style of the time, in both sexual and political terms – and proudly signed, of course – it came, inevitably, to the attention of the Authorities.
Some had known already. In the course of the various interviews for her traineeship and scholarship, Penny had let it be known that she was a lesbian; to which it was suggested that she should just keep the fact to herself.
When the poem appeared, her scholarship was promptly revoked – on the grounds that she was ‘medically unfit’ to teach primary students. Clearly, it was not her lesbianism that was the problem, but her openness.
Students – and not just gay and lesbian students – were outraged. A demo of some 600 gathered outside the Education Department’s headquarters, demanding reinstatement of her scholarship. Among her supporters was the Builders Labourers Federation, a union well-known for the Green Bans which had protected so much of Sydney from the developers’ wrecking ball. A union with a social conscience was an obvious source of support and its bans on university building sites brought the issue to the top of everyone’s agenda.
Brought to you by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives