To trace the buried history of LGBTQIA+ in Australia, Zoe Coombs Marr had to resort to police and court records, rummaging through old reels of microfiche with history experts.
While Australia has some robust archives through groups such as the Australian Queer Archives, especially from the 1970s onwards, looking back on early evidence is more complex.
“It’s almost as if Queer history has been erased and sidelined,” she suggests.
Was there evidence of homosexuality in early Australia, for example? You bet. One example discovered dates from 1727. In his three-part series Queerstralia, Coombs Marr raises questions like “Has homophobia been exported to the world by the British?” Were First Nations societies heteronormative before the arrival of the Whitefellas?’
But being queer invariably meant being on the wrong side of the law, which is why many of the cases cited in its first episode have been discovered in court records and in newspapers. There are cases where the police spy on men in the privacy of their bedroom, even drilling a hole in the roof to catch the criminals in the act.
The Norfolk Island penal colony is ironically described as “too penile” with reports of 150 male couples. There were abusive women secretly living as a couple in Geelong in the 1840’s (which sounds like an Aussie to me Gentleman Jack ongoing drama). Other early Australian lesbians named include philanthropist Josephine Beford, Queensland first doctor Lilian Cooper and a Tasmanian writer named Marie Bjelke Petersen.
After decades of Australian men being convicted of “unnatural offences” and sodomy (including Cooma Jail being “the world’s only homosexual prison”), homosexuality was decriminalized under the South Australian government of Don Dunstan in 1975.
It would take until 1997 for Tasmania to become the last state to follow suit.
Coombs Marr, herself born and raised in Tasmania, speaks to activist Rodney Croome, whose battles through the High Court and up to the United Nations have been groundbreaking, despite police arrests.
She also talks to famed Tassie comedian Hannah Gadsby, as well as her own parents, as she tries to find a line through mountains of material. At times he’s jarring in his storytelling, juggling facts and punchlines (“bum sex” is that a friendly ABC term?), protesting that he prefers a “looped meta-narrative.”
Along the way you will hear about the infamous ABC Chessboard episode, with ’78er’ Peter de Waal being one half of the first male kiss on Australian TV. There are fellow ’78ers’ Kimberley O’Sullivan and Dennis Altman, Dr Ruth Ford, Ian Roberts, transgender activists Julie Peters and Martine Delaney plus co-anchor Nayuka Gorrie chiming in for the First Nations story unannounced. Wait for the footage from the Channel 7 documentary about suburban shoppers in 1966 where we’re told how hard it is to spot a lesbian. No, really?
There is also the confrontation with stories of HIV/AIDS, hate crimes, murders and tragic stories of oppression with Australians forced into hiding in the closet or underground.
Also the riots of 1978 -“out of the bars and in the streets”- which would eventually lead Shrove Tuesday, were horrific police assaults, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald publishing the names and addresses of those arrested. It took until 2016 for the paper to apologise.
After the first Law-focused episode, Episode 2 explains how Queers have had their identities defined and shaped, first by others, increasingly by themselves. Episode 3 examines how queer people have jostled for space and representation, ultimately finding their place within society.
Coombs Marr is to be congratulated for taking on the scope of this and bringing it to the fore throughout World pride. There’s so much story to tell, I’d be surprised if it could fit all into 3 episodes. This would be a perfect compendium with Andrew Mercado’s doco Outrageous: The queer story of Australian TV if ABC has any thoughts on a follow up.
Queerstralia airs Tuesdays at 8:30 pm on ABC.