This is an interview with three generations of Tasmanians. It was first published in Island 133, Winter 2013 and I am publishing it here now following the Tasmanian Government's official apology yesterday, to the LGBTI Community for any pain caused arising from oppressive laws that were only repealed in 1997.
Conversation with Miranda Morris, Dave Arnold and Lochsley Wilson
Dave Arnold is 84 retired from teaching and education administration in 1959 when he decided that he wanted to be a gardener. His partner Pete, who he met in 1984, following his divorce, and have lived together since 1987 and have travelled extensively since then. He was involved with gay law reform in Tasmania from the beginning, present at the very first meeting, “when Rodney (Croome) and Nick (Toonen) took the ball and ran with it. Bob Brown was there too. It was a meeting deciding that just something had to be done and that was when the activity started.” He has three children and seven grandchildren.
Miranda Morris, is 60, a writer, historian and academic, who has also worked on adventure playgrounds and radio scripting. She is currently working full time writing espionage novels. She is the author of The Pink Triangle, the definitive book about the gay law reform and human rights issues which incited Tasmania and the world in the late 80s and early 90s.
RE –One thing that is extremely apparent to anyone with an awareness of Tasmania’s recent gay history is that we have ricocheted from extreme to extreme – from a state where male homosexuality was illegal until the early 1990s to setting an international standard in human rights, following the United Nations decision in 1994. As we delve even further back into history, a lot more richness is revealed.
LW: my sister was born in the 1994, the year that the UN Human Rights Commission condemned the intolerance of Tasmania at an international forum. I mentioned it in a speech trying to encapsulate family and my experience growing up within the context of gay law reform. That speech was really interesting to write because it made me realise how I really am at a point in history where things have gone from us being the last state to decriminalise homosexuality and the first house of parliament in Australia to near legalisisation of same sex marriage.
MM I was working for the Health Department at the time of the Parliamentary debates around law reform – it was obviously a pretty hot potato there. They were trying to stop the spread of HIV but men who had had sex with men were reluctant to be tested because it was a notifiable disease and people who tested positive were put on a register. It was tantamount to turning themselves in, because sex between men was illegal. This was not the area I was working in but I could see the political quid pro quos that were happening.
I always find it a bit difficult to work with the grain, so the opportunity to write a book about something that was going to be quite challenging was absolutely exactly what I liked to do. The book came about at the time the Preventative Measures Bill, which included the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men, had just failed to pass for the third time. The book was funded by a grant from the National Council on AIDS, and its aim was to understand the issues underlying the debate. The Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group (TGLRG) wanted attitudes towards homosexuality in the State to be examined in a broader context – to remove the pairing of AIDS and homosexuality. It was tricky because at first I was housed in the AIDS Council, as was the TGLRG, but then the TGLRG became too political for the AIDS Council and had to move – and I had to make the choice about whether to stay in the AIDS Council premises, or move with the TGLRG. It was an interesting thing to try and write because I was trying to write it historically but things were happening every single day –it was always in the news, always being debated in parliament. Phones were ringing, banners were being raised, people were helping out with paints so it was very much full immersion journalism that I was doing.
LW –how did you go about counteracting bias in your book? What sort of mechanisms did you put in place to try and make sure you were seeing more than just your side?
MM Well, there are two things, one is about ‘the side’ – because the debate was thrown into diametric opposition between people who felt that the gay law reform shouldn’t happen and that gay people should not have relationships and then gays and lesbians themselves who figured that they should. Gay men and lesbians were not in any way suggesting that heterosexuals should not be having relationships with one another– so it felt to me that the bias was incredibly strong
ly one way. This kind of false argument was to
entrenched that a heterosexual on the interviewing panel for the book, someone
who very much supported law reform, expressed concern about my being appointed
because, as a lesbian, I would be biased. You would never have someone's heterosexuality
questioned in this way. Law reform was a human rights issue so I guess if
anything, I felt there should be a counter bias. In the event , I didn't feel I
needed to intervene much around what people had said. The debate was loud and
with lots of spectacle. The polarised sides were vocal and unapologetic. I used
first person quotes– from Hansard, the media and interviews. I guess that my
bias wasn’t so much in what I chose to say, but the way I organised the
material. people said things that I wouldn’t have dreamt of writing myself
because it would be slanderous. I felt that by using their words, anyone
reading the book could decide for themselves.
I had an advisory committee and its members had been involved for a lot longer and had strong opinions and that was an interesting thing to find my own voice. I went from being on the within a small community, but this full immersion was from my first day of employment onwards. It took about 18 months to write and one of the frustrating things about the book was that the publishers wanted it to be completed and I really wanted to wait for the Tasmanian government. We knew it was imminent that the law would be changed and we did manage to include the whole of the United Nations period so that was very, very exciting as it was a huge thing to go to the UN. They had never had anyone approach them around sexuality and human rights, it was of international significance. In fact I think it was the most significant thing to come out of this was to get that on that agenda. Because a lot of the signatory countries are pretty conservative, not just us. And for me, personally, it was a major coming out. My photograph was plastered over the front page of the Mercury.
LW –When I was first coming to terms with my sexuality I was on Google, looking at what has happened in Tassie and it was really shocking for me to find out that I was born in a time that homosexuality was illegal. My parents had always been supportive and I was never really under the impression that it was abnormal. In that sense I am living in a far more progressive time than you have all grown up in. From that perspective it is a huge change and I guess something we can all be thankful for.
RE – one of the many interesting comments in your book Miranda, was that there were many feminists keen to support the gay law reform movement in Tasmania especially as they had had more experience of organising and collectivism but there was a group of women who said “no, we’re not going to help these blokes,” which led, in part, to lesbian separatists. This sense of bringing knowledge in - or conversely, condemning others to repeat mistakes they’d made was an interesting divide.
MM yeah, that was quite a difficult one too because on the whole gay men hadn’t been very sympathetic. Lesbian separatism had grown out of the older homosexual law reform movement that wouldn't include lesbian issues on their agenda. And I mean certainly the issues were very different for men and women - sex between women wasn’t illegal but women were often losing their children in court because they were lesbians much more out as feminists and quite loud in Hobart. The focus for lesbian feminists was to rethink patriarchal structures of all kinds. But most recognised the gay law reform opposition as being the result of homophobia that affected both gay men and lesbians.
DA I felt as if they were more accepted because they used to go around together and could hold hands but men couldn’t.
MM I don’t know how many women would have felt comfortable about holding hands, I remember we had a, not a march exactly, of women deliberately walking through the mall holding hands. It wasn’t something I felt able to do. Certainly it was likely to cop verbal abuse.
LW – do you think that Tassie will ever get a strong gay and lesbian community?
MM there is one
LW – well I suppose I’m in Launceston, I don’t know what it’s like down in Hobart but it seems like the only way there is a sense of community is with a few Facebook groups trying to find casual sex
MM I think that having a political focus helped us in the late '80s and early '90s. I don’t know if you felt this Dave, but it was interesting that a lot of older people didn’t get involved in the political aspect at that point. They had had to be covert for so long it was a really difficult place to be.
DA – yes, in the shadows. I was involved with the AIDS council from the word go. As it grew bigger we left it to the younger people. I was also involved in a phone counselling line for about 14 years. We used to get calls from all sorts to ask all sorts of things - at funny times of the day sometimes- but that was interesting
MM – Dave, do you think a community grew out of that with people? Talking to a lot of people who were quite isolated, was there any way they became more socially involved through talking with you?
DA – they could have but I don’t know on a group scale. There was a man from Tullah who used to ring and tell me what he was wearing, describe it in great detail. He used to dress up at the weekend in camp. This phone line must have grown out of a good deal of tolerance. But I was also amazed at the change in people’s attitude when the law reform was passed. We had some parents ringing up about their son that they thought was gay, he wanted someone to talk to. That was indicative, I think and we became much more tolerant people.
MM There were an awful lot of concerts and cabarets to go to, with mainland and international artists giving their time to raise funds: Elvis Herselvis, Paul Capsis, Julie Small and others. I think the social life around that time had that edge of political push, it was very, very exciting. The other aspect of this community was that it became almost everything I did. Everything I did in those two years was related to either writing the book or being involved in the gay community and actually at the end of that I just wanted to be really be able to express the other aspects of myself and not always be socialising with the same people. I wanted to be much more integrated and I think one of the reasons that there doesn’t seem to be much of a community is for positive reasons
LW –yes, that’s the thing, I think it almost feels like there doesn’t need to be a ‘community’ because everyone is more open – and it has only been through the same sex marriage situation that there is a need for a community and a need to harness support. I’m ready to use these policies as leverage towards a sustainable gay community in the North. I think it is especially important for people to come to terms with it whether they are younger or older but if you don’t know any gay people, where do you go? How do you meet gay people? There’s no gay bar in Launceston – though there is one in Hobart, obviously.
DA – in the sixties I used to go to the back bar at Hadleys and that was a community. A group of people who used to meet there on a Friday or Saturday night. I was still married then but I used to pop in there for a couple of beers and to meet people. That was perhaps the beginning of me becoming part of a gay community.
MM I think it was you who told me initially Dave, that the front bar was filled with lawyers who acted as a kind of padding between the back bar and the public.
DA it was a matter of getting into the back bar without being seen
RE – One of the loveliest things that I read in research for this conversation was somebody saying that at the Sydney Mardi Gras you’d always know where the Tasmanian float was in the parade because the cheers were loudest.
MM the first time especially – people were absolutely in tears about it because they were so excited. We were such a long time getting there, such a long time until legislation was passed in Tasmania. When it was passed, the community generally had become used to the idea and there had already been a lot of behind the scenes liaison meetings with the health department, the education department and the police. When the law was changed they were ready to take positive action. It was amazing to see the legitimacy for homophobia being lifted when the laws changed.
LW – I guess my involvement in gay rights has really been about the same sex marriage debate. I initially wanted to focus on issues I felt were separate from me – human rights in West Papua, or climate change and how that’s affecting small island states - all things that didn’t really relate to me other than my empathy. Then there was an article in The Examiner by Claire Van Ryn. She was comparing the sanctity of the Tarkine to the sanctity of marriage and saying that if the Greens are so fervent in pushing for the Tarkine why aren’t they trying to do the same for the institution of marriage? The whole thing was a convoluted metaphor.
RE – and we’ve heard that argument before ‘Are the Greens For Nature or Against It?’ So 1990s!
DA – yes, we’ve heard it before!
LW - I read it and saw everyone on Facebook having this huge anger rant about how terrible the article was and how it completely misrepresented the issue. They were going off and sending her hate mail. I thought these things were completely counter-productive. I’m kind of glad for Claire Van Ryn* – that was why I wrote the story for Haywire.
When they talk about this sanctity they obviously have a biased idea of what nature is. I see sexuality as something that is biological though clearly the people opposing it see it as a choice and I think that’s why the Tarkine metaphor is really quite powerful – it’s something that everyone can enjoy – marriage is not so. Claire Van Ryn started it for me!
The debate at the moment is still very male centric. At least in the way it is framed – in the ads you see for gay marriage it is always two guys and the whole gay marriage debate actually forgets that is marriage equality because there are transgender people and a myriad of different demographics trying to fit into this gay marriage debate. It’s so important that we don’t continually focus on gay law or lesbian law instead try and think of it as part of a wider community.
MM I have a problem with gay marriage as an issue from a feminist point of view. In the 70s and 80s the debate was around abolishing marriage not trying to make it more inclusive. We seem to have lost the debate around what marriage is.
LW – I personally believe that the government should have no intervention in our relationships at all but should be for everyone not just gay people so I am trying to get census marriage for everyone. I support these issues because I want people who want to get married be able to.
MM it’s still not about the big picture, because marriage privileges couples and certain kinds of couples. Certainly not everyone can get married, I mean some people can’t because they can’t find a partner, others because they don’t want to get married, other people want different relationships to be considered that would not be allowed under marriage, so if your most significant relationship, even it is not sexual, was with your brother or sister for example that would not be allowed under gay marriage so it seems to me elitist, even if it is. broadened.
DA –we are recognising relationships though.
MM The Significant Relationships legislation was really progressive. It broadened our frame of reference and encouraged recognition of cultural diversity. I feel as if the next step should have been making that the umbrella legislation and phasing out marriage legislation altogether.
Why does anyone need public recognition for something that is a private relationship?
LW I guess it’s one of those things. Marriage is of huge cultural significance, whether you are religious or not and I guess it is one of those things a lot of people want to experience. They want to have the big white meringue and they want to have the dress and the cake and the wedding bells and the arch and all these romanticised ideas of love. From a historical perspective we have so much hinged on this idea and to be told you can’t do it with the person you love is to quite devastating to a lot of people.
MM it seems to me that there is a difference between a party and legislation – I mean legislation is intended to privilege one group and exclude all others.
RE one of the things that crystallised the situation for me was when I went to the wedding of two dear (lesbian) friends. As part of their ceremony the celebrant had to legally say something that meant “well, I’m not properly marrying you.” It seemed to be a statement that was intrinsically anti gay marriage.
MM But that is pretty recent. There had been no requirement for the gender of a couple to be mentioned until the Howard government introduced an amendment in 2004.
LW it is just trying to get a point where we can retract those backwards moves and then we can work to find a fuller equality. I’m thinking about what Christine Milne said on the Mama Mia blog recently. It was talking about the quote by Michael Ferguson that she was the “mother of teenage sodomy”. Although she is a politician and an environmentalist, she was talking about that experience primarily as a mother. It was an extremely powerful article, to consider that a politician, in this case Ferguson would even say that – and that my mother could be called the mother of teenage sodomy was horrifying.
RE – each of you have come at out a different time, under different laws and levels of acceptance. How different were your experiences ?
DA well, I was married and I have three children and seven grandchildren and they accept our situation. All of the grandchildren have been born since Pete and I were together – so it’s always been Pop and Pete. The acceptance of the family has been on both our sides has been fantastic, I think it’s part of the general acceptance that there is in the community these days. We live out in Lenah Valley and we’ve got gay people around us but nobody bothers us and we’re accepted. I’m sure people know – if they don’t know they should.
MM – how was it initially Dave?
DA – well it was never really different. I remember an occasion when we did a TV interview for Lateline about gay marriage and they wanted a couple of normal looking people to introduce the topic. They took tape after tape and after this went to air, it was only a snippet, two minutes or less. My brother in Queensland phoned me a few weeks later and he said “hey, we saw you on television,” and I thought “oh god, here we go,” – he’s six years older than me, and I thought they’d be in bed by 10.30 when Lateline started. Pete and I had stayed with them but we’d never talked to them about anything to do with gays and things. Anyway, he said “gosh they must have paid you some money for that”. But he didn’t say one thing about “oh, you’re gay.”
I am amazed about how supportive my kids are – they wouldn’t let anyone say anything against gay people or against our relationship in their presence I’m sure, they’re just totally supportive.
RE – Miranda, what about you – when you arrived here in Tasmania in 1973 were you out?
MM no I wasn’t, I married out here and I have a child. When I was first becoming aware of my sexuality, I was a bit of a late bloomer I was about 30 - and it was from reading Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West and then reading about more and more lesbians in the 1930s and I began to think “oh gosh! I wish I’d lived then when there were lesbians.”
The debate following gay law reform involved quite a lot of discussion around gay and lesbian parenting.
When I was approached by
television and papers about whether I would do an interview about parenting, I
had to really think about it. I didn’t want to involve my daughter in a political
debate it felt unfair on her. As it was, as soon as they knew I was a single
parent, whatever my sexuality they were completely not interested. They wanted
people who were clearly going to have sex with each other! I was too ordinary.
It was quite weird and really most of my life since my marriage I have been
living as a single person and it’s quite difficult socially, people make
assumptions that you’re not gay and it’s no kind of well “here’s my partner,
meet my partner,” making it clear and I still find that I get to this awkward
position when I’m talking to people or introducing myself about whether I say anything or I not because
I know that the assumption’s there that I would be heterosexual, but at the same
time it seems completely unnecessary for me to state my sexuality to somehow
draw attention to it..
DA – we don’t feel the need to tell anybody but if they ask we respond truthfully in most cases.
MM it’s kind of clear from your living arrangements but I also get to the point with some people that I’ve known for a long time and not said anything, I find myself getting really scared that they’re not going to like me if they find out and they’re going to cut me off.
DA – well it makes no difference!
MM – well, I would it wouldn't. I’m just thinking that it’s still a hangover from before, that kind of self censorship.
RE –Lochsley, you mentioned when you were starting to come out you were googling, what was the experience of coming out for you?
LW – well, coming out in a time where we were one of the first generations where we had internet access readily available, when I wanted there were places to go. It was both a blessing and a curse because while I was reading information how “it’s ok” and all the supporting documents but I would only need to a go a few more pages down Google I would find the ‘God hates you’. I think it made it more difficult as well as easier, especially because there were the social networks. I wasn’t at a point where I was able to tell my parents or my friends it was good to be able to get it off my chest to someone, even if it was only in a chat room.
I had told my Mum when I was in primary school but she said I should wait! So in year seven and I wanted to have my friend Olivia stay the night and she said “Lochsley, I know what you’re trying to do” and I was like “no Mum, I’m gay.” It was all really quite easy for me though it isn’t for everyone in my generation, though I would like it to be.
I have a friend last year who told his mother who went to the minister of her church, who recommended that he was kicked out. This was a month before his 18th birthday, at the end of year twelve and of all the things that go on as an 18 year old. You’d want support from your mother at least.
DA – very different from when I was growing up! There was no ‘gay’ word – I suppose there was ‘camp’ but not homosexual –
LW-– Why SHOULD we come out? and it’s kind of a tricky kind of thing because the more people that come out the better known it is, the more people accept – and the more people that know a gay person, it’s suddenly less foreign, suddenly so much more approachable but at the same time the fact that it’s assumed you’re straight until…well, innocent until proven guilty.
RE – Let’s go back a bit futher–to the comparatively ancient history since white settlement in Van Diemen’s Land – and before that.
LW –It is so tricky without a scribed history – and indigenous culture was sent down through generations through oral language or dance. It is so hard for us to know what happened. We can go back to Ancient Greece and we can see Plato’s Symposium and the discussion about sexuality there so it‘s much easier for Western culture to see where it started there than it is for Australia’s oldest culture.
MM it’s interesting what the impact of exactly when Tasmania was settled has had. I think if it had been settled a century earlier then perhaps we wouldn’t have seen quite the same trajectory.
DA – but the type of settlement must have had something to do with it –because it was mainly male wasn’t it?
MM it was mainly male but it was also the beginning of a kind of bureaucratic surveillance – a sense that you could have not just physical control over people but moral control as well and that you could control it from a distance, from England. This meant that moral codes were set in writing.
LW –What discussion of homosexuality was there in the penal colony?
MM Oh! There was masses! There was a big report about it. There were people who desperately wanted transportation to end and one of the best ways of garnering support for this was to show how morally depraved the system was. Sodomy in particular, actually not just sodomy, it was sexual relationships between women and men which were listed in various reports to try and show how appalling it was.
We have some very interesting and quite detailed reports of same sex relationships - sometimes you get something lovely (for an historian) but normally it’s just in police records that we actually hear about any kind of same sex relationships. It’s also a class thing, so we’ve got records from the working class for that convict period and a few more from the literate upper class sometimes revealing things through letters. Everything we had is so fragmented. The information that has remained is very, very select. A title of somebody else’s book is ‘Streetwalking on a Ruined Map’ and I really love that as an idea of how history works, you know you just have to somehow piece together; you know you’ve got far more gaps than facts and you know you can’t extrapolate but we tend to because that’s just how we’re made and we want our stories to work.
DA – We like to have things clear cut don’t we? Precise.
RE –One of the quotes that you mention, Miranda is Flinders of Bass and Flinders fame, quoting in his diary about Bass – “there was a time when I was so completely wrapped up in you that no conversation but yours could give me pleasure. Your footsteps on the quarterdeck over my head took me from my book and up on deck to walk with you.” Which is just beautiful.
LW and clearly very romantic as well
MM that’s ever so interesting, it was a Georgian relationship so before Victorian times. People were much freer in expressing who they were before the 19th Century. It’s easy to see ourselves as having a kind of progression but there’s an absolute backwards move that corresponded with the rise of the bourgeois family.
LW it feels like it goes in varying states – I wonder if will go backwards again. They used to call all homosexuals Florentines because in Florence during the Renaissance lots of people were homosexual, especially with the big art community it seems like it was accepted.
DA I suppose it’s just the tide of history – Queen Victoria had a lot to answer for
MM no no no, she wasn’t to blame!
DA she wasn’t to blame?
LW do you find there’s a blurred line between historical fact and historical fiction when we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves and try and figure out – especially with something like gay law reform?
MM We certainly are, especially if you are politically involved because you really need to believe on one level that what you do is gapless and whatever your focus is you have to really believe that it’s true because otherwise you lose the energy to see it through. It’s a fragmented story and we’re in much more danger of creating a fiction if we’re involved in trying to make change than if we’re not. I can’t really stand outside that. The sense of community that existed in the early 90s meant it necessary that we didn’t show too many cracks.
RE –What can you tell us aboutt the niece of Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen, Marie who was a romance fiction writer in the 20s and 30s and grew up in Tasmania? Marie was an early ‘out’ lesbian, it seems
DA Did Joh know!?
MM –Marie Bjelke Peterson lived with her loved one Sylvie, and about that, there is no doubt in our minds. She also wrote film scripts and one of them is called Jewelled Nights. It’s set up in the North West coast of Tasmania in a mining town and it’s about a young woman who is unhappy in love and goes to the mining town dressed as a miner, a very glamorous miner. This chap falls in love with her and it’s very Shakesperean as there is the issue being the ‘wrong’ sex to be in love with. It is slightly coded but it was quite advancied. Louise Lovely, who starred in it was a Hollywood film star who came back to Tasmania with her husband. They had the Prince of Wales Theatre in Macquarie Street and she also ran screen tests for anyone who wanted them at the Theatre Royal.
In terms of Marie Bjelke Petersen and Joh knowing about her sexuality, well Bob Brown decided to propose making the criminal act gender neutral. It was just around the time when anti homosexual laws had been introduced in Queensland. As soon as Bob Brown had got it through the lower house he realised that this meant that, to change the language to gender neutral, sex between women would become criminalised. He was horrified and approached the speaker and asked whether it could be rescinded but it did go through to the Upper House. He then discovered that in Queensland Joh had specifically asked that women be excluded from this political code and although he didn’t say, why it is quite interesting. It would make some level of sense because Marie and Joh were quite attached to each other as aunt and nephew.
RE where do you see the movement going and what would be an ideal future considering the conversation we’ve had today?
LW I would like to see the marriage equality legislation passed, whether it’s in Tassie or nationally, leading to a nice bed for the next movement maybe laws for parenting and surrogacy. This is where I see myself campaigning in future.
DA for our relationship we need nothing to change, we’re happy and we couldn’t marry if we wanted to – and we’re not interested. I’ve said before if I were going to be in a straight relationship I wouldn’t marry again. However, I support the Bill for those who wish to marry.
MM I would like it to be absolutely ok for children to be growing up with parents in gay relationships and for their peers to think it’s OK for their parents to be gay. There can be bullying around parents and their own sexuality. I want being gay to be absolutely fine for children in schools and accepted. I would just I would love this fundamental Christianity - fundamental any religion, - really strong anti gay predjudice to be dissipated. I know that’s not really within our control but the fundamentalists of any persuasion are making lives an absolute misery for gay, lesbian and transgender people.
LW one of things I would like to see is about how a young person should never have to come out. I say to my friends “when did you tell your mother you were straight?” Keeping in mind that everyone is individual and everyone should be not just tolerated but accepted and embraced for their difference.
DA it’s a matter of total acceptance, not just a matter of tolerance. It’s a great ambition and something to work towards.
MM –even in movies, on television and in the media generally if there is a gay relationship not only is it hardly ever women, mostly men and hardly ever the focus of the movie.
LW – like in Modern Family – the jokes are always about who is more camp than the other and although I do find it quite funny I would still much rather if you could have that relationship without the focus on sexuality.