A Brief history of homosexuality in Australia

Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives  - The Archives are the only community group in Australia that actively collects and preserves lesbian and gay material from across the country, and makes it readily accessible.




Australia's gay and lesbian history dates back well before the colonial era. As long as there have been humans living on this continent, there have been gay, lesbian and bisexual Australians, writes Andrew M Potts.

Indigenous Australia includes hundreds of different clans and peoples, each with their own language or dialect, and each with their own unique cultures and spiritual beliefs that have evolved over the 50,000-plus years their ancestors have inhabited this continent.
Before colonisation by Europeans, a wide variety of codes and laws operated across the land mass and islands of Australia. In many tribes, homosexual acts were completely forbidden but among some tribes, similar to practices in ancient Greece, unmarried men entered into sexual relationships with youths with the expectation that the relationships would end once they married.

Other groups believed certain people possessed both male and female spirits in one body. The were referred to as "Two-One" people - similar to the concept of "Two Spirit" people in North American Indigenous culture. Because of this, they were allowed to engage in relationships where others would not have been.

In some groups, anal sex seems to have been acceptable in male-to-male relationships, but it was forbidden or deeply frowned upon in others. The same complex rules that existed in Aboriginal culture governing heterosexual relationships also applied to homosexual ones.

Although the British dominate Australia's colonial history, it was a lost Dutchmen and ill winds that first put us on the map.

On October 25, 1616, Dirk Hartog became the first white man to set eyes on the continent of Australia after being blown off course on his way to the Dutch colonies in the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Landing at what is now Shark Bay in Western Australia, he nailed a pewter plate to a post as proof of his journey.

Twenty-six years later, another Dutchman, Abel Tasman, returned to map the southern island of Tasmania and, on a second voyage, the north of the mainland, giving Europeans their first notions of its size and shape.

But it is another ship from Holland that sets the first date in the recorded gay history of Australia.

The merchant vessel Zeewijk wrecked itself on the Houtman Abrolhos islands off the coast of Western Australia on the 9th of June, 1727. Hitting a submerged reef, ten men drowned and two weeks passed before the crew could even launch a rescue boat. The desperate survivors used a single longboat to send 11 of their strongest men to Java for rescue - but they were never seen or heard from again. In the months that followed, the remaining crew were forced to build a new boat from scratch, using wood from the Zeewijk and material from surrounding islands.

During this time, two young sailors, Adriaen Spoor and Pieter Engels, were caught by their crewmen in "the abominable and god-forsaken deeds of Sodom and Gomorrah" and sentenced to death. They were abandoned on separate rocky islands and left to starve while the others escaped in their patchwork ship.

Australia did not attract serious attention from Britain until it lost the American War Of Independence in 1783.

Between the years 1680 and 1780, the population of England doubled, with the Industrial Revolution bringing hordes of people into its cities. With no social security, the resulting slums and urban poverty led to an epidemic of crime. By 1770, over 200 separate offences had been made eligible for the death penalty.

Transportation of convicts to America for use as indentured labour was believed a more humane alternative to the problem and a solution to clearing the nation's overcrowded jails.

Following Captain James Cook's claiming of Australia as a British possession, the decision was made to direct the flow of convicts Down Under through the establishment of a colony in New South Wales.

The First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson to found what would become Sydney in 1788, and a second settlement on the southern island of Tasmania was established in 1803 - reserved for repeat offenders and the worst criminals.

From the early 18th Century, the United Kingdom developed its own distinct underground gay subculture, with men gathering secretly in so-called "Molly houses" - illegal bars and taverns that were the precursors of modern gay bars.

Molly culture was closely associated with cross-dressing and drag, and rather than seeking out 'rough trade', most Mollies seemed to have preferred other effeminate men as partners. Of course, when civil society found out about the existence of the Molly houses, they were outraged, and a vigorous police crackdown ensued.

When Mollies were arrested and thrown into London's floating prison hulks, they would have encountered an entirely darker kind of male-to-male sexuality - prison rape and sex traded for protection and favours.

During the First and Second Fleet, little effort was made to segregate the young and vulnerable from the older men, and with prisoners sleeping six to each tiny cell, it's not hard to imagine what must have gone on. Later fleets corrected this problem - placing the younger men and teens in separated lodging.

The term Molly has been found in early accounts from the colony while others commented on the unseemliness of a certain class of convict - young men who gave themselves feminine nicknames and wore their hair in women's styles. With only 189 women convicts amongst the 1,373 British to land at Port Jackson, both would have found themselves in considerable demand - and this gender imbalance would not be corrected for many decades.

Lesbianism among female convicts, kept mostly segregated from the males, is also recorded, but was viewed simply as a curiosity - girl-on-girl action not being viewed as real sex at the time.

These early days of the colony seem to have included a fairly lax attitude to male homosexuality. Although it's first governor, Arthur Phillip, stated the only two offences deserving death were murder and sodomy, the first trial for such a crime did not occur until 1796 and that penalty was not prescribed. Phillip even went so far as to say that sodomites should be given to cannibals to be eaten, writing, "I would wish to confine the criminal until an opportunity offered of delivering him to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death."

Despite this, the first recorded execution for a homosexual act did not occur until 1828, when Alexander Brown, chief officer on the whaling ship Royal Sovereign, and crewmember Richard Lister were ordered to hang by the neck by a Sydney court. Lister was given a last minute reprieve and deported from the colony, but Brown did not fair so well.

Gay convicts lucky enough to be sent to Norfolk Island (an otherwise notoriously harsh and remote penal settlement) during the rule of the prison reformer Alexander Maconochie, led a much different life. On an island known for its food shortages and harsh punishments, Maconochie instituted a regime based on reward and tolerance rather than cruelty.

According to Robert Stuart, a magistrate who visited the island during Maconochie's rule, it was common for convicts to live together as couples - referring to each other as "husband and wife", and there may have been well over 100 such pairs on the island at any one time. Stuart observed, "These parties manifest as much eagerness for the society of each other as members of the opposite sex." Under Maconochie, convicts caught having sex still faced flogging but, compared to the rest of the British Empire, the punishment was mild.

Around this time, the colony's first known beat was mentioned in the Sydney Gazette as being located at Mrs Macquarie's Chair [now a famous and respectable landmark in Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens]. Formerly the favourite ship watching spot of Elizabeth, wife of the colony's sixth Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, by the 1830s it was reported to be unsafe because of the unsavoury acts occurring there. Reportedly, gay men were still cruising each other at the spot over a century later in the 1950s.

The last gay execution occurred in Tasmania in 1863, when a black South African convict named Hendrick Witnalder and an unnamed 14-year-old boy were charged with sodomy. The boy was eventually set free but Witnalder, of tiny stature, was hanged with weights tied to his feet in case his body was too light to break his neck.

Surprisingly, Australia's highest-ranking gay leader to date may have predated this. In 1859, Robert Herbert became the first Colonial Secretary (the equivalent of Premier) of Queensland. His Attorney General was John Bramston and both had lived together since meeting at Oxford University as students in the early 1850s.

The two most powerful men in the state shared a grand house and gardens they built together named "Herston" - a combination of their last names. Their friendship lasted over 50 years during which they were rarely apart. Herbert's explanation for his lifelong bachelorhood: "It does not seem to me reasonable to tell a man who is happy and content, to marry a woman who may turn out to be a great disappointment".

Looking back, it seems odd people didn't ask questions but during this period, and right up until World War I, presumably straight men were allowed a closeness and affection for each other rarely seen today. Referred to by historians as "romantic friendships", it was not uncommon for such men to write what would today seem like love letters to each other and to pose for portraits together holding hands or embracing - even reclining in each other's arms on couches. Many of these friendships were only that but they must have presented the perfect cover for gay men of the time.

The campaign to end convict transportation - finally won in 1868, led to a worsening cultural cringe against homosexuality in Australia, as homosexual relations and male rape among prisoners were reasons cited for its immorality. Despite this, as Australia's free settler population grew and the number of convicts working off their sentences declined, a new set of gay and lesbian figures began to appear - the "passing women", who impersonated male lives in order to take advantage of the opportunities denied to women, and a growing subculture of urban gay men who found their partners at certain theatres, cafés, bars, parks and lavatories, despite state persecution and the disapproval of society.

Out bush, on the frontiers of law and order, where gold rushes and the taming of the land led to mass migrations of single men, other opportunities presented themselves.

Arriving in Australia at the age of 26, Andrew Scott, an engineer and wanderer with a radical streak, had already fought in three wars - Garibaldi in Italy, New Zealand's Maori Wars and under the American Civil War.

Perhaps weary of fighting, or from a sense of guilt, Scott decided to follow in his father's footsteps and join the Anglican clergy, becoming a lay reader in the Victorian goldfields at Edgerton.

However, in 1869, Ludwig Bruun - an attractive young clerk whom Scott had befriended, accused him of robbing the local bank.

Bruun described being robbed by a fantastic masked figure who signed his name "Moonlite" but claimed he recognised Scott's slightly Irish-American accent and limp from a war wound.

Scott denied the charges, and for a time Bruun and a local school teacher were pursued as suspects, but Scott was eventually charged and imprisoned after passing bad cheques in New South Wales. Scott would go to his grave claiming his innocence in this crime.

Released in 1879, Scott's reputation as the dashing Captain Moonlight was awaiting him on the outside and the Melbourne tabloids immediately began inventing fantastic tales of crimes he was supposedly masterminding.

Scott tried to rebuild his life by touring as a public speaker on prison reform but constant hounding by press and police seem to have convinced him to finally live up to the legend he already carried. Teaming up with 23-year-old James Nesbitt (believed to be his lover), whom he'd met in jail, the handsome Scott assembled a ragtag gang of young men who he'd met at bars and brothels.

Sending word to Ned Kelly that he wanted to join forces, Scott trained his boys in military fashion - giving them ranks and numbers and, often mistaken for the Kelly Gang, they seized guns and horses on their way. Scott never received Ned's reply, which was that if "Scott or his band approached him, he would shoot them down".

Religion and class, not sexuality, were the likely sources of the refusal - Ned's brother Dan is thought to have been gay (a reported cross-dresser who chose to dance with men before the shootout at Glenrowan) but Ned was an Irish Catholic of convict stock, while Scott was from a wealthy Protestant family.

Scott's gang bailed up the estate of a rich squatter near Wagga, taking 36 hostages and raiding a nearby pub before repelling a police assault and fleeing to a nearby farmstead, where a superior police force trapped them and won the shootout. Nesbitt was shot dead trying to lead police away so Scott could escape.

Following a trial in which he represented himself and tried to take all the blame in the hope of getting his boys lighter sentences, Scott was sentenced to death and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol in what is now the heart of Sydney's gay precinct.

Scott's dying wish was to be buried next to his "beloved James Nesbitt, the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship", and whose woven hair he wore as a ring.

His wish to be buried next to Nesbitt was not honoured until 115 years later. The couple's remains are now together in the cemetary of the town of Gundagai, a forgotten regional spot on the map south of Sydney.

Prior to the 20th Century, homosexuality was regarded as a wilful rebellion against morality and godliness and a depraved criminal perversion.

However, as new theories on psychology filtered in from abroad and as the idea of separation of church and state became stronger in the public mind in a newly independent Australia (granted in 1901), people began to ask questions as to what might drive a person to commit homosexual acts - beginning the medicalisation of homosexuality.

This switch in thinking led to lighter sentences but although society began to slowly accept that homosexuals didn't choose their sexuality, there was concern that homosexuals might be able to corrupt the young.

A shining exception during this period was the work of Dr Robert Storer. Influenced by the new thinking in Europe, Storer completed his training in London and undertook postgraduate studies on venereal disease in Vienna until 1925.

Returning to Australia, he began a medical practice and became a strong advocate of sex education and family planning - publishing two of the first Australian books on sexuality and sexual health for a general reading audience. Controversially, Storer asserted that homosexuality was part of the normal spectrum of human sexuality and argued that most people felt some degree of bisexual urge.

As a result, Storer was charged with publishing obscene material - charges which he fought and won, setting an important legal precedent that allowed franker discussion of sexuality in Australia for years to come.

However, despite being married and a father, Storer was himself bisexual and had two convictions for homosexual acts that would eventually be his undoing. Following years of attacks in the tabloids and a number of short-lived attempts to restart his career, Storer died of a heart attack in 1958, a broken man.

As a result of pioneering ideas such as Storer's, however, some judges began to show lenience when dealing with homosexuals.

In 1935, a Melbourne cross-dresser named Percy Haynes attempted to pass as a woman for an afternoon on the town. After some window-shopping and a visit to the pictures, Percy caught the attention of a detective who followed him home on the train - unmasking him at his front gate in full view of his neighbours. Surprisingly, the case was thrown out - the magistrate ruling that the fashion of the day was for young women to wear jodhpurs and that Percy's choice of dress had been respectful in its own way.

In 1942, two men who were arrested after their names were found in the address book of another gay man. They were sentenced to just 30 minutes imprisonment for their offence, as the testimony of a well respected psychiatrist led the judge to believe the men were simply acting on their natural instinct.

However, harsh sentences continued to be handed out, and the medicalisation of homosexuality would have serious consequences for many in later years, with gay men committed to mental institutions, subjected to aversion therapy using electric shocks and even lobotomised. These attempts at 'cures' would continue up to the very cusp of decriminalisation.

From the late '40s to the late '60s, many gay men, particularly artists and writers, fled Australia for a more tolerant climate in Europe. During the 1950s, Australia's foreign intelligence service, ASIO, kept files on known and suspected homosexuals - fearing they might be Communist sympathisers. They even produced a briefing document containing a glossary of gay terms and signs a subject who may be gay would use. In 1963, ASIO conducted an investigation into a "lesbian fraternity" in the ranks of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force, even though lesbianism had never been a crime!

Also in 1963, Australia's first official gay bar - The Purple Onion - was established in the Sydney suburb of Kensington. High Court Judge, Justice Michael Kirby, recalls, "I regularly visited the Purple Onion in early 1969 with my handsome new Dutch partner, Johan. Nearly 40 years later, we are still together. "The Purple Onion was a glitzy cabaret, with grossly overpriced drinks, a glamorous crowd, lots of smoking, a packed dance floor, strobe lights and a twice nightly show that changed every few months. The shows were gloriously costumed, with brilliant choreography on a tiny stage. It was great fun and a respite from the oppression that went on outside the doors. The place was magical, intimate and democratic. If only we could reverse the time machine and go back to those delicious nights."

One year later, a debate on the legal status of homosexuality held at Melbourne University sparked national headlines and started a broader community discussion. In front of an audience of 500, psychiatrist AA Bartholemew and students Patrick McCaughy and Gareth Evans (later an Australian Foreign Minister) argued for decriminalisation, while lawyer Clifford Pannam and two others argued the negative.

The debate was covered by Rupert Murdock's newly founded The Australian newspaper and those arguing in favour of decriminalisation won the debate on a vote of 281 to 98. Coverage in the weeks to come spurred a number of public figures to voice support for decriminalisation - including the then Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne.

Decriminalisation in Britain in 1967 brought further pressure and the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York inspired gay and lesbian Australians into thinking a loud and proud gay rights movement could exist here, too. Before the end of 1969, an Australian wing of lesbian group The Daughters Of Bilitis was founded. The Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) in Sydney and Society Five in Melbourne formed soon after.

It would take until 1975, however, for an Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality - under South Australia's then closeted gay Premier, Don Dunstan. The ACT followed in 1976, Victoria in 1980, with others following in years to come. New South Wales, which now has the country's largest gay community, refused to come to the table. It all came to a head on June 24, 1978, when Sydney's gay and lesbian community decided to hold a march commemorating the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall riots - and dubbed it "Mardi Gras".

Although organisers had a permit and intended the parade to be a colourful and non-violent call for rights, police dispersed the march at Hyde Park and confiscated a truck. The 1,500 people assembled then made their way to Kings Cross - at that time the other gay area in Sydney. Police then blocked off both ends of Darlinghurst Road, hemming in the crowd, and started making mass arrests.

As people tried to stop friends and loved ones from being thrown into police wagons, things turned violent and police began to beat and kick demonstrators. Fifty-three people were arrested, with many later being bashed by police in their cells. In the days that followed, the Sydney Morning Herald published their full names and occupations - outing many and costing them their jobs.

Outrage over the violence and the banning of a legal protest galvanised public opinion and eventually forced the government's hand. The NSW Government relented in 1984 and legalised homosexuality, with the Australian Medical Association removing homosexuality from its list of disorders that same year, though the age of consent in NSW would remain unequal until 2003.

Queensland became the last mainland state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1990 but the southern island of Tasmania held out until 1997 - only changing the law after being ruled against by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Strangely, Tasmania has moved ahead in leaps and bounds to become the first state to introduce a statewide relationship recognition scheme for same-sex couples followed this year by Victoria.

Through the intervening years, the states have passed anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians in the workplace and most have moved to give gay parents some level of recognition. But the election of John Howard's conservative government in 1996 set in place a deep freeze on gay rights at a national level which is only just beginning to thaw.

There was a liberal undercurrent to these deeply conservative years, however. The same election that saw Howard take power also saw the election of the first openly gay leader of a political party to the Federal Parliament in the form of the Greens' Senator Bob Brown. The same year, Giz Watson became the first lesbian to be elected to an Australian Parliament for the Greens in Western Australia.

But gay and lesbian Australians were shocked in 2004 when, following the lead of America, both the Australian Government and the Labor Opposition joined forces to ban same-sex marriage - the first time a new law aimed against gay people had been passed by an Australian Parliament since decriminalisation.

But with this the 30th anniversary year of the original Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras, the new Labor Government has promised to address equality for homosexuals - short of gay marriage and full parental rights - with national anti-discrimination laws on the agenda.

On that note, gay and lesbian Australia's history draws to a close as we look to a future where we are the full citizens of this country we deserve to be - and that future seems more tangible with each passing year.

Source: DNA Magazine

Homophobis: An Australian History (Published October, 2008)

Edited by Shirleene Robinson

Homophobia is a prejudice with effects that extend far beyond the gay and lesbian community.  While its physical, emotional and social effects have been charted to some extent, the development of homophobia in Australia has yet to be fully explored.

Homophobia: An Australian History is the first book to consider homophobia in a distinctively Australian context. In this collection, thirteen well-known scholars examine the embedded homophobic attitudes that Australian gay and lesbian activists have fought to change. The book traces the evolution of homophobia, from its expression in Australia’s past as a colonial settler society, through to manifestations in present day society.

The compilation of this text is timely, given the 2007 release of the Same Sex: Same Entitlements report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The release of this report, which focused on institutionalised and legal homophobia, has raised public awareness of these issues and sparked broader debates about homosexual rights. The thirtieth anniversary of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras earlier this year also offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on the past gains and future goals of the gay and lesbian rights movement.

The collected chapters in this book argue that homophobia developed in conjunction with the growth of a modern homosexual identity in the second half of the nineteenth century. To various extents, the legal and medical professions and other social institutions have perpetuated homophobic attitudes. Homophobia: An Australian History raises awareness of the devastating impact these attitudes can have on individuals and on society.

Source: Federation Press

Parting with my sex: cross-dressing, inversion and sexuality in Australian cultural life
Lucy Chesser
Sydney University Press
ISBN: 9781920898311

In this original and unusual work, Lucy Chesser explores the persistent recurrence of cross-dressing and gender inversion within Australian cultural life. Examples of cross-dressing are to be found in almost every area of Australian historical enquiry, including Aboriginal-European relations and conflict, convict societies, the goldrushes, bushranging, the 1890s and its nationalist fiction, and World War One. The book compares and contrasts sustained life-long impersonations where women lived, worked and sometimes married as men, with other forms of cross-dressing such as public masquerades, cross-dressing on the stage, and the prosecution of men who sought sexual encounters while disguised as women.

This book, pubulished October, 2008 can be purchased at Sydney University Press

The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia dvd takes a panoramic look at the history of gays and lesbians in Australia, from settlement convict days right through to the present.

It uses dramatic archives and interviews with experts alongside TV News and excerpts from cinema features to show how gays and lesbians have been treated or viewed in this country for more than two hundred years.

The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia looks at the three main periods of gay and lesbian Australian history. The convict era: the period when it was considered a sin against God. The medical period which lasted from the turn of the century until the nineteen sixties. And the third period when homosexuality came to be seen as a political, cultural, and personal issue by looking at activism and the liberation struggles of the sixties ? through to Mardi Gras and the general public acceptance that came about as a result of the Aids crisis in the eighties.

The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia asks though; have gay and lesbian Australians really reached a sunny dawn for themselves in Australia today? Or like gays everywhere, are they still living out the same stories of persecution and oppression of the past but in subtler contemporary models?

Interviewees: John Mardsen, David Marr, Steven Cheung, Edward Young, Sue Wills, Gary Wotherspoon, Robert French, Clive Moore, Dennis Altman, Basil Donovan, Ruth Ford, Lucy Chesser, Graham Willet

DVD released February, 2007

Australian Queer History

Source: glbtq

Although Australia has a human history stretching back some 60,000 years, dating from the arrival of the indigenous peoples, recorded history begins with the arrival of British settlers in 1788 at what is now Sydney. In the subsequent 200 years, Australians have occupied and unified a continent as large as Europe or the continental United States, created the world's eleventh largest economy (with a population of about 20 million, or two percent of the world's total), and have forged a vibrant, cosmopolitan, and strikingly gay-friendly society.

Despite its image as a land of beaches, deserts, and Outback-dwelling Crocodile Dundees, Australia is in fact highly urbanized, with most of its population living in six major cities.


Australia's history is a very queer one, in most senses of the word. Three-quarters of those on the First Fleet, which arrived in January 1788, were prisoners, convicted of various offenses and sentenced by way of punishment to be transported to the other side of the world to found and to live in a penal settlement, essentially a sprawling outdoor prison. Until the end of this system of convict transportation in the 1840s, about half of all those who came to Australia came in chains.

The colonists (by the mid-nineteenth century the continent had been divided into six self-governing colonies) brought with them British law and British attitudes and until the 1860s the crime of sodomy was punishable by death. In New South Wales, there were only four executions, all in the decade after 1828, after which the practice fell into disuse. In Tasmania, however, a dozen men were executed, the last in the 1860s.

The horror of sodomy and "unnatural connection" generally - between men and between women - figures strongly in the colonies during the convict era and one of the strongest arguments against the transportation of convicts (the vast majority of whom were men) was that it encouraged homosexuality. With "No prospect being afforded them of a woman's Love,--without hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, their already darkened reason became more clouded. Their lax morals gave way and they indulged with apparent delight in every filthy and unnatural propensity . . . ," as one campaigner put it.

Over the course of the nineteenth century as the British parliament amended its laws, the colonial legislatures tended to follow suit--reducing the penalties for homosexual acts from death to relatively short terms of imprisonment, but expanding the number of offenses from the initial crime of buggery to include eventually all sexual contact, attempted sexual contact, and soliciting for sexual contact between men. (As was usual in the British world, there were no offenses pertaining to sexual acts between women).

Australia Today

Given this history, it is surprising perhaps that Australia now has exceptionally gay-friendly laws and public attitudes. All six states and both territories have now decriminalized male homosexual acts--a process that stretched over twenty-five years from South Australia's reforms of 1972 and 1975, to Tasmania's in 1997.

All jurisdictions have now outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexuality and all the special rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples have been extended, to a greater or lesser degree, to same-sex relationships. This has been done primarily through the extension of de facto or common-law rights and responsibilities (well-entrenched in Australian law) to gay couples, rather than through marriage, which has very little resonance in Australian public life anyway.

Gay men and lesbians can serve openly in the armed forces and the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian citizens have immigration rights. Since very shortly after its establishment in 1976, the Family Court (which deals with divorce and its associated disputes) has tended to ignore sexuality as an issue in the granting of custody of children. Real legal equality, then, is now well within our grasp, with only a conservative federal government holding out on some areas, such as retirement funds. It is widely assumed that the remaining areas of discrimination will be addressed after the retirement of the current Prime Minister or the election of a Labor government.

In terms of public policy, state agencies are actively challenging the remnants (often rather potent remnants) of their homophobic past. Police-gay liaison has been institutionalized, challenging what one commentator has called the "loathing of generations" between these two groups. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has special outreach programs to address the needs of same-sex attracted young people in rural Australia (which tends, in general, to be somewhat --but only somewhat--more conservative on moral issues). Trade unions and professional organizations have long recognized their responsibilities to their gay (and more recently bisexual, transgender, and intersex) members and constituencies. (GLBTI is the current abbreviation employed in Australia.)

There is widespread public tolerance--even, arguably, acceptance--of gay people and the gay community in Australia. Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has been one of the great spectacles in that city's annual calendar for fifteen of its twenty-five years, with scores of thousands of people, many of them family groups, gathering in the streets to watch the parade. Almost all cities now have annual festivals and marches and it is the politicians and community leaders who fail to send messages of support who are expected to explain themselves. The embrace of the gay community owes much to modern Australia's sense of itself as a multicultural nation--a nation of communities, one of which is the gay community.

How and Why Change Occurred

In the past forty years gay people have gone from being marginalized and vilified to being one of the elements of a modern, open, and celebratory society. We are now, variously, a market to be exploited, voters to be wooed, and (since the publication of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Cultural Class) a community asset to be nurtured.

A number of factors help us to understand these developments. In the first place, the Christian Right has never really managed to make itself a significant political force in Australia. Australia has a remarkably secular public life. While some 70% of Australians claim to believe in God, there is very little acceptance of the idea that religious values ought to influence public acts. Australian politicians do not invoke God's blessing; sports heroes and celebrities keep their beliefs (if they have them) to themselves. Even our currency does not trust in God. Attempts therefore to import American-style faith-based politics have never been successful and all recent attempts to invoke God's disapproval of homosexuality as a basis for law and public policy have proved unavailing.

Secondly, although Australia experienced to some extent the Cold War panic around homosexuals as security threats, this panic was largely confined to governing circles--the Cabinet, the security and intelligence organizations, the police and armed services. Homosexuals were restricted in their career choices, arrested in reasonably large numbers, subject to rejection by employers and family and friends in this period, but there was nothing like the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the early 1950s in the United States, which brought the homosexual threat to public attention not merely at the national level but down into local communities.

It is likely that, prior to the rise of the gay rights movement in the 1970s, most Australians never gave a moment's thought to homosexuality from one year to the next unless they happened to know a homosexual. And in that case, a rather interesting process kicked in. Australians have a remarkable capacity to dislike groups of people in the abstract while exempting from their opprobrium members of those groups that they actually know. They may not have liked homosexuals in general but if Uncle Bob happened to be "like that," then as long as he kept it to himself, well, that was all right.

The homosexual subculture (the "camp scene" it called itself, though in Australia "camp" lacked the connotations of high theatricality that it had in Britain and North America) existed in Australian cities as it did in sizable cities around the world. Garry Wotherspoon has tracked its existence in Sydney back to the 1920s and in most other cities it seems to have existed by then, or shortly afterwards. Organized around more or less discreet gatherings in pubs and cafes, in friendship circles and private parties, and in the bohemian world of theater (with its shading over into the worlds of petty crime and left-wing politics), the camp scene was one in which women and men lived reasonably happy--if rather careful--lives.

This started to change with the emergence of a liberal politics that argued for decriminalization and greater public tolerance. These ideas found ready acceptance in Australia. This politics drew upon British precedents (especially the law reform ideas of Britain's Wolfenden Report of 1957) and it tapped into the idea that Australia needed to reform and modernize itself in a host of ways, one of which was in relation to archaic sex laws (abortion, prostitution, and homosexuality, in particular).

The liberalizing trend accelerated with the foundation of the first national homosexual rights organization, established in Sydney in 1970, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP). Intended as a small group to monitor the media and correct misinformation, CAMP found itself inundated by homosexuals ready to take to the public stage, and within a year had branches in all state capital cities as well as on many university campuses.

By 1972 the import of gay rights and gay liberation ideas had propelled the movement well beyond the existing homosexual politics. Demands for radical social change and self-transformation took center stage, facilitated by the return to Australia of Dennis Altman, whose Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation expressed international gay liberation ideas in their purest form. From this point on Australian gay and lesbian politics tended to follow the U. S. model, but there were significant divergences. Some of these have been discussed in relation to the failure of the Right to resist the advances of the gay movement.

AIDS in Australia

But the most important difference is undoubtedly the experience of AIDS in Australia. The first cases were transmitted in Australia in 1981. Three years later, there were 2,500 new infections. But then a surprising thing happened. Infection rates dropped. And kept on dropping. In 1988 there were 750 infections. In 1992 there were 500, an annual rate that has been maintained ever since. As a result of this, Australia's HIV-positive population is about 14 per 100,000 people (in the U. S. it is 167); and it is largely confined to gay men.

Australia's remarkable success in containing AIDS relies heavily upon the specifics of Australia's political culture. A newly elected Labor Party government, a gay community leadership that knew what was coming and what had to be done (having watched the first year or two of the epidemic in the U. S. with fascination and horror), a willingness on both sides to trust the other and to cooperate, the existence of a national health system (including universal health insurance and universal access to subsidized pharmaceuticals): all these factors came together in a truly daring experiment.

Sexually explicit information, discussed in the language of the real world, voiced by people who were in and of the gay community, was the key element in bringing about an extremely rapid and widespread adoption of safer sex practices. When gay men spoke to gay men and told them what they needed to do to save their lives, it worked. When they did so with millions of dollars of government funding, they saved even more lives. And if the government could stand at arm's length, denying all responsibility for (sexually-explicit and therefore politically explosive) content, then the truth could be told in an unvarnished form without public controversy and at very little political cost.

By the end of the crisis phase of AIDS the gay community was in a stronger position vis-á-vis the state and opinion-makers than it had ever been. It had proved itself to be a responsible and well-organized part of the national community; it had saved thousands of lives, generated goodwill, and avoided social and political backlash.

It could well be argued that for the last fifteen years, the Australian gay and lesbian movement has been reaping the benefits of this achievement.

Author:  Graham Willett