Zoe Coombs Marr finds a mountain of LGBTQIA+ history consigned to the margins of Australian history.

To trace the buried history of LGBTQIA+ in Australia, Zoe Coombs Marr has had to resort to police and court records, trawling through old microfiche reels with history experts.

While Australia has some solid archives through groups such as Australian Queer Archives, especially from 1970s onwards, looking back at early evidence is more complex.

“It’s almost like Queer history has been erased and kept in the margins,” she suggests.

Was there evidence of homosexuality in early Australia, for example? You bet. One example uncovered dates back to 1727. In her three part series Queerstralia, Coombs Marr raises questions such as ‘Was homophobia exported to the world by the British? Were First Nations societies heteronormative before the whitefellas arrived?’

But being queer was invariably being on the wrong side of the law, which is why many of the cases cited in her first episode were uncovered in court documents and newspapers. There are cases of police spying on men in the privacy of their bedroom -even drilling a hole in a roof in order to catch criminals in the act.

The penal colony of Norfolk Island is wryly referred to as being “too penile” with reports of 150 male couples. There were lady squatters living secretly as a couple in Geelong in 1840 (which sounds to me like an Aussie Gentleman Jack drama in the making). Other early Australian lesbians cited include philanthropist Josephine Beford, Queensland’s first female doctor Lilian Cooper and a Tasmanian novelist even named Marie Bjelke Petersen.

After decades of Australian men being convicted of ‘unnatural offences’ and sodomy (including with Cooma jail being ‘the only homosexual prison in the world’), homosexuality was decriminalised under Don Dunstan’s South Australian government in 1975.

It would take until 1997 for Tasmania to become the last state to follow suit.

Coombs Marr, herself born and bred in Tasmania, speaks with activist Rodney Croome, whose fights through the High Court and all the way to the United Nations were groundbreaking stuff, in the face of police arrests.

She also speaks with famed Tassie comedian Hannah Gadsby, as well as her own parents, as she seeks to find a through-line through mountains of material. It’s sometimes jarring in its storytelling, juggling facts and punchlines (“bum sex” must be an ABC friendly term?), protesting she prefers a “looping meta-narrative.”

Along the way you’ll hear about the infamous ABC Chequerboard episode, with ’78er’ Peter de Waal who was one half of the first male kiss on Australian TV. There’s fellow ’78ers’ Kimberley O’Sullivan & Dennis Altman, Dr Ruth Ford, Ian Roberts, transgender activists Julie Peters & Martine Delaney plus co-host Nayuka Gorrie who steps in unannounced for First Nations history. Wait for the Channel 7 news documentary footage of suburban shoppers in 1966 where we are told how difficult it is to spot a lesbian. No, really?

There is also confronting histories of HIV / AIDS, hate crimes, murders and tragic stories of oppression with Australians forced to hide in the closet or underground.

Even the 1978 riots -“out of the bars and into the streets”- which would eventually lead to Mardi Gras, were horrific police assaults, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald publishing names and addresses of those arrested. It took until 2016 for the newspaper to apologise.

After the first episode which centres around the Law, Episode 2 explains how Queers have had their identities defined and shaped, at first by others, increasingly by themselves. Episode 3 looks at how Queer people jostled for space and representation, eventually finding their own place within society.

Coombs Marr is to be congratulated for taking on the scale of this and bringing it to the fore during WorldPride. There’s so much history to tell, I’ll be surprised if it can all fit into 3 episodes. This would be a perfect compendium with Andrew Mercado’s doco Outrageous: The Queer History of Australian TV if ABC has any thoughts on a follow-up.

Queerstralia screens 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.

4 Responses

  1. Watched this last night and was so disappointed. Queerstralia could have been so, so, so much better without the very, very lame jokes and with the show jumping all over the place. Very unlikely to watch the next 2 episodes.

  2. The first episode of this was fantastic. I’m not sure if everyone watching will appreciate the tone Zoe brings to this, but it works for me! This was after watching the good (not great – yet) We Interrupt This Broadcast, which funnily enough Ian Roberts was also in.

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