Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activismby Graham Willett

Reviewed by Barbara Baird

© all rights reserved

Living Out Loud is the first account of the last thirty-plus years of gay and lesbian activism in Australia. It is a very useful reference for information about much of the public political face of the gay movement and brings together for the first time an account of each of the state campaigns to decriminalise male homosexual acts.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section is a brief overview of camp life before the 1960s, drawing on the small but significant body of Australian historiography which has recovered this period, and the development during the 1960s of public debate about the status of homosexuality. This debate included an increasingly vocal call for liberal reform, built around the notion of the ‘consenting adult in private’. The new liberal ideas were finding audiences in the student press, among the legal fraternity, within the mainstream churches, among academics and in the media, and within the Australian Labor Party. While the student press started to publish articles written by self-proclaimed homosexuals, notably anonymous, from 1964, the liberals were implicitly not homosexual.

The second section of the book tells the story until the late 1970s – the eruption of the noisy presence of ‘lesbians and gay men themselves, raising their voices and flinging their bodies into a movement that in the subsequent quarter century was to transform both homosexual life and the society of which it was a part’ (p. 30) This is the story of coming out, the nationwide organisation CAMP (the Campaign Against Moral Persecution), the various Gay Liberation groups, zap actions, the National Homosexual Conferences, Gay Pride Weeks, gay law reform in South Australia and the ACT, and ‘the first ongoing national campaign ever undertaken by the gay movement’ in 1977, to support Greg Weir who had been refused employment as a teacher in Queensland after acting as spokesperson for a gay group at a teacher’s college.

The third section tells of the period since the 1980s, signified by a shift from ‘gay politics’ to ‘gay community’. This is also the time of AIDS, the struggle for the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in the unreformed states, and the development of major community festivals (of which Mardi Gras is only the biggest) and the gay economy. ‘The end of gay?’ sums up the shift for gays over the preceding thirty years, the achievements, and the ongoing problems. The book concludes ‘Whether gay will still exist in any recognisable sense once equality has been achieved is something we will have to see’ (p. 265).

Living Out Loudbrings straight political history to a predominantly grassroots and sub-culture movement. Its most laudable achievements are in this mode writing about significant newspaper articles, activists’ political strategies, important meetings and conferences, successful and failed legislative change, the roles played by important men and some women. The book recovers an important historical moment when it places the first attempt at an organised move towards law reform in the efforts of Laurence Collinson, ‘a Jew, a communist, a homosexual and a poet’ (p. 15) who was in contact with reformers in the UK. In 1959 Collinson took steps towards setting up an organisation but nothing concrete eventuated. The steps taken through the 1960s which opened and widened debate and the explosion of successful, if transitory, CAMP and gay liberation groups in the 1970s and the public events they created are all carefully tracked.

The argument that the politics built around the notion of ‘the consenting adult in private’, still present in the 1990s, has had severely negative consequences as well as being the basis for small reformist gains, is well made, with reference to the reformed law in WA (pp. 227-231) and to gay youth suicide (p. 253). The questioning of the values of the 1990s corporatisation of gay community and gay politics is also important (p. 218). With ‘the economic impact statement becoming an ever-more common feature of gay politics’ and the mid-1999 delivery of ‘almost all the east-coast gay press into the hands of a single company’ where are ‘the social impact statements’ and ‘what happens if the bubble bursts’? What indeed. (The Satellite Group hadn’t yet collapsed at the time of the book’s publication.)

Some of my criticisms take the book on its own terms. The discussion, in one and a quarter pages, of lesbian and gay coalition organisation around the issue of homophobic violence and the engagement in each state with the police does not do justice, in my view, to one of the main developments in the 1990s of Australian lesbian and gay thinking and social and political action. The lack of attention to queer academia is also noteworthy. Raymond Donovan and Leong K. Chan’s 1999 (not totally comprehensive) survey, published by the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research, lists 26 academics across all states teaching lesbian, gay or queer university courses, and that doesn’t count the specialist HIV/AIDS and sexual health research centres which have been in existence for the last ten years. But choices need to be made about what to include and what to leave out. Fair enough. The contradictions of the conclusion are more about the disciplinary limits of a political history that conceives of its object of study as a unified phenomenon.

The conclusion is the repository for much of what the preceding story of the march towards ‘the triumph of liberal tolerance’ could not accommodate cultural diversity and racism amongst queers, ageism and older lesbians and gays, sexual diversity and gender non-conformity, the fiction of the category ‘gay’. It also fails to integrate its account of success – ‘tolerance and even acceptance’ (p. 239), with severe problems that continue, backlash, and new problems born of new configurations of the politics of sexuality.

For example, on p. 241 it is claimed that thanks to shifts in public opinion the 1990s moral panic around pedophilia ‘has done nothing to shake the standing of gay men’. Yet on the next page the NSW Royal Commission’s decision to focus on homosexual pedophilia is called ‘shameful’ and its definition of pedophilia ‘ludicrous’ and twelve pages later it is proposed that the pedophilia issue may have ‘further estranged the older from the younger generations’ (p. 253)!

My most significant criticisms relate to the book’s seeming obliviousness to the challenges and methodological insights of feminist and lesbian history and politics. The book centres the subjectivity of the white middle class post-Stonewall pre-queer gay man. ‘Gay and lesbian activism’ is defined as what gay men have done. If lesbians were doing it too, or doing the same kind of thing, they get a mention. Lesbians appear all too frequently via those revealing words ‘also’ and ‘including’. And sometimes this inclusion is highly dubious.

For example, as a generalisation, the claim that ‘gay and lesbian activism during the 1980s was particularly focused upon AIDS and law reform’ (p. 196) is just not true for lesbians. The methodological problem is partly explained by a narrow understanding of political activism and the public sphere. Lesbians and gay men have a very different relationship to the public: lesbian sex has not been criminalised in the same way as male homosex; lesbians have not had the pathway of AIDS activism to create an entree to government; as women they are already distanced from ‘the public’. The book’s (nonsensical) statement, with respect to the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in NSW and Victoria, that ‘gay men could join with lesbians, unencumbered by these laws, and get on with their lives’ (p. 165) reveals much about the book’s conceptualisation of gender difference. Lesbians are not gay men minus the criminalisation.

Distinctly lesbian activism and political events are absent from the book. Where is the reference to the 1974 article about ‘Claudia’s Group’ in CLEO magazine, that attracted 100 letters and allegedly 5000telephone inquiries over 18 months, that Lucy Chesser has written of in Hecate (vol. 22, no. 1)? And what of the ‘women’s bands’ and ‘women’s dances’ of the 1970s and 1980s, the lesbian spiritual groups and camps of the 1980s, the lesbian mothers conference of 1984, the national lesbian conferences which started in the late 1980s (the fifth, where transgender issues dominated, is mentioned), the lesbian newsletters like Lesbian Newsand Lesbian Networkwhich provided national networks through the 1980s and 1990s, and the Coalition of Activist Lesbians (COAL) who went to the UN Beijing women’s conference in 1995?

Lesbian activism that has not been focused on sexuality is also absent. The radical feminist push of the women’s refuge movement, for example, has been dominated by lesbians. Many of the 1980s ‘women’s’ peace camps outside US and Australian military installations were predominantly the work of lesbians, and the large non-Indigenous organising team for the First International Indigenous Women’s Conference in Adelaide in 1989 was almost entirely lesbian. The ways in which ‘women’ has so often operated as code for ‘lesbian’ need to be unpacked in order to investigate lesbian political activism.

The book is also limited by its NSW and Victoria focus. Surely Australia’s first specifically gay (and feminist) bookshop, Dr Duncan’s Revolutionary Bookshop, which operated in Adelaide for several years during 1970s, well before the pink dollar was invented, deserves acknowledgment. The description of the consumer boycott of Tasmanian goods during the 1990s as ‘a remarkable show of solidarity’ is a narrow mainland perspective. Initiated by mainland activists, without consultationwith the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, and hurting many gay and lesbian owned local businesses, the boycott was not necessarily experienced by Tasmanian gays and lesbians as ‘a brilliant manoeuvre’ (pp. 236-7).

Writing the history of the recent past is bound to draw particularly heated response from those who say ‘that’s not my story’. For this reviewer Living Out Loudis both enjoyably readable and exclaim-out-loud infuriating, in equal parts. It makes good use of material previously not available outside community newsletters and newspapers. The book is a good reference for ‘gay’ activism and law reform campaigns, if limited by its Eastern states perspective, but it is unreliable as a source for lesbian activism. I take history seriously. I do want to read grand accounts of ‘the gay and lesbian movement’ (and other political movements). I also come to the conclusion, again, that the fictions upon which such scholarship is based here, that there is one gay movement for which there is, more or less, one story, when they are unacknowledged,are as damaging as they are enabling.
Barbara Baird has been Coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Tasmania since 1999. Prior to that she lived, worked and was active in lesbian and gay coalition politics in Adelaide.

This review was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism by Graham Willett, St Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 2000

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