Immediately prior to 1978, Sydney gays and lesbians had come together to try to understand Gloria Steinem, Schulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer and Dennis Altmann. It was called “consciousness raising”, the Australian equivalent of Lavender Power in the USA. For this check out the visuals of the Rolling Stones song Gimme Shelter.
There were fiery debates: should women separate entirely from men? Did we have anything in common? When such a separatist lesbian meeting took place in a Balmain church hall a gay man chained himself to a pew, claiming that he was a lesbian. There were demonstrations, more or less violent, such as that against the Springboks’ tour in the Sydney Cricket Ground (?), culminating in the violence of the first Mardi Gras. Of this event I know nothing as my friend and I boycotted the event. It had been planned in our house in Cleveland St, by Lance Gowland, then well known as a communist provocateur. By contrast its other major organiser, Ron Austin, was totally apolitical. His idea of the MG was a stroll, down Piccadilly with a sunflower or a lily, wearing the obligatory caftan of his making. I think the lack of political fervour in his vision is what enabled some to see the MG event as something people of all political/cultural persuasions could attend. These days the original event is celebrated by the remaining 78’ers on a truck riding through the parade like princesses.
Granted the original young protesters were a mixed bunch; we were uni students in the last year of our Bachelor degree. In spite of Whitlam’s making it possible for the working class to achieve a tertiary degree it was a rare phenomenon. Certainly in my time at Macquarie Uni, my colleagues were upper middle class folk, their social skills finely honed to an unbelievable shrillness. Someone once described the rebels from such a background as being a little bit rebellious, but knowing the acceptable limits, such as tidying one’s appearance to attend the family Sunday roast lunch. lest one be written out of the family inheritance.
It was all about visibility, then as now. We exhorted each other to come out of the closet. Our slogan was: “we are the children our parents warned us about”. In the Glebe Point Rd headquarters of Gay Liberation we received mail from all over Australia, although when the Melbourne representatives of gay lib down south came to Sydney they took over the office duties. One such letter was from an anonymous group. It read: “we are a national team of sportsmen. We are well known. We are gay but feel no need to broadcast the fact”. Clearly a case of “the love that dared not tell its name now won’t shut up”.
Back to Gay Lib of the mid 1970’s. We decided one day, having spent the morning in someone’s Camperdown house (then a working class area) making banners and planning our next demo. Someone said that we should take to the streets there and then, protesting locally; we were a group of 20 or 30. This we did, shouting our slogans. We approached a corner shop and I decided, it being a hot day, to buy an ice block. Someone accused me of wanting to leave the event but I went to buy it. As I stood outside, unwrapping the confection, an older, working class man (gentle, in the closet?) asked me: you’re not one of them? I jumped into the street to rejoin the demo, shouting “yes I am, they’re lovely people”. He reacted to this with a cry of anguish. Had I thought the idea of consciousness raising more thoroughly I might have found that talking with this person was more valuable than an impersonal shouting at houses and street architecture. Who did we know was home anyway? Who was noticing us? When I rejoined the group a lesbian, who’d never spoken to me previously, said: “that was amazing, do it again”. I declined, thinking that would be false. She decided to recreate the dynamic herself, with what result I never found out.
Curiously, I now live in a working class suburb, having come, as it were, full circle; it was where trams were repaired; now it has slowly gentrified. In spite of this, among young, millennial families, hipsters everyone, with shiny new cars, I have men older gay, working class men who’ve spent all their lives in the closet. Their faces wear a sadness, born of unexpressed desires?
What I think now, is that as our LGBTQI communities grow and flourish in friendly suburbs post the same sex marriage victory, someone has coined the phrase “victory fatigue”. That is to say, when an oppressed minority achieves a victory, in our case a visibility equated by some as “normalcy”, we collapse, thinking that the battle’s won. In fact we’ve only just begun. The structures of our communities need to change, to morph, accommodating the expansion this recent event has afforded us.