Review of Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia, Sydney, by Graham Willett

Eras Journal – Sendziuk, P: Review of “Living Out Loud”, Graham Willett

Graham Willett. Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2000, 307 pgs, b&w illustrations, pb $35.

Graham Willett’s Living Out Loud is a revised version of the author’s impressive doctoral dissertation, although a reader familiar with these often overly long, highly theorised and turgidly argued works of scholarship would never suspect this. Witty, humorous, and shocking in parts, Willett’s book comfortably conforms with Allen and Unwin’s demand for accessibility and entertainment. Ostensibly, Willett provides a chronological narrative which traces the construction of a homosexual ‘community’ and the movement towards gay ‘liberation’ and homosexual law reform in Australia: the book’s three parts, titled ‘Living’, ‘Out’, and ‘Loud’, broadly characterise the emergence of homosexual visibility and vibrancy between 1950 and the present day. Individual chapters, however, easily stand alone as each one generally focuses on a single theme or issue, be this law reform, AIDS or the contemporary debates between Queer theorists.

The book begins with a survey of the camp scene in the 1950s, a decade in which fear of violence and arrest stifled homosexual life and any ideas of political action. Willett notes, however, that the scene of the 1950s was a source of much greater pleasure than has often been assumed. Although fear of bashing, employment discrimination and arrest kept most homosexual identities hidden, this did not prevent homosexual men or women from finding each other. Indeed, the instruments of repression and the regulators and enforcers of community standards – the press and the law courts – unwittingly facilitated the development of the camp scene by publishing the names and location of common homosexual beats and cafes in the process of conducting and reporting criminal proceedings against homosexuals. Willett records that there was only one attempt to organise a law reform group in the 1950s. This was led by Laurie Collinson in Melbourne and supported by the Homosexual Law Reform Society in Britain, but failed to attract interest among homosexuals.

By the late 1960s, however, decriminalisation was on the minds of politicians, the clergy, newspaper editors and liberal reformers both male and female. (Not surprisingly, given the history of repression and violence, homosexuals were not among the many voicing their dissent publicly). As Dennis Altman has contended, and Willett echoes, the arguments of these small ‘l ‘ liberals were propelled by the emerging discourse of ‘multiculturalism’ which would also come to have a dramatic impact on public policy and attitudes concerning Indigenous people and immigrants. The first gay rights organisations – the Daughters of Bilitis and the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) were established in 1970, and from that point on political activism became a permanent part of Australian homosexual life. These organisations and their leaders gave the inspiration for thousands of people – gay and straight – to become politically involved. Willett keenly relates the way in which they organised community meetings, established single-issue lobby groups and ran for parliament on a policy platform of gay rights. He also notes their opposition, the leading voice of which was the Reverend Fred Nile, Member of Parliament in New South Wales, and his Festival of Light.

In the transition from ‘Out’ to ‘Loud’, Willett explains how homosexual sexual activity between consenting adults was first decriminalised in 1975 under the Dunstan Labor Government in South Australia, to be followed by reform of Commonwealth and Victorian legislation in 1978 and 1980 respectively. (Victoria remains the only non-Labor state to have decriminalised homosexual sexual activity). He also charts the growing support for the ‘gay agenda’ in the community, and the way in which a visible and vibrant homosexual community – nurtured by gay businesses, the gay press, gay bars and sporting competitions – emerged in Australia’s two largest cities. The author cautions, however, against assuming that the experience of Sydney and Melbourne gay men and lesbians was shared by their brothers and sisters in rural areas and provincial cities, some of which have yet to form ‘communities’ of homosexual men and women in any real sense.

In the third section of his book, Willett relates how these gains were placed in jeopardy in 1981, with reports from the United States that young homosexual men were dying from a mysterious gay cancer which was beginning to ‘spread’ to ‘normal’ men and women. Drawing on existing but waning discourses which conflated homosexuality with mental and moral sickness, conservatives and bigots took the opportunity to argue that AIDS was a physiological manifestation of moral failing and psychiatric illness, thus justifying their calls for strict laws against homosexuality. Willett explains why the expected backlash against homosexuality never eventuated in Australia, and how, if a deadly virus was ever going to strike gay men, the 1980s was the best time for it to appear. He points out that by the time the first AIDS case was reported in Australia, the gay community (in Sydney at least, where the bulk of gay men lived and where AIDS hit hardest) was well organised and had established strong links with government during its push for law reform, thus ensuring that the needs of gay men would be recognised and could be acted upon through community based organisations.

Living Out Loud concludes with an analysis of the fight for law reform in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia – the states which resisted granting homosexuals legal rights the longest. Willett notes, for example, that a Royal Commission recommended homosexual law reform in Western Australia in July 1974, a call which went unheeded until 1989. He also discusses the problems facing homosexuals at the present time, not least of which include the current monopoly of the gay press, the psychological effects of dealing with AIDS and death, and the difficulties confronting young men and women as they attempt to ‘come out’ in a ‘straight’ world. The final chapter encapsulates the key debates within the discourse known as ‘Queer Theory’ and should be compulsory reading for any young gay, lesbian, or transgender ‘queers’ in the process of trying to make sense of the community that they are moving into. The book, as a whole, provides a history of the struggle and the sacrifices which has allowed them to take a place in a more tolerant and accepting society.

The explanations for the emergence and impact of gay and lesbian activism which Willett provides are not necessarily original, but rather synthesise current theories, arguments and interpretations. To the disappointment, no doubt, of some readers, he also does not attempt to provide a history of the lives of ordinary homosexual men and women – his is the story of radicals and intellectuals. As he states in the introduction: “My attention remains firmly fixed upon the public rather than the private, the visible rather than the subterranean, the political rather than the cultural. As a result much of what was going on, and much that mattered greatly, has been treated cursorily or not at all. If people object to this (and I hope they do), I would merely urge them to get to work on memoirs and histories of their own”.[1] In this book, and as convenor of the annual Australian Homosexual Histories Conference and voluntary administrator of the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives based in Melbourne, Willett has provided a space for storytellers to weave their narratives.

Paul Sendziuk
Department of History
School of Historical Studies, Monash University.

[1] Graham Willett, “Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia”, 
Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2000, p. xii. Back