The nineteen-fifties opened in Australia with a homosexual scandal in Adelaide that came to be known as the Lampshade Shop Scandal.
The Lampshade Shop was in Rundle Street – the business premises of one Bert Hines.
Today you mention Zasu Pitts and the mind flies immediately, of course, to the famous Hollywood comedienne of the forties. In Melbourne, in 1951, it was a very different Zasu standing in the dock in the Criminal Court. Harry Francis, also known as Zasu Pitts, or Zas for short, was facing a murder charge, accused of pushing a man off Queen’s Bridge.
The first homosexual rights organisation to be established outside Europe was the Mattachine Society, founded in California in 1948. For a long time, it was an organisation of very few members, and adopted a very low profile.
And then, in 1952, this began to change.
This year saw an extraordinary outburst of anti-gay panic in the British press which was to contribute, surprisingly enough, to a process by which the lives of British homosexuals (and those of many other countries) would actually be improved.
The tide of homophobia that swept through Britain’s police and press in the 1950s culminated in 1954 in a sensational trial.
On January 9, police, in a series of coordinated raids, arrested Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Peter Wildeblood, diplomatic editor of the Daily Mail and Michael-Pitt-Rivers, a Dorset landowner.
The Sydney Morning Herald was to make itself notorious in the 1970s for its implacable hostility to the newly emerging gay and lesbian movement. Oddly, though, it was in this newspaper that the first editorial regarding homosexuality appeared that presented in any way a sympathetic slant.
In 1955, the NSW parliament had been discussing the ‘homosexual problem’ and were planning on beefing up the laws.
In 1956, the racier sections of the Australian press were preoccupied with the decision of theatre companies in Melbourne and Sydney to stage productions of Tea and Sympathy. Truth trumpeted the ‘She-Male Play’, the ‘Queer Brew’, the ‘Sordid Sex Play’, deploring its immorality and its shocking themes.
And the nature of these themes? Tea and Sympathy tells the story of Tom Lee, a sensitive young man, suspected by his schoolmates of being a homosexual.
In 1957, a watershed in the history of homosexual law reform was crossed when the British government’s inquiry into homosexuality and prostitution published its report.
Established under the shadow of a homophobic panic in the mid 1950s, the committee was chaired by Sir John Wolfenden. They even heard from some actual real life homosexuals.
The British government’s Wolfenden Committee report into homosexuality created a stormy debate when it was released in 1957, creating many of the ideas that we still use today (the ‘consenting adult in private’, for example).
Less noticed was our very own Wolfenden-style inquiry, conducted by a NSW government committee set up in 1958.
Although AIDS was first identified in the United States in the early 1980s, what is believed to be the earliest case of a human being being infected by the disease has been identified as occurring in 1959.
The location was the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
There are the Big Years in gay and lesbian history – 1948, 1957, 1969, 1978 – and then there are years where it seems that nothing much happened at all. These are actually the more interesting. And 1960 is one of them.
‘But you’ll love Sydney, and Sydney will be mad about you’. Thus opens the first Australian novel to deal with homosexual life, Jon Rose’s At the Cross, published in 1961.
His adventures there – as he is rapidly absorbed into the thriving camp community centred on King’s Cross – make for a rollicking good yarn.
The great breakthrough film for gay people was undoubtedly 1962’s Victim, staring Dirk Bogarde. It was a British film, of course. Hollywood was still under the sway of the studios’ strict censorship code that banned, among a host of other issues, any sympathetic depiction of homosexuality.
In a number of ways, Victim was a trailblazer.
In 1963, the Australian government, protector of the morals of the nation, banned the import of James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country. This is hardly surprising. Although the use of censorship against books and films dealing with matters of sexuality was less common than it had been, this was still the country where Lady Chatterley’s Lover could not be legally imported.
‘It is the purpose of this article to try and give the ‘normal’ person some idea of the ways and habits of those individuals who do not conform to the regular moral code of this society’.
With these words a homosexual writes for the Monash Uni student paper in 1964. In doing so, this person, although remaining anonymous, is the first homosexual to openly discuss his sexuality in a public forum.
By the middle of the 1960s, a greater tolerance of homosexuality was starting to be expressed in Australian public life. 1965 offers a couple of striking examples.
In the Bulletin in May 1965, Gordon Hawkins referred to NSW Police Commissioner Colin Delaney’s claim that homosexuality was ‘Australia’s greatest menace’ – and immediately set about demolishing it.
In 1966, seemingly out of the blue, camp people started to speak for themselves. And where was this new openness to be found? Surprisingly enough, in the letters page and in the Heart Balm advice column of the Truth, Melbourne’s favourite scandal sheet.
Reader of Albert Park was a homosexual in his twenties, living with a ‘square chap’ who did not know and who would leave if he ever found out.
And then, finally, in 1967 the moment that we had been waiting for, in many cases working towards, for ten years. On 4 July at 5:44 in the morning, by a vote of 99 to 14, the British House of Commons voted to decriminalise homosexual acts. A few days later the House of Lords passed the bill and Elizabeth, our good queen, graciously assented.
While the task of arguing for homosexual law reform in Britain between 1957 and 1967 was a matter of long, slow, patient, reasoned and reasonable debate with the great and the good, events a year later in France showed another path to putting gay rights on the agenda.
In May 1968 France was in upheaval.
Even now, the Stonewall Riot is widely considered the founding moment of the gay liberation movement.
Late on the night of July 27 a few police entered the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, a seedy, unlicensed bar, known to be a favourite among homosexuals and drag queens of the most disreputable type.
On 19 September 1970 an article appeared in the Saturday edition of the Australian newspaper. It was an interview with John Ware, Christabel Poll and John’s boyfriend, Michael. It was this article that launched a movement that has transformed this country.
John and his friends had, some months before, formed what was intended to be a small group to combat anti-homosexual misinformation such as appeared so often in the press of the day.
Without question, the definitive text of the gay liberation period was (and is) Dennis Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, published in New York in 1971. Altman, Tasmanian by upbringing, had been in the US and witnessed the spectacular rise of gay and lesbian political activism after the Stonewall Riot of 1969. He was quick to join in, but his most lasting contribution to the struggle was this seminal (sic!) work.
When George Duncan’s body was pulled from Adelaide’s Torrens River in May 1972, the Australian gay movement had its first national campaign. Duncan (a law lecturer at the university) was gay. The place where he was found was a well-known beat. He had died by drowning. And at the time when he was thrown in the river, three Vice Squad policemen had been at the scene.
In 1973, Australia’s psychiatrists discovered that homosexuals were not psychologically disordered – and said so in public.
The Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the professions peak body, had called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1972, adding its voice to the growing chorus. But 1973 was something else again.
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.
In September 1975, a newspaper appeared on the shelves of Australian newsagents – Campaign: Australia’s gay newspaper. It was to prove the most enduring such publication in our history.
Campaign was not the first gay publication in Australia. In the first years of the movement, a flurry of magazines and newspapers had appeared – Camp Ink, Stallion/Gayzette, Apollo, William and John…
Although published the previous year, Elizabeth Riley’s novel, All That False Instruction, really started to have an impact on Australian gay people in 1976 as word of its publication spread.
It was as the subtitle, in hot pink on the otherwise discreet blue cover, announced ‘A Novel of Lesbian Love’ – indeed, the first such published in Australia.
In 1977, the backlash against the gay rights movement, so long feared and expected by activists, began in the United States.
Till this point progress had been more or less uninterrupted. Even in the Republican Party, gays were coming out – their caucus, the Log Cabin Republicans was founded.
In 1978, as the anti-gay backlash in the US gained strength, activists in San Francisco called for an international day of protest. Sydney’s Gay Solidarity Group was quick to respond. Unwittingly they were taking the Australian gay movement to a new place.
Like most great American culture, disco began black and poor, relying in this case on recorded (and therefore cheaper) rather than live (and therefore more expensive) music. Traced backed to 1971, it surfaced a couple of years later and by 1975 – the Year of Disco – there were 500 discotheques in New York City alone and heterosexuals were flocking to experience the beat.
The shift was the work of gay audiences.
In 1980 a sudden debate erupted among gay activists about a dangerous new threat – the clone. Not the mindless war machines from a galaxy far, far away and long, long ago. Not even the cheap knock-off of the PC.
No, this clone was human, gay and male.
The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report appeared on the same day of the week every week; and had for as long as anyone cared to remember. When on this particular Friday July 4 in 1981 it carried a report on the unexpectedly frequent appearance of an otherwise rare cancer and the increasingly fatal effects of a fairly benign flu few would have been expected to pay much attention.
It was the first sign of an epidemic that was to grip and transform the gay community.
As it became clear in the early 1980s that Mardi Gras was becoming an annual event, the thoughts of organisers turned increasingly to what to do with it. Beginning as a political march and an act of defiance against the cops and media and politicians, it was rapidly becoming something more – a celebration of gay pride, and a means by which the fledgling gay community could be strengthened.
Sometimes – especially when they don’t mean to be – the cops are our best friends.
In January 1983 the NSW police raided Club 80. Club 80 was what we now refer to as a sex-on-premises venues or, in the rather less tactful language of the time, a fuck club. Yes indeed, gentle reader – shocking though it may be to hear, there were in those days places where men went to meet each other and have sex.
1984 felt like one of those years where everything was going our way.
Decriminalisation took two steps forward. In NSW, Labor premier Neville Wran finally succumbed to years of campaigning by gay activists and the gay community and led his party onto the reform road. Meanwhile, in Darwin, the NT government quietly changed the laws as part of a wider rewrite of the criminal code.
When, in 1985, Ethel May Punshon – Monte to her friends – came out, she was, for a time, dubbed the ‘world’s oldest lesbian’.
Monte’s sexuality was an important part of her life and she never concealed it from friends. She once declared that she had always preferred the company of women in her intimate life – or at least from the age of six when she became instinctively aware, as she put it, of her desires.
Since 1975 gay and lesbian activists had been gathering in an annual conference to discuss, debate and cruise. In 1986, this era came to an end with the 11th National Conference of Lesbian and Gay Men held in Sydney in April.
The first such conference was held in Melbourne, sponsored by the Australian Union of Students, but organised by an autonomous collective. The result outstripped everyone’s wildest hopes.
By the time the federal government was ready to act on AIDS, much of the most important work had been done. Which is just as well, really, because their early efforts were pretty unsatisfactory.
The first cases of AIDS had appeared in Australia in 1983, at just about the time the ALP was elected.
In 1988, the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group decided that it needed to raise its profile. Members took themselves off to Salamanca Market, a Saturday morning craft market, set up its stall and started to collect signatures on its petition. For a month or so things went smoothly. And then, quite suddenly, the local council announced that the TGLRG’s presence was ‘offensive’ and ‘political’, and that if the group persisted in turning up, its members would be arrested.
1989 saw two new gatherings for Australia’s lesbians and gay men. In Melbourne, the first Midsumma festival was organised. Intended as an answer to the Mardi Gras cultural festival, Midsumma attracted participants on a large scale.
It ran over ten days and almost as many nights. Street party, sports carnival, theatre, cabaret and film festival. A G&L studies conference; a history walk … there was something for everybody.
1990 saw a minor resurgence in activism in the gay and lesbian community with two new, small, but active groups founded.
In Melbourne, Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination (GLAD) launched itself at the Fringe Festival parade, bringing its message to the world. Its aim was quite specific.
Dr Robert Vivian Storer, an early Australian sex educationist and venereologist, was born in Adelaide in 1900. In the mid-1930s he practiced in London before settling permanently in Melbourne in 1939.
He was openly bisexual throughout most of his life, which is reflected in the popular sex-education books he wrote throughout the 1930s.
Beats have a very long history. Their existence has been noted in London and other European capitals as far back as the early 1700s, and no doubt there were places used by men for sex and as meeting places well before then.
All sorts of places can be used as beats; hotels, parks, cafes, baths, dressing sheds, sections of streets or public toilets.
In 1994, Cadbury Schweppes withdrew its sponsorship of the high rating ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’ show due to the promotion of live crosses to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.
Channel 9 tried to maintain sponsorship by deleting the word ‘lesbian’ and then ‘gay’ from its promo, the censored version referring only to ‘Sydney’s Mardi Gras’. This proved ineffective and Cadbury-Schweppes’ one-night-only withdrawal sparked outrage.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single gay man in possession of an income must be in search of a commodity upon which to expend it. Even more so the gay male couple.
Somewhere in the mid-1980s the idea started to get about that gays (men in particular) were a ‘high disposable income’ group. That they had money and liked to spend it.
Harriet Elphinstone Dick was a notable Melbourne personality in the latter part of the nineteenth century. She first came to public notice when she won many swimming races at the old St Kilda Baths in the 1870s, when she was in her 20s.
In 1879, at 24, Miss Dick retired from championship swimming to run a ladies-only gymnasium in Collins Street.
Most lesbians are not femme or butch but androgynous, and most lesbians favour relationships based on sameness. If androgyny is the centre point of the lesbian gender spectrum, then femme and butch each fall a reasonable, but variable, distance either side. Butch-femme relationships are based on an eroticisation of difference. The terms “butch” and “femme” […]
Love ’em or loathe ’em, there’s no avoiding heterosexuals.
Some have tried, of course. Separatist households were common enough in the 1970s – groups of homosexuals banding together to explore their lives (among other things!), screening out the influence of heterosexual values such as monogamy, jealousy, exclusiveness.
It is hard to imagine now that there was a time when it was very difficult to find gay and lesbian books. Even in major cities like Melbourne and Sydney.
There were two reason for this. The first is that there weren’t that many books at all.
In 1986, the December edition of Lesbian News featured an article by The Joy of Lesbian Sex Collective which claimed that ‘finger fucking symbolizes the kind of violence that is experienced in heterosexual sex’ and that ‘women who practice penetration are butch and male identified’.
Melbourne’s Truth newspaper picked up the story and ran it under the headline ‘Lesbian Stink Over Use of Fingers – Penetration Row Rages’.
Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) transformed our understanding of human sexuality and, as a result, found himself in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the centre of the biggest scientific storm since Darwin.
Kinsey’s shocking contribution to the study of sex was to write about what people actually did, as opposed to what they ought to do.
Greg Louganis says he realised he was gay at the age of 16 when he had his first sexual experience. Although there had been speculation about his sexuality in the sporting world and the media for many years, he did not openly come out until 1994 when he competed in, and acted as the official host of, the Gay Games in New York.
Before queer or gay, even before camp or homosexual identities had come into being, people like us were creating lives for themselves in societies that were often viciously hostile. In London as early as the 1720s, such people called themselves – and were called by others – ‘mollies’. In other major European cities, similar communities existed.
One of Australia’s first soapies, Number 96 was one of the most popular and successful. Five nights a week for five years (1972-77) it brought the usual lurid range of soapie lives into the loungerooms of Australia – rape, abortion, witchcraft, Nazis, bombs.
In the midst of all this the lawyer Don Findlayson (played by Joe Hasham) was a remarkably conventional character – except for his homosexuality.
More than the demos; more than the polite lobbying; more than Mardi Gras even. Being out is what has brought about the transformation of attitudes to homosexuality in our society.
When lesbians and gay men began to speak for ourselves in Australia – beginning with the formation of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution in 1970 – we did not yet have the term ‘coming out’.
During most of the 1970s and 80s, the dominant symbol of gay and lesbian activism was the pink triangle. To many outside the movement it seemed an odd choice – pink was obvious, it was a sissy colour for a sissy people. But a triangle? It was, it was true, an inverted triangle – maybe that was the point?
In fact, the symbol had not been invented by the movement, but adopted. The pink triangle came from the German concentration camps of the 1930s.
The Quilt, or the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project to give it its full name, was founded in 1988. Inspired by an American model, it allows people who have lost loved ones, family or friends, to design and produce a memorial panel in fabric.
Each panel is unique, commemorating the individuality of the deceased with words and images which evoke particular interests or habits.
If the pink triangle was the dominant symbol of the gay and lesbian movement of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the rainbow flag has become the symbol of the queer communities of the 1990s and beyond.
The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978 for San Francisco’s annual gay pride parade.
Perhaps the most laughably misnamed paper in Australia, the Truth has been a source not just of amusement for generations of Australians, but is more and more a source of knowledge. Especially of queer lives in our past.
In its efforts to sell as many papers as possible, the Truth reported the stories that more respectable newspapers wouldn’t touch.
In the 1860s, a remarkably brave German, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, set out to change society’s attitudes towards what would in later days come to be know as homosexuals.
Ulrichs became aware of same-sex desire in himself at about the age of 20, but rather than conceal it, he set out to try to decide where such desires came from.
These days, it is hard to turn around without falling over the latest queer novel, story collection, even poetry. Hares and Hyenas has a whole wall full and even mainstream bookshops usually manage to stock the latest offerings.
It wasn’t always like this.
In the 1950s the British tabloid press found itself crusading against homosexuality. By exposing the extent to which the hitherto unmentionable vice was being practiced, editors imagined that they were saving the nation from a terrible threat. And they knew they were selling a lot of newspapers.
But the ever more shocking revelations came closer and closer to the real centres of British power.
Princesses were never high on the list of lesbian cult figures until Xena hit the small screen. But Xena is not your average princess. A warrior who outwits gods, out-fights men and sends vicious dogs away whimpering with the wave of a hand, Xena exhibits a serious liking for studded leather and, on her continuous travels, is accompanied only by a strawberry blonde named Gabrielle.