A brief history lesson about what lead up to Australia’s first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978
This presentation was given at Rainbow Reflections, a Mardi Gras event, hosted by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association and Lander and Rogers Lawyers
22nd February 2018
In our world today we self identify with labels such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ). If we were really technical we’d say LGBTTIQQGFTS+++. Whilst the acronym LGBTIQ can be a bit clumsy it does reflect key elements of our community, that is, it’s diversity as well as our shared experience of discrimination and being a minority. One of the added benefits of the marriage equality debate in Australia was that the acronyms LGBT, LGBTI or LGBTIQ were used consistently in the media for the first time, making our community visible to the average Australian. Even if they don’t understand us fully yet they know we’re here and acceptance and equality are and always have been our goals.
Had you lived in a previous time though, if you wanted to self identify, the labels were very different.
You’d be an invert, sodomite, pervert or deviate.
Most people think that same sex marriage is a new phenomenon in Australia but it ain’t that new.
In 1931, on the front page of a Sydney newspaper, The Arrow, the headlines read:
Organised Male Depravity in Sydney PERVERSION BECOMING RAMPANT—Sodom and Gomorrah Revels Shock Community
Call the homosexual of the species—the invert or pervert as we know him— by any name you will, he is, to our normal view, a disgusting fellow, not wanted in any decent community. A corrupting influence, when he encounters the young. Read this story of the Sodom and Gomorrah revels of the perverts of Sydney, and wonder at the license they enjoy, free of police interference.
Who would have believed that this city could stage an orgy of the solemn coronation of a “Queen” of perverts, or worse still, a “Marriage” ceremony of one of these unfortunate creatures with another of his kind. Yet these things have happened. “The Arrow” was present at the former occasion, an uninvited guest.
After a long description of the proceedings the 1600-word page 1 article finishes with:
The Queen is the occupant of the house where these obscene revels are held. It is stated that homosexual marriages and divorces are held in this house, with as much ceremony as the performance here described. Said a convicted homosexual on one occasion to “The Arrow”: “I have been in gaol and have just been released. But I know I shall do it again. I cannot help myself. What should I do?” The advice given him was: “Go and live in some country where they do not mind these things. But get out of Australia. You are not wanted here.” It is time the police took a hand with these social pests. There is plenty of work in this direction for idle policemen. Instead of being placed on duty guarding either Nellie Cameron or Parliament House. A clean up of Sydney’s perverts is overdue.
And many did take that advice and moved to other countries where they could live more freely and anonymously, but at the price of being estranged from their families and relatives. As we all know this can be either a blessing or a curse. Unknown aunts and uncles, rejected sons, daughters, brothers and sisters lived in distant lands where they would not bring shame on their families.
The next year the Arrow was reporting similar events taking place in Brisbane.
Wide Open Immorality Among Brisbane Perverts
“WEDDINGS” BETWEEN MEN FOLLOWED BY “CEREMONIES” THAT SHOCK THE WORLD.
Worst Cases of Indecency Ever Unearthed
COMMON OCCURRENCES IN QUEENSLAND’S CAPITAL
THE growth of the pervert population of Brisbane, beautiful capital of Queensland, is astounding, and in the last year, hundreds of these queer semi-feminine men have made the city their headquarters. Now they have evolved into a cult, with two main sects, one on the north and the other on the south side of the town, with the river dividing them. And occasionally they meet at queer, indecent, degrading ceremonies when perverted lusts come into full play and shocking rituals are celebrated.
IN the last two weeks there have been two “weddings”—ghastly, horrifying spectacles of painted men and primping lads united in a sacrilegious blasphemy that they call the “bonds of matrimony.” Strangely enough, they conduct these luridly immoral gatherings absolutely free from police interference, while the fact that these orgies are held is no secret in Brisbane.
After once again a detailed description of the proceedings the author finishes off with:
This in Brisbane, in the year 1932! It is almost unbelievable, but true. Members of these two sects—the north and the south—have a common meeting place in a central city rendezvous, where they drink and disport themselves daily and nightly. It is a common sight to see two of the type, allegedly men, sitting at a table and holding hands. To such a pass has the cult brought flagrant immorality in Brisbane. The city is full of them, and more come from the other States regularly to swell the numbers. The nests of them should be cleaned out, and the whole of the horrid business scattered to the four winds. At present it is a scandal of evil almost unprecedented. “Weddings” between men, with city lights looking on and enjoying the “ceremonies,” can only prove one thing —that Brisbane by tolerating them is earning for itself the name of the most wicked city in the Commonwealth. That is not fair to the better elements. Police action, speedily, please!
The above articles might give the impression that Australia was an accepting society where gay men and lesbians lived openly. This was not the case. Homosexuals were imprisoned and institutionalized. During this pre-war era homosexuals gathered at private parties, secret venues and meeting places. Certain professions such as the theatre, fashion, design, music etc were safe spaces for homosexuals as were the bohemian fringes of society. Kings Cross here in Sydney being one example. Queers could hide relatively unhassled amongst the misfits and those already considered strange and odd.
WWll changed lots of things, one of them was same-sex sexual activity.
Firstly, living constantly with the possibility of death or injury as well as the horrors of war, maintaining prudish Victorian standards of morality became less important.
Secondly, the war brought gay men and lesbians together in the forces. Many a gay man and lesbian, who previously didn’t have a language or understanding of the feelings they’d been experiencing, were discovering others like themselves. Lesbians fitted in well with uniforms, no make-up and traditionally masculine tasks. Not all women in forces were lesbians of course. For some it was a brand new concept. It was reported that one young female recruit was found bathing with another female service woman. She was called up before the camp commandant. “Are you a lesbian”? she asked accusingly. “No ma’am!” she replied, “I’m a Presbyterian.”
As Kinsey found, a large proportion of men (around 40%) have same-sex experiences to the point of orgasm. The war provided many opportunities for this. R&R was one of those. As Quentin Crisp described those times in London so eloquently in his famous book ‘The Naked Civil Servant’:
‘This brand new army of (no) occupation flowed through the streets of London like cream on strawberries, like melted butter over green peas. Labelled ‘with love from Uncle Sam’ and packaged in uniforms so tight that in them their owners could fight for nothing but their honour, these ‘bundles for Britain’ leaned against the lamp-posts of Shaftesbury Avenue or lolled on the steps of thin-lipped statues of dead English statesmen. As they sat in the cafés or stood in the pubs, their bodies bulged through every straining khaki fibre towards our feverish hands. Their voices were like warm milk, their skins as flawless as expensive India rubber, and their eyes as beautiful as glass. Above all it was the liberality of their natures that was so marvellous. Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few. At the first gesture of acceptance from a stranger, words of love began to ooze from their lips, sexuality from their bodies and pound notes from their pockets like juice from a peeled peach.’
After the war there was a huge moral backlash as politicians, law makers, judges, clergy etc wanted to get back to pre-war ‘sensibilities’. Not only did they want the old Victorian standards of morality, they were concerned about the stability of marriages and families with the post war boom of births. Homosexual activity was seen as a particularly evil threat and got specific attention. Articles on homosexuality appeared regularly in newspapers after the war and moved from scandal pieces to a crusade; as revealed in this 1955 newspaper article.
SHOCKING MALE VICE MUST BE WIPED OUT IN SYDNEY
‘Gaol and the lash are the only way to put a stop to shocking homosexual perversion in this State before it gets out of hand. The time for namby pamby so-called psychiatric treatment advocated by what this newspaper designates as medical crooks, has passed. Give them the only treatment they will understand — the lash and gaol. Then perhaps, these revolting creatures will be restrained.
Police Commissioner Delaney made the alarming statement this week that homosexuality in Sydney was worse than anything overseas. This, coupled with the Commissioner’s direct appeal to the public to help in controlling this loathsome perversion, should jolt Sydney from its peculiar attitude of tolerance towards homosexuals.’
The hysteria and crusade in this Sydney newspaper article was actually a worldwide phenomenon, that was also happening in the US, Canada and the UK. Laws were changed to entrap more men and ensure more were punished. No longer was did you have to have actually committed a crime but now you could be charged on intent. And intent was usually responding to the advance of plain clothes policemen whose job it was to entrap gay men in meeting places, parks, public toilets etc.
At the same time the Lavender scare was happening in the US Canada and the UK. Along with the Red Scare of the post war McCarthy era, purging the US government of supposed communist infiltrators, gay men, as ‘sexual deviates’, were believed to be easily blackmailed and therefore were a security risk. An estimated 5,000 lost their jobs. This was just those that were fired and doesn’t include those who left after being threatened or those who left fearing exposure. Those additional numbers can’t be counted of course. You make your own estimate.
Speaking of numbers, here are some we do know. In New York between 1923 and 1967 more than 50,000 men were arrested. During the 1950’s 49,000 individuals prosecuted for gross indecency in the UK. Estimates in Germany state that 64,000 men were convicted after 1945. So we are talking 10’s of 10,000’s of men arrested. What happened to these men? They went through the humiliation and trauma of either imprisoned or institutionalised. Innocent men who were ‘criminals’ because of their sexual orientation. Many committed suicide.
In the 1950s and 60s, believing homosexuality was an illness, mental health professionals looked for a cause. And in finding the cause they would then find a ‘cure’. When you read the comments of leaders in this field at the time you get the sense their quest was more about their egos than actually finding solutions for their ‘patients’. This was particularly true in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychiatry.
Medical interventions were much worse. One horrific of medical intervention was transorbital lobotomy (above top left), or “ice pick lobotomy.” In this procedure, the surgeon entered the prefrontal area through the patient’s eye sockets, using an instrument that resembled a common household ice pick. Another two were electric shocks to the brain (above top right) and also aversion therapy (above bottom) where patients were given vomit inducing drugs or electric shocks while watching images that were homosexual in nature. One man in the documentary/drama ‘Against the Law’, who experienced aversion therapy in prison, told us that for three days he was made to lie in his faeces, vomit and urine as part of his treatment.
In 1957 UK the Wolfenden Report was published which recommended the decriminalising of homosexuality. Whist this was progress, the Sexual Offences Act, that made sexual activity between two consenting adult legal, was not passed till a decade later in 1967.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s gay and lesbian people where gaining a sense of self that they were not sick nor criminals. Their human rights were constantly being violated. This came to a head at the Stonewall Riots which happened over several nights in Greenwich Village New York, late June 1969. Instead of taking the usual harassment and imprisonment when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, the gays, lesbians, drag queens and transgender people fought back and won. Even though there were similar resistance events leading up to this, Stonewall has become the iconic Rosa Parks Gay Rights moment, which is now celebrated as PRIDE around the world.
At the same time religious people were now getting into the act of delivering people from the curse of homosexuality. This was predominately limited, but not exclusively, to the evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal breeds of Christianity. It began with a belief that a conversion experience would immediately deliver a person and then Christ would empower them to resist temptation from them on. When this simplistic approach clearly didn’t work, other methodologies were explored. All with the same results; suppression, denial, some changes in behaviour but never orientation. What was known as ex-gay and reparative therapy has more recently become known as conversion therapy. Even though many of the groups have closed down or moved to a celibacy model instead of a change model, the philosophy that homosexuality is a sin and that God changes people is still very much alive in churches and Christian leaders.
Being born in 1951, I experienced the terror of potential imprisonment or treatment. That fear was very real for me growing up in my final years at Hunters Hill High School in the 1960s and coming to the realisation I was gay. My life became a nightmare and secret battle, as I tried everything I could do to change. The fear and confusion lead to depression, an attempted suicide and trips to the psychiatrist. It was once again that desperation that lead me to becoming a Christian in 1969 and eventually to become one of the first in the world to experience a Christian based residential gay conversion program.
The gay rights movement was a global one. All the factors needed to create the new consciousness needed for gays and lesbians existed in all the western countries
Meanwhile in Australia
- In 1970 one of the first gay rights group Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) was founded.
- In 1971 CAMP organized the first gay and lesbian demonstration in Australia outside the headquarters of the Liberal Party in Sydney.
- In 1972 the political activist association, Gay Liberation, was launched at Sydney University. Groups soon flourished on campuses around Australia.
- In 1975 the first National Homosexual conference was held at Melbourne University, and attracted around 700-800 delegates.
- In 1975 South Australia becomes the first Australian state to decriminalize homosexuality.
- And in 1976 in ACT, homosexual law reform legislation was passed.
Which brings us to 1978, when Australia has it’s Stonewall moment. It’s first, and now for 40 years this year, Mardi Gras.
NB: Extracts of this article come from my current book ‘The Quest to Cure Queers – the history of gay conversion therapy.’ To be informed when that work is published you can join a special newsletter list HERE.