Vol. 20 No 4 | Summer 2018
Australia’s queer history
Robert French
BA(Hons), Dip.Archives Administration

This article is 6 years old and may no longer reflect current clinical practice.

In a sense, colonial Australia was founded on homophobia. When Captain Arthur Phillip stepped ashore at Camp Cove, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, on 26 January 1788, he would hardly have envisaged the type of diverse society that was to grow out of the convict settlement he was about to found and govern. It is certain that Phillip, generally regarded as a product of the European Enlightment, could not have forseen that such a society would comprise recognised communities of gay men and lesbians. After all, the concepts of homosexuality and ‘the homosexual’ were not to be conceived for another 81 years and gay liberation lay a further 100 years beyond that.

Phillip, of course, shared the prejudices of his time in his attitude towards men whom he thought of as ‘sodomites’. (I imagine that women as people with sexual feelings, let alone as lesbians, would have been beyond his imagination.) Hence, on 28 February 1787, he wrote to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Sydney, in London that, in the new colony:

‘… there are two crimes that would merit death; murder and sodomy. For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal till an opportunity offered of delivering him as a prisoner to the natives of New Zealand and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.’ 1

There were at least four executions in New South Wales up to 1836, the year after the UK abandoned the death penalty for this crime, and possibly another six executions in Tasmania. Indeed, the last white man executed for sodomy in the British Empire was Hendrick Witnalder in Hobart in February 1863.2

In 1727, even before British settlement, two sailors found guilty of sodomy on the Dutch ship Zeewijk, that had foundered on what is now known as Gun Island off Geraldton in Western Australia, were sentenced to death and exiled to separate smaller islands without food or water. As Edward Duyker states in his book, The Dutch in Australia, ‘Death must have been slow and full of torment.’3

Women were more fortunate, being anonymous in law, but still, some were subject to punishment in the Female Factories of Hobart and Sydney for ‘illicit’ sexual activity.

How has all of this been written out of our history? It is not until the late 19th century that we have evidence of the rise of a nascent male homosexual subculture, particularly in Sydney. On 24 April 1895, The Scorpion, a scandal sheet, when reporting on the Oscar Wilde trials in London also carried an article on The Oscar Wildes of Sydney.4 Among its claims were that:

‘… the state of things in London as regards this horrible vice is also the condition of affairs in Sydney. It is idle for people to shut their eyes to this fact. It has been planted here by the English exiles. The men who escaped the Cleveland-street prosecution found shelter in Australia, and there are many of them at present in Sydney.’

The ‘Cleveland-street prosecution’ is a reference to a celebrated raid on a London homosexual brothel in 1889. The article goes on to claim that:

‘… many of the leading hotels and billiard saloons are haunted by these characters, whose presence is advertised by effeminate style of speech, and the adoption of the names of celebrated actresses.’

More importantly, the article continues:

‘… a haunt is said to exist in Bourke-street, Surry Hills and that part of College-street from Boomerang-street to Park-street is a parade for them.’

Although we know of arrests in Hyde Park from the 1870s, this is the first evidence of a beat and one that continued to operate into the 1960s. If this were so of Sydney, then it was also of Melbourne, the second city of the Empire and the largest on the Australian continent. In smaller cities, such as Adelaide, it is only in the period between the wars that we have solid evidence of similar groups.

The inter-war period also saw the first evidence of urban lesbian subculture in Sydney and Melbourne. The devastating effect of the war and the loss of so many men meant that women-only social groups, particularly sporting groups, weren’t frowned upon. It wasn’t readily noticed that some consisted only of lesbians. In smaller cities, the women and men often mixed socially.

Women weren’t subject to the draconian strictures of the law. Even if no longer a capital offence, the crime of sodomy was given harsh sentence. Following the lead of the UK, which saw the crime of ‘indecent assault’ in 1885, (the crime which Oscar Wilde was convicted of), the Australian colonies, over a period of time, followed suit. No longer did authorities have to prove penetration to obtain a conviction. The new offence led to an increase in convictions. Later in the 20th century, a further offence of ‘soliciting for immoral purposes’ was added that saw a further rise in conviction rates across the country.

The period after the Second World War saw an emphasis on conformity in all aspects of society. Women, for example, liberated by jobs undertaken during the war, were forced back into the home to undertake the role of domestic servants. Any sense of sexual liberation was harshly resisted. This applied particularly to homosexual men.

In the words of historian Garry Wotherspoon, homosexual men were ‘naughty, sick and sinful’, and with regard to the latter, generally remain so.

Police had the role of enforcing said conformity, particularly in NSW. In 1958, the Police Commissioner Colin Delaney, a devout Catholic with security service connections and a homophobic obsession, claimed that ‘homosexuality was Australia’s greatest menace’.5 Hardly a balanced perspective, one could conclude. The police force took its cue from the Commissioner and the post-war period saw a crack down on homosexuals, with police even acting as agents provocateur at recognised beats. The ‘camp’ community, as homosexual men came to self-identify, referred to them as ‘pretty policemen’ or ‘lily law’.

It is in the post-war period, particularly by the mid-1960s, that we can truly talk about ‘a community’. By then, there were social clubs such as the Pollynesians, which still functions, the Boomerangs, and others. There were recognised pubs in King’s Cross, such as The Rex and the Quarter Deck bar at the Hilton Hotel, and a wine bar in Bondi Junction. Then, in 1969, Ivy’s Birdcage opened in Taylor Square and that marks the beginning of Oxford Street as Sydney’s gay ‘Golden Mile’, as other venues opened during the 1970s.

However, in society at large, the stereotype of homosexual men as high-pitched, limp-wristed queens persisted.

It is the medical profession that first heralded a change in society’s attitude. Psychiatrists in the 1950s and 60s came to see homosexual men as subject to illness and in need of help. A more humane attitude developed, but it was misguided. Some doctors assisted in judicial torture (aversion therapy, even lobotomies, particularly on lesbians), sometimes at the behest of the courts when convicted people were given the option of an attempted ’cure’ rather than incarceration.

By 1973, the medical profession began to shift its attitude, assisted by the declaration of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness, the first such body in the world to do so. The Americans followed suit in 1974.

By then, another phenomenon had risen in Australian society; gay liberation. The Homosexual Law Reform Society of the Australian Capital Territory was set up in Canberra for some months in 1969; however, while homosexual people were members, the spokespeople were heterosexual. Similarly, the Australian Lesbian Movement, which was established in early 1970 as a chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, was a closed support group for lesbians in Melbourne with a non-lesbian woman as its spokesperson. There were no real publicly identified homosexuals (though people in the arts and theatrical professions were whispered about or sniggered at).

It was, therefore, something of a shock to most Australians to read in The Australian newspaper of 10 September 1970 of the formation of an organisation, Campaign Against Moral Persecution Incorporated (CAMP Inc), dedicated to removing the stigma that society attached to homosexuality. The name was deliberately chosen to give an Australian flavour to the organisation, as ‘camp’ was a word of self-description within the homosexual community while ‘gay’ was not. Even more surprising was the openness and bravery of CAMP Inc’s founders, John Ware and Christabel Poll, in agreeing to be interviewed and photographed for a feature article, again in The Australian, on 19 September 1970. In John Ware’s own words, ‘the media went mad’.

John and Chris had begun a movement in Australia that is still with us. Not that John and Chris foresaw these outcomes. Indeed, their own aims were quite modest. John had come out of academic psychiatry where, as a student, he had difficulties reconciling the established medical view of homosexuality as an illness with the reality of his own life. (He was happily settled with a lover, as was Christabel.) They both looked to the formation of a small group that would be knowledgeable about current thinking on homosexuality and be able to respond publicly, putting forward an informed gay viewpoint.

The announcement of the formation of CAMP Inc also brought an unexpected response. It was the extraordinary amount of correspondence the group began to receive that gave the founders some inkling that what they had started might be bigger than they had imagined.

On 6 February 1971, the first public gathering of homosexual men and women took place in a small church hall in Balmain, then the heart of Sydney’s counter-culture. Chris and John were confirmed, more by default than anything else, as convenors and spokespeople and CAMP Inc was properly launched.By the end of February, other branches of CAMP had formed in Brisbane and Melbourne (where it was known as Society 5), as well as on the campus of the University of Sydney. By the end of the year, branches had been established in all capital cities and on most campuses. CAMP Inc became known as CAMP NSW.

Each of the organisations was like an umbrella group. Most activity was carried out in the various subgroups concerned with law reform, married gays, religion and social activities. Eventually, counselling was also added to the list of activities.

Each of the organisations was quietly reformist rather than revolutionary. Quite early on in Sydney, John Ware stated that it would be years before we saw the first homosexual demonstration in Australia. However, he was wrong. On 8 October 1971, some 70 people demonstrated outside the Sydney headquarters of the Liberal Party in support of the pre-selection of Tom Hughes, then Federal Attorney-General. He was facing a right-wing challenge from well-known homophobe, Jim Cameron, following comments Hughes had made in favour of homosexual law reform. The demonstration was bright and cheerful and marked an important milestone in the history of gay liberation. CAMP Inc proclaimed that ‘October was the month when we came of age, politically.’

Some younger more radical members of CAMP NSW disagreed. They had become dissatisfied with the ‘reformist’ approach of the organisation and, in July 1971, formed themselves into a gay liberation cell within CAMP. The more radical politics and ideas of the Gay Liberation Front in the United States had already begun to come to Australia. An uneasy relationship began to grow between this cell and CAMP NSW. Its outspoken radicalism and counter-cultural outlook were alienating to the general membership of CAMP. In January, Sydney Gay Liberation (SGL) declared itself a separate organisation. Thus began the political diversity of the gay movement in Australia. By March 1972, a Gay Liberation Front had been formed in Melbourne and gay liberation groups were established on campuses and in other state capitals. Relations between CAMP and Gay Liberation remained strained for the next couple of years.

The early years of gay liberation in Australia were enthusiastic, energetic and spectacular, at least for the participants and, one suspects, a bewildering spectacle for the population and the media. Yet, with the formation of CAMP Inc in 1970, gay liberation in its broadest sense had been permanently placed on the social agenda, not to be removed. ‘Coming out’ became not only a personal statement but a political one as well. The commitment which the activities of those years engendered in many of the participants ensured their involvement, often in their own small way, in the life of the gay and lesbian communities even to today.

The story of gay liberation in Australia from 1970 onwards is a spectacular one. In the course of 50 years, homosexuals have come from being pilloried to plighting our troth. It is a wonderful Australian good news story that should be celebrated nationwide.

Further reading

  1. For the Colonial to gay liberation periods see: French R. Camping by a Billabong – gay and lesbian stories from Australian history, 1993.
  2. For the post-gay liberation period see: Willett G. Living out loud – a history of gay and lesbian activism in Australia, 2000.
  3. Wotherspoon G, Gay Sydney, 2016.
  4. Willett G, Murdoch W, Marshall D. Secret histories of queer Melbourne, 2011
  5. Moore C. Sunshine and rainbows – the development of gay and lesbian culture in Queensland, 2001.


  1. Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney, 28 February 1787. Historical Records of NSW; 1(20):52-3.
  2. Barnard S. A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land. 2014 p77.
  3. Duyk E. The Dutch in Australia. 1987, p.26. For a full transcript of the court marshall proceedings see also: de Waal P. Unfit for Publication 2007;1:2-5.
  4. The Scorpion, 24 April 1895, p2.
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1958, p5.

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