Coming Out: The Journey of Australian Gay Liberation

As a 24 year old gay woman in Sydney there is much to be excited about. The push for marriage equality is gaining momentum and recently, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has changed its name back to the Sydney Mardi Gras, breaking down the constructs of the separate ‘Gay’ and ‘Lesbian’ to be inclusive of all members of the queer community.

But while society is progressing, there are still pockets where inequality and discrimination exists, there are rarely times when I can walk a city street with my partner and not be stared at, or called ‘Sir’ due to my short haircut and boyish dress (and yes, this happens…). But despite these annoyances, overall we live in accepting city.

However, things were not always this easy, for only 40 years ago homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, treatable by electroshock therapy or induced fluids which caused nausea. In the social realms, some sexual acts committed by same sex couples were illegal, both in public and private homes. The homosexual community in Australia and abroad (specifically the US) were subject to intense surveillance by the police force who would patrol beats, such as public bathrooms and parks, arresting anyone who was suspected of, or participating in homosexual activity. In addition to the shame of arrest, the arrestee would also be subject to their name and occupation being published in the local newspaper, and act which destroyed lives.

While the civil rights movement brewed around the gay community, it was not long before they formed their own liberation movement. The question of whether Australia was influenced by the Gay Liberation movement in the US needs to be traced back to Greenwich Village, New York City and the Stonewall Inn on night of June 27th, 1969.

Owned by the New York mafia, the club provided a space for members of the gay community to socialise under the protection of dim lights and blackened windows. The Inn was often subject to raids by New York Police Department (NYPD) who would come in, take down identification and eject patrons from the bar who would usually disperse home. However June 27th saw a different set of events, while the police began raiding the Inn enacting the same routine, patrons did not leave, instead populating the street until a large crowd formed. The crowd then fought back, outnumbering the police until 4am when the rioters dispersed on a high of success[1]. For the first time, they had taken back their space and their identities were something to be proud of. The events at Stonewall Inn on this night have been recognised as the starting point for Gay Liberation worldwide.

The ripple effect to of gay activism in Australia was apparent soon after the Stonewall riots with the formation of Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) in 1970, and its offshoot Sydney Gay Liberation in 1971. While both these organisations were active in lobbying for equal rights and the acceptance of homosexuality, their differing visions seemed to split the communities instead of developing a cohesive force[2]. CAMP was more conservative in nature, focusing on encouraging the closeted community out into the public sphere; with the famous display of this vision on the cover of their December 1972 publication Camp Ink. Alternatively, Sydney Gay Liberation consisted of already out members and encouraged them to publically display their sexuality and reinvent the gay identity.

While the organisations remained separate in the early 1970s, the murder of openly gay man, Dr. George Duncan by the Adelaide Police Force in 1972 was the first act which encouraged the community to bind together. The years from 1972 to 1977 saw a few political and social wins for the gay community; gay characters were portrayed on TV, such as Don Finlayson in Number 96 and South Australia set the bar by becoming the first state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1972 (Tasmania was the last state in 1997).

The year of 1978 saw Australia encounter its own Stonewall when the Sydney Mardi Gras, marched from Hyde Park to Kings Cross and and was met with police resistance, resulting in riots and the arrest of 53 demonstrators. This event served to highlight the lack of democratic rights and discrimination still enacted towards the gay community, outraging supporters in Australia and the world[3].

The Sydney Mardi Gras event has now been transformed into a cultural celebration of the gay identity, and as such it is effective in reverberating to mainstream society that as a community, we are proud.

The sequence of events that occurred in Australia after the Stonewall Riots gives evidence to its impact on laying the foundation for an organised political and social movement to form. While circumstances today still prevent people like me being able to sign a wedding certificate, I can at least exist in a society where I do not fear electroshock therapy or arrest.


[1] David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2004). p.138.

[2] Robert Reynolds, From Camp To Queer: Remaking the Australian Homosexual (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2002). p.30.

[3] Craig Johnston, ‘Gay Rights Demonstration’ in his A Sydney gaze: The making of Gay Liberation, (Sydney: Schiltron Press, 1999).p.24.

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3 comments on “Coming Out: The Journey of Australian Gay Liberation

  1. NikiOsborn says:

    Hi Tash,

    As a heterosexual member of society, I have found your post informative and insightful. The fact that you are still experiencing discrimination, purely based on your appearance, deeply saddens me. I am very glad that we (as a society) have progressed past labeling homosexuals as mentally disable, however a lot of inequalities still exist, as noted in your post.

    When I was in my last year of high school, I participated in the Sydney Mardi Gras. My friends and I had joined an anti-homophobic group. A close relation of mine is a lesbian and I felt that our participation was breaking down the barriers between the heterosexual and homosexual community. The Sydney Mardi Gras is an amazing celebration of gay and lesbian rights, life, and identity. The fact that the wider community are able to attend and participate in the parade promotes acceptance and eradicates ignorance. It was an amazing experience.

    It is unfortunate to note that the gay liberation movement started so late. Approximately a decade after the New York Stonewall riots, the HIV/Aids disease plagued the gay community. I would assume that this deeply affected all members participating in the liberation movement and became another turning point in domestic as well as international activism.

    Great Post!!

  2. hannahquayle says:

    Your assignment is really interesting, I did a similar one on gay rights (https://makinghistoryatmacquarie.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/the-womens-liberation-movement-is-a-lesbian-plot/), however I focussed on Lesbians only. I notice you talk about homosexuality broadly in your argument with reference to Stonewall and several Australian based groups. However in my research I found out that lesbians weren’t actually fully accepted within the Gay Liberation Front (my research focussed on USA) because of the patriarchal attitudes within the movement. These attitudes reflected the attitudes towards women at the time. I see that you don’t specify any specific examples concerning lesbians but only of gay men (like the murder of George Duncan) which is something I think would be very important for the study of gay liberation, especially since the experiences of lesbians and gay men are very different. Especially considering that Second Wave Feminism was at its height in the 1970s which is a period you appear to focus on.

    However, your argument appears to be slightly different to mine, focussing more on social attitudes to sexuality, rather than experiences of homosexuals, so I can see why you have presented homosexuality more generally. It is a good argument and a good read, especially with the chronology of events that you present and the comparisons with America and Australia. Just if you were interested, the connection between Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation is very interesting. I like how you chose something important to you and relevant to your lifestyle and history, as did I. Good work!

    • tashturner13 says:

      Hi Hanna,

      I haven’t had a read of yours yet but will definitely have a look. In my paper I did find that the first Gay Liberation Movement in Australia was actually a lesbian movement which branced from the US however, after the Stonewall riots and the introduction of CAMP, the lesbian movement just blended into the Womens movement which for me was less relevant to the events that occurred. It can also be seen as problematic (weird choice of word) that lesbianism wasn’t actually perceived to be legitimate as argued by Queen Victoria which is perhaps why they didn’t have such a presence in the Gay sphere and probably why there is the barrier between homosexual men and women today.

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