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Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI


Yorick Smaal and Graham Willett

The fortieth anniversary of Australian lesbian and gay politics fell somewhere in the period 2009–2010, depending on what gets counted as the founding moment. It has been a period of remarkable achievement which is best understood as a moment in the broader process through which expression of same-sex desire has developed and changed in Australia over the last two centuries, from an initial antipodean version of eighteenth-century British sexual norms and desires, to a developed alternative culture in a modern multicultural Australia.

The contemporary LGBTI culture became well established in Australia during the later decades of the twentieth century, with clearly defined lifestyles, substantial urban ghetto developments in large metropolitan centres, and major public celebrations such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. As we go to print, genuine legal equality is one parliamentary vote away. Lesbians and gay men, along with bisexuals, transgender and intersex people, and queers of all kinds, have moved from the margins of society to places very much closer to the mainstream.

Among those who have responded to these shifts have been historians. Mostly, but not always, queer themselves (though many would reject the term in favour of gay or lesbian), these historians have begun exploring and explaining the antecedents of contemporary behaviours, identities and subcultures, tracing the complex organisation of sexuality and gender back at least to the late nineteenth century. Some studies have shown how nascent subcultures and identities in the late colonial period blossomed throughout the early decades of the twentieth century to become an entrenched, although cloaked, part of Australia’s urban landscape by the beginning of World War II. Others have focused on the political movements which erupted from the late 1960s onwards. A few ambitious chronological histories have brought these developments together, attempting to map changing identities over longer periods of time. Together, this research has given Australia one of the best national accounts of same-sex identity and behaviour; one which embraces the national, regional and local.

The current literature on the histories of (homo)sexuality is expansive. From its modest beginnings, continuing and evolving research over the last four decades has expanded to the point that it is difficult to keep abreast of the new work appearing in monographs, readers and journals, and almost impossible to peruse fully the research scattered across interdisciplinary books and periodicals. Since 1992, the Gay and Lesbian Perspectives series has formed an integral part of this literature and the current volume adds to, and consolidates, the claims of Australia’s place in this field. This current volume aims to provide an accessible collection of some of the latest scholarship on lesbian, gay and queer histories, privileging a same-sex desire which is often tucked away among discussions of sex and gender more generally. The chapters here began life as papers presented to the annual GLQ history conference, Australia’s Homosexual Histories, which has been organised or sponsored by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives since 2000. The conference offers the chance for academics, junior scholars and independent researchers to present their work, and that diversity is reflected in the offerings presented here.

This volume covers many of the broad fields of research and is organised around politics, medicine, HIV/AIDS, lesbianism, and finally, the gay male world.

The first section begins with a chapter by Graham Willett. He charts the very early origins of political agitation in Canberra 12 months before CAMP became recognised as the founder of the public gay rights movement in 1970. The next two chapters explore the origins of law reform in South Australia, the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise sex between men in 1972. Clare Parker and Paul Sendziuk examine the connections between police harassment, public discourse and law reform, while Dino Hodge explores the role of South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, in the last stages of this process, which was completed in 1975. It is a sign of the growing maturity of Australian queer history that we are now at the point where competing and complementary studies of the same episodes are being developed. We are still very much involved in what we might think of as the ‘primitive accumulation’ of knowledge, but as these chapters show, such is the depth of our knowledge on some issues, that we are able, also, to present richer and differently nuanced analyses of the same events and episodes.

Difficulties with source materials (there is no local comparison to the detailed case histories and psychiatric studies one finds in Europe and the US) has meant that local scholars have left medical histories of homosexuality largely untouched. Addressing this lacuna, two chapters explore the place of medicine in the construction of male homosexual identity: Lisa Featherstone locates the male homosexual among nineteenth century medical experts in Australia and Emily Wilson explores the connections between medical knowledge and the media one hundred years later, focusing in particular on the early HIV/AIDS years. Recently released figures showing that 1050 Australians were newly-diagnosed with HIV in 2009 – the highest number in almost two decades – highlight the need for sustained and continuing historical inquiry. A further three chapters on HIV/AIDS are included here: the first, an important study on the role of community print media in 1980s Australia by Shirleene Robinson; the second, an historiographical overview of HIV/AIDS in Australian biographies by Geoff Allshorn; and the third, a chapter on where we are at, and have been for the past 15 years, by leading social reseacher Michael Hurley.

Among the important contributions to this volume are the chapters on lesbian identities which are often marginalised in the writing of LGBTI histories: Peter Di Sciascio explores the interesting and understudied world of lesbian artists in the early decades of the twentieth century while Roberta Foster examines the phenomenon of Melbourne drag kings and the theoretical performativity of gender.

The final section brings together work on the social and cultural practices of male homosexuality. Yorick Smaal starts with a prosecution in Queensland in the 1940s which reveals a dense social network of friends and sexual partners. Peter Robinson and Scott McKinnon move us into the contemporary world and the realm of social research. Both draw on oral histories to explore, respectively, the ageing process in the gay world and the cultural practices of movie-going in Sydney.

All of these chapters employ rigorous empirical research and/or theoretical sophistication and together they draw on a vast array of historical sources. The histories presented here are recovered from government records; policing and legal evidence; archives of political organisations; personal memoirs; media reports; and oral histories. This collection embraces the national approach for which Australian scholarship is lauded, encompassing histories from New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory.

We see this as an important collection, but it is one that will entertain and surprise as well, reminding us that history is both a way of knowing the past and enjoying it.

Cite this chapter as: Smaal, Yorick; Willett, Graham. 2011. ‘Introduction’, in Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI, edited by Smaal, Yorick; Willett, Graham. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. xi–xiv.

Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI

   by Yorick Smaal, Graham Willett