Lucinda Horrocks shares oral histories of the Gay Liberation Movement in 1970s Melbourne in the Culture Victoria exhibition, Out of the Closets, Into the Streets.
In 1970s’ Melbourne a group of students made a stand for gay pride at a time when homosexuality was criminalised and discrimination and abuse was widespread. For the past year I have been researching this fascinating and courageous group of people for a documentary film and digital exhibition called Out of the Closets, Into the Streets, which explores the Melbourne Gay Liberation Movement.
The 1970s are an odd time to attempt to capture in a story: the decade is recent enough to be remembered by some but far enough away for nostalgia to kick in. It is tempting to think that not much has changed. But many of the rights we take for granted today are the result of hard fought political activism that took place in the 1970s.
As my partner and co-producer Jary likes to say, ‘I remember the 70s. They were awful.’
So to understand what was at stake for lesbians and gays to take to the streets, we need to cast ourselves back into an earlier mindset. If you were queer, Melbourne before Gay Lib was an intolerant world. ‘If we found ourselves catapulted back to the 1950s it would be kind of a nightmare,’ says Dr Graham Willett, historian and author of Living Out Loud – a history of gay and lesbian activism in Australia. As Graham explained when we interviewed him for our project, while a camp scene (the term ‘gay’ was not used before the 1970s) had flourished in Melbourne since at least the 1920s, it was hidden, coded and discreet. ‘Mostly what [gay and lesbian] people had to put up with was the discrimination, the sense that they were disgusting in the eyes of lots of people or somehow flawed’ says Graham.
Jude Munro knew from a young age she was drawn to women. Abandoning her parents’ Salvation Army religion which condemned her homosexuality, the 18-year-old began searching for a group which would accept her. Jude even composed her own leaflet and started handing it out at Flinders Street Station. ‘I couldn’t understand why as a lesbian, why what I felt was so much part of me, and such a natural feeling, why it was not recognised by society,’ she says. In 1972, she became a founding member of Melbourne Gay Liberation.
Lesbianism was not recognised and often not spoken of, particularly to children. ‘When I grew up I never heard the word lesbian,’ says Barb Creed, 1972 Gay Liberation Front member. ‘My girlfriend and I, we didn’t really know we were lesbians,’ she says. ‘We gradually heard it as we got older and I remember we had a discussion one day and we said, “Are we lesbians?” I’d read this dreadful book by Angeline Stoll on homosexuality who said that lesbians were men trapped in women’s bodies. We had a discussion about that and we decided neither of us felt like we were men trapped in the wrong body.’
For gay men in the 1970s the stakes were different: men could be arrested for having sex with or propositioning another man. And these laws were enforced. Peter McEwan, a 1972 Melbourne Gay Liberation Front member, recalls being arrested by police on the beach when he was seventeen, dragged through two court cases, sent to a psychiatrist, and taken to Parkville Psychiatric Clinic. ‘I had come from a very, very strictly Catholic background, and I’d taken on board all those things about me being evil, sick, and illegal,’ says Peter. As schoolboy in year twelve, after his arrest he was ‘utterly alone. Not a soul I could talk to. I really went into a shell, where I just wasn’t anything. I certainly took on board all that shame.’
Some nascent groups were agitating for homosexual law reform and attitudinal change in Melbourne by 1970. Gay Liberation arrived in Australia in 1971 when the young writer and academic Dennis Altman, who had been in the United States researching the emergent gay movement, returned to publish Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. The book had an immediate impact locally and internationally. Unhappy with the trajectory of other reform groups in Sydney, he created a splinter group there called Gay Liberation.
‘Very quickly from the very beginning of the 70s we saw a number of groups emerge right across the country,’ says Dennis, who always thought of himself as a writer first and and activist more or less by accident. These gay rights groups were influenced by the Vietnam anti-war movement, the Indigenous rights movement, and, in particular, Women’s Liberation. ‘It’s impossible to think of Gay Liberation without also talking about Women’s Liberation and the enormous impact that had,’ he says, distinctly remembering the moment he first read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics while flying to the US in 1970. ‘Gay Liberation always saw itself as part of a bigger radical social movement and felt a lot of empathy and connection with other radical social movements.’
A Melbourne branch of Gay Lib was formed in 1972 after Dennis Altman visited Melbourne University. Jude Munro was the chair of the first meeting. Peter McEwan was there along with many others, and Barb Creed joined a little later after being told about it by friends. The group hit the ground running, organising a huge round of events. They held dances, collected money, ran consciousness-raising groups, arranged demonstrations, and held ‘the big discussions’ in regular Friday night meetings in the Student Union building. Meeting attendance numbers of 50 or 60 people was common. Manifestos from around the world articulating the new radical language of sexual liberation and resistance to oppression and exploitation were gestetnered and distributed to the student population. It was both a social and political atmosphere. Some people hooked up and had sex. Others made lifelong friendships. More still formed alliances with other radical activist groups.
‘What’s very interesting about this whole period is that we deliberately went out of our way on lots of occasions to confront the public particularly with demonstrations,’ says Barb. ‘We always joined in with the Women’s Liberation demonstrations and the guys would often wear dresses which was seen to be very confronting. We’d try and carry a lot of placards to draw attention because something we all believed in was that the personal was political. That you had to make political statements about your personal lives because after all we were surrounded by a whole culture that did that all the time. The straight culture, its lifestyle is so ingrained that its statements are invisible because they’re everywhere and habitual. We had to make new interventions.’
Gay Lib activists developed a suite of playful responses which challenged this straight culture, including gender confusion or radical drag, graffiti commentary, gay pride marches and on one occasion a picnic in the Botanic Gardens in which same sex couples played spin the bottle. Often these interventions were carried off with a flamboyant sense of humour and satire. Underlying the events was a serious political goal to radically transform the sexual norms of society – to liberate us all from our taboos and anxieties. ‘Gay liberation didn’t want equality, they wanted transformation of everything,’ says Graham Willett, ‘it wasn’t just about gay people, it wasn’t a minority movement. It was a movement for everybody to be free, and that’s, I think, one of the hardest ideas to grasp.’
The most prominent, perhaps most underrated thing these young activists did was come out publicly, en masse. ‘In retrospect, I think it’s probably the most important thing people did, and continue to do,’ says Graham. ‘Until that point, most people would never have known a homosexual, or if they did they didn’t know they did. It was a really important act of self-affirmation, but it was also seen as transformative. The idea that, “We are everywhere,” was one of the great slogans, because it turns out to be true.’
Influences of feminism were felt everywhere in Gay Lib, including the formation of consciousness raising groups and the short-lived Effeminist initiative. ‘Because our ideologies were very much based on feminist analysis of society and how the patriarchy oppressed us all, we took that all on board,’ says Peter McEwan. But tensions arose within Gay Lib over the presence of sexism. A Gay Women’s Group was formed to allow women to voice their needs without fear of male scrutiny. When Jenny Pausaker and friends arrived in Melbourne in the early 1970s, inspired by London-based radical feminist theory and women’s need to organise separately, Radicalesbians was formed.
The question of separatism and combating sexism became a huge issue within the liberation movement. Was the core allegiance to gay liberation, or was women’s liberation the most important movement of the time? And what was really required to eradicate male domination? These questions caused long discussions and challenged loyalties within Gay Lib. Men and women had different experiences when it came to sex and discrimination. Sometimes these differences seemed insurmountable. But lesbians also struggled for acceptance within the Women’s Liberation Movement. ‘It was difficult for women, because often the Women’s Liberation movement was a bit dubious about lesbians, it might discredit the movement. They were always accusing Women’s Lib of being lesbians, well, what if it was partly true?’ says Graham. ‘The Women’s Movement had to get its head around that, who was in and who wasn’t. While they were doing that, there were lesbians hammering on the door, but being locked out, for lesbians within the Gay Liberation Movement, the sexism of gay men, was also a problem.’
Eventually groups such as Radicalesbians started to split off and become political forces of their own. These rifts, at the time, were hugely upsetting, causing in some cases bitterness, anger and sadness. Jude Munro was one of those who chose to stay within Gay Lib, feeling that ‘these guys were really my brothers in arms in lots of ways in terms of the fight, the struggle, and I wanted to support them,’ she says. Women’s Lib came to accept the presence of lesbians by the mid 1970s as well. ‘It was more important to be united than to be divided,’ says Jude.
By the late 1970s the Gay Liberation Front in Melbourne had passed its peak. The splintering of members into different political camps and the opening up of new social opportunities meant attendance numbers at meetings began to decline. The Melbourne Gay Liberation Front wound to a close formally at its last meeting in 1978. In its place a group ‘Gay Society’ was formed.
Though it existed only for a few years, Melbourne’s Gay Liberation Movement left a strong legacy. Gay Lib and the early activist gay rights groups of the 1970s began important work in counselling, law reform, and equal opportunity and anti-discrimination. This work continued after the demise of Gay Lib and started to bear fruit in the 1980s and 1990s. As the decades went on, founding Gay Lib members took the political lessons learned in these formative years and became leaders in Australian society. And collectively, this group of young people – who took the brave step of coming out publicly, owned their sexuality and were proud of who they were – contributed to a revolutionary change in attitudes towards homosexuality. They had found their voice, and Australia would never be the same again.
For people like Barb, Jude and Peter, Gay Liberation was intensely significant. ‘I was very, very lucky to be part of that, because I was a wounded person,’ says Peter. ‘I found something that enabled me to say that, “Yes, I am a good person.”’ Barb agrees. ‘Melbourne Gay Liberation was probably one of the most if not the most important events of my life,’ she says.
It’s easy to focus on the inequality and discrimination, racism, sexism and homophobia in the world. But sometimes it’s important to remember what has been achieved, if only to remind us how it can be done.
Out of the Closets, into the Streets is a freely available digital exhibition. The project features a short documentary film, audio interviews, and a digital gallery of manifestos, photographs, posters, flyers and newspaper articles from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives collection, depicting the moment lesbian and gay people took to the streets to challenge the status quo.
The story’s short documentary film features interviews with key participants and original 1970s Super 8 footage shot by filmmaker and cultural theorist Professor Barbara Creed.
Out of the Closets, into the Streets was commissioned by Culture Victoria, an online platform that shares the stories held by collecting organisations across the state. The story was produced by Wind & Sky Productions in collaboration with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA) and is based on the 2015 physical exhibition of the same name curated by Nick Henderson, drawing on the research of Graham Willett.
Lucinda Horrocks is an award winning film producer and co-founder of Wind & Sky Productions, a company specialising in documentary storytelling. Recent stories include Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe, about the unacknowledged contribution of Aboriginal Victorians on colonial waterways; The Savoy Ladies Group, a film about Italian women migrants in North-Eastern Victoria; Exile, a musical multimedia tour celebrating the Irish experience in Australia; and Memories of War, a collaborative film and research project about the impacts of WW1 on a regional town. Her work is distributed online, at dedicated screenings and events and at museums and cultural institutions.
Follow Lucinda on Twitter @lucinda_windsky.