Inside Story

From a drowning to a celebration

In this edited version of a recent Dunstan Foundation lecture, Dennis Altman looks at forty years of gay liberation and the work still to be done

Dennis Altman 11 December 2012 4598 words

New generation Labor: Gough Whitlam (left) and Don Dunstan at the Lodge in 1973, during Whitlam’s prime ministership. National Archives of Australia

WHEN I was a young man Don Dunstan seemed a harbinger of the dramatic social transformation that would drag Australia into what we, in the impatience of youth, believed to be a better and more tolerant future. As South Australia’s attorney-general and then, most significantly, as its premier for ten years, he represented a new generation of Labor leaders – Gough Whitlam was the best-known of the others – who helped lay the cornerstones for a more cosmopolitan, tolerant and culturally adventurous country. In postwar Australia, no state premier had a greater impact on the development of progressive politics; during his period in office South Australia seemed an inspiration to the rest of the nation.

Dunstan is also a significant figure in the evolution of a greater acceptance of sexual diversity. Historian Dino Hodge has established that Dunstan was deeply concerned with questions of equality for people irrespective of their sexuality, and was one of a small number of South Australian politicians from both major political parties who are responsible for that state’s leading the way in the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Hodge’s research, which was supported by the Dunstan Foundation, recently prompted the local daily newspaper to ask, in glaring headlines, whether funding research into Dunstan’s “private life” is money well spent. Of course the press spends far more than this one small grant to explore all sorts of “private lives,” but the real point here is that to ignore Dunstan’s complex sexuality, and how it affected his career, is to deny an important element of significant political history.

That element was largely glossed over for many years. As the historian Barbara Baird has noted, at the memorial service following his death “Dunstan’s commitment to the gay and lesbian and HIV/AIDS community politics among the ‘causes’ to which he was dedicated was another erasure.” One of Dunstan’s last public acts was to hold an evening for the first gay and lesbian Feast Festival event at the restaurant he ran with his partner, Steven Cheng. Recently there has been some acknowledgement of Dunstan’s bisexuality, although I think the term is too simplistic to capture the reality of Dunstan’s emotional and sexual lives. The best general discussion of Dunstan’s sexuality comes from former federal minister Neal Blewett, who has pointed to the dislike generated by Dunstan’s “sexual ambiguity, highlighted by a sartorial flamboyance unusual among politicians of his time.” (Kerryn Goldsworthy, in her recent book, Adelaide, points to the shock caused by Dunstan’s famous appearance in pink shorts.) Blewett writes: “Much of the personal calumny… vicious character assassinations and gutter-level smear campaigns circulating through Adelaide during his years in power thrived on this questioning of his sexual identity.” I’ll return to how we might learn from Dunstan’s life to better understand the mysteries of sexual behaviour, identity and desires.

In reading the standard works of Australian history, and their incomplete references to Dunstan, I am reminded of similar erasures when the African-American novelist James Baldwin died and his sexuality was either obfuscated or ignored. Dunstan was a significant figure in changing attitudes towards homosexuality in Australia, and he deserves to be acknowledged for this. In acknowledging it, we also need to recall that he comes from an era when attitudes towards sexuality were very different, and it is dangerous to interpret historical events through contemporary eyes. We cannot know how Dunstan, had he been born, say, thirty years later, would have understood and managed his sexuality and public identity.

Don Dunstan was born in 1926, and therefore came of age in a very different world from the one that I, now semi-retired, inhabited, let alone the world of the generations who have come after us. Dunstan was elected to state parliament when he was twenty-seven, at a time when anti-homosexual hysteria – sometimes overlapping with exaggerated fear of communism – was the dominant view and the police forces of most states regularly entrapped and effectively blackmailed homosexual men. This was the period in which Barry Humphries dismissed the issue with the offhand comment that “pooftahs were happily confined to the small hermetic world of ballet and window dressing,” and one of the pioneering films of the new Australian wave, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), was unthinkingly, but nastily, homophobic.

Partly because of events in South Australia, 1972 was a key year in the evolution of gay rights in Australia. A University of Adelaide lecturer, George Duncan, was drowned at a cruising spot on the Torrens River, most likely by police officers. That murder, which received considerable media coverage, played a crucial role in hastening the beginnings of a serious push to decriminalise homosexual behaviour. “Not since the 1830s enquiry into the effects of transportation on convicted persons,” wrote the historian Jill Roe at the time, “has there been such smouldering concern about homosexuality.” Three months after Duncan’s drowning I attended a large public meeting at the University of Adelaide at which the Adelaide Gay Liberation was established, and there was an extraordinary burst of energy that made Adelaide an important centre of gay activism for some years.

The year after Duncan’s death former Liberal prime minister John Gorton and Labor minister Moss Cass introduced into the federal House of Representatives a successful resolution supporting decriminalisation, which would help bring law reform in the Australian Capital Territory. The first serious move to decriminalise male homosexuality came at roughly the same time in South Australia, when a Liberal backbencher, Murray Hill, introduced a private member’s bill, supported by the Labor Party. By contemporary standards the bill was very restrictive, and became more so when the Upper House limited the bill so as to allow consent in an act of sex between two men over twenty-one as a defence against conviction. By the end of that year homosexual acts were, if not exactly legal, then not exactly illegal either. (Dunstan describes these events in his memoirs, Felicia, but without revealing anything of his own personal involvement in the issue.)

Today, not even the most conservative politicians would argue that private consensual sex should be subject to criminal law. But despite the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee in Britain in 1957, even the discussion of decriminalising homosexual behaviour came slowly to Australia. In 1975, after several years of cross-party discussion, South Australia became the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise homosexual behaviour altogether. Today the Duncan drowning seems to have been largely forgotten. It inspired nothing more creative than a radio documentary, and a small memorial plaque at the riverside, although I know there were several events earlier this year at the University of Adelaide to mark the anniversary of his death.

The period when Duncan was drowned, and when brave parliamentarians such as Murray Hill and Peter Duncan in South Australia led moves for decriminalisation, was one in which homosexuality was generally regarded as an illness, a perversion or a deviance. Today, those attitudes seem remarkably outdated, although research shows us that a significant minority of Australians – more likely to be male and less well educated – still share them. But four decades later public debates around homosexuality are very different. Indeed, most states and territories have abolished all criminal sanctions against homosexual behaviour and have included discrimination on grounds of sexuality within the ambit of anti-discrimination legislation. Instead, same-sex marriage has become the yardstick for official recognition of homosexual equality.

Recently a young man made the following comment on a Facebook page:

I personally thank the people who have paved the way for me as a gay man to have never had to struggle with my sexuality within society. I think that we should be glad to be just a piece of the puzzle that makes up society. I don’t think of myself as a different entity from the world. We are just people who love the same sex and to the most part I think anyone with a brain is good with that. Let’s not focus on our differences but celebrate that we are basically all the same. The days where we had to fight are over. It’s only ignorant people that don’t get it. Celebrate being included not focusing on our differences.

I think his comments are somewhat naive, but it is inconceivable that they could have been made even twenty years ago. So, yes, we do have much to celebrate, even if we also have much to reflect upon. Two questions interest me in particular. Why have there been such huge changes in attitudes about homosexuality, and what does this tell us about Australia? And why are these changes demonstrably not occurring in most parts of the world?

THE very real changes in attitudes about sexuality are a reflection of how Australia itself has changed, of the ways in which new concepts of human rights have replaced older concepts of morality based on religious teaching, and of the agency of the gay and lesbian movement whose fortieth anniversary we are celebrating this year. The 1970s saw the birth and re-energising of a set of social movements whose impact is still felt today, of which the women’s and the environmental are probably the most significant. The first significant gay and lesbian organisation in Australia dates back to 1970, the year Dunstan resumed the premiership, when John Ware and Christabel Poll in Sydney launched the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, or CAMP, the first major homosexual rights group in the country. The name was, of course, a deliberate reference to how we then termed ourselves, in a world that a writer for the ‘progressive’ magazine The Nation had described, after his daring foray into two Sydney “camp cabarets,” as: “enchanted caverns for a humdrum group of camp men and women seared by the leering intolerance of weekday society.” Very quickly groups sprang up in all the mainland capital cities, and a small but energetic movement started publicly challenging the dominant ways in which homosexuality was understood, criminalised and regarded as deviant, sick and sinful.

In some ways we have come to think of sexual and gender diversity as another aspect of multiculturalism. Many years ago, I reflected that most Australians would be less threatened by the presence of a lesbian bar down the street than a mosque, and this is far truer today. Indeed, the changes that leaders like Dunstan fought for in opposing the White Australia Policy are not unconnected to greater acceptance of diversity that goes beyond race and ethnicity. Equally, the huge changes in how we think about gender, and what is acceptable behaviour for women and men, have in turn opened up possibilities to imagine lives that go beyond the stereotype of the heterosexual nuclear family.

I often illustrate how sexual mores have changed by reference to the British royal family. When Dunstan was already a parliamentarian, Princess Margaret was forced to back down from her plan to marry a divorced man. Since then three of the Queen’s four children have divorced and the current heir to the throne is married to a woman with whom he obviously had an affair during his previous marriage. Beside the House of Windsor, Modern Family is relatively tame. More seriously, the collapse of older values about sex, and the insistence that it should be confined to monogamous heterosexual marriage – however often this precept was not followed – also allowed for questions to be asked about the insistence that homosexuality was necessarily bad, perverted or sick.

Nor has it been possible to retain the belief that homosexuality was necessarily sinful, a term that has resonance for fewer and fewer people. Until recently it was assumed that sexual mores should be governed by something that religious leaders defined as moral absolutes, although I have never understood why these same leaders, who are so prone to be upset by consensual pleasure, see no moral dimension to widespread human suffering. We do not know enough about the ways in which prejudiced and ignorant attitudes towards sexuality may be conveyed through religious-based schools, which enjoy certain immunities from official anti-discrimination provisions.

But religious leaders aside, over the past few decades the general understanding and discourse of human rights have expanded to include recognition of the right to sexual freedom and expression. In 1991 Amnesty International adopted a policy affirming that persecuting or discriminating against people on the basis of their sexuality is a violation of their basic human rights, and various international organisations now include sexual and reproductive rights within their framework for advocacy. In 1996 post-apartheid South Africa became the first country to protect ”sexual orientation” in its Bill of Rights, and over the past decade the language of sexual rights and citizenship has been adopted in a number of arenas, including discourses around health and international development. Some countries have seen unexpected achievements for gay rights, such as Nepal, where a small gay movement has managed to achieve very considerable shifts in official attitudes and legislation. In 2006 a meeting of the International Commission of Jurists and others in Indonesia drafted the Yogjakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which is the most serious attempt yet to establish universal norms around the decriminalisation of same-sex acts between consenting adults.

Australia played a major role in the development of international protection for sexual rights through the United Nations system, largely because of the bravery of two young Tasmanians, Rodney Croome and Nick Toonen. Despite years of political activism in Tasmania, the last state to retain criminal sanctions against consensual adult homosexual acts, several attempts to change the law were blocked by an obdurate (and unrepresentative) Upper House and a small group of activists succeeded in bringing the issue into the public arena. Eventually they decided on the innovative strategy of appealing to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, possible only because the federal Labor government had signed the protocol that allowed citizens to follow this route once all domestic avenues had been exhausted. Nick Toonen would eventually become the victorious plaintiff in what was a ground-breaking case in international law, and one that continues to be a benchmark for international attempts to overturn laws prohibiting consensual homosexual activity. In April 1994, in the case Toonen v Australia, the Human Rights Committee held that the references to “sex” in Article 2, paragraph 1 (non-discrimination), and Article 26 (equality before the law) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should be taken to include sexual orientation. With this case, the Human Rights Committee created a precedent within the UN human rights system, although it has not extended it universally.

Six months after the UN decision, the Australian government invoked its external affairs powers to prevent “arbitrary interference” with any consenting sexual act between people aged over eighteen. But the Tasmanian government remained obdurate. At this point Toonen and Croome, along with several others, sought to test the law by demanding they be prosecuted for unlawful intercourse, but the director of public prosecutions refused to do so. Three years later the Tasmanian parliament finally decriminalised homosexual behaviour. Tasmania has become a leader in support of gay and lesbian rights, with the state premier, Lara Giddings, introducing legislation to recognise same-sex marriage in 2012.

By and large there have been huge steps towards acceptance of sexual diversity in Australia over the past forty years. But this does not mean that real areas of discrimination and prejudice do not remain, often sanctified in the name of religion and often within immigrant communities coming from countries where homosexuality remains unacceptable. Had Senator Cory Bernardi made the sort of comments he made in the recent same-sex marriage debate about any ethnic group one wonders whether he could have retained his position on the Liberal ticket.

Attacking people for their sexuality remains acceptable in ways that no other slurs would be, and here the worst offenders are religious leaders. Recently I overheard a young man telling a friend, “My parents were told either they throw me out of the house [for being gay] or they no longer come to church.” That such sentiments can be held by people who profess a religion based on “love” seems macabre – and sinister. But such stories are replicated over and over again in almost every organised religion: whether it is Hindus, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons or orthodox Jews. The official position of the Catholic Church is that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law.”

The clash between the religious and the secular view of society is now being played out in an apparently endless debate about same-sex marriage, which clearly fascinates very many more people than can be explained by any sensible assessment of what is at stake. I personally have doubts about the importance of marriage, and I retain an old-fashioned feminist view that is suspicious of either the state or the church regulating our personal relationships. Moreover it is also the case that in Australia – unlike, say, the United States – legislation grants de facto homosexual couples virtually all the rights of married couples. But it is clear that for many younger lesbians and gay men the idea of marriage equality is a very significant one, and something they see as crucial to full acceptance of sexual diversity.

At a federal level it appears that our political leaders hold more conservative views on this issue than does the population at large, and neither the current nor likely next federal parliament seems likely to change the Marriage Act, even if the Liberals relent and follow Labor in allowing their parliamentarians a conscience vote. One wishes they might listen to British Conservative prime minister David Cameron, who has said that he supports gay marriage precisely because he is a conservative. That said, I have no doubt that same-sex marriages will in time be accepted, as they are in increasing numbers of other Western countries.

BUT if in Australia, and other Western countries, there has been huge progress in acceptance of sexual diversity, this is not a universal picture. Indeed, there is increasing evidence of growing polarisation around sexual rights, with Western countries pushing for greater acceptance while many Islamic, African and other governments are responding with what the American anthropologist Tom Boellstorff has termed “political homophobia.” By this he means that a certain sort of heterosexual masculinity, reinforced often by religious precepts, becomes something to be upheld and enforced by the state; this masculinity is part of an ethos of national identity and resistance to the “decadence” of Western societies, which are both admired and scorned. Similar views have been expressed by the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, who studied in the United States and has expressed admiration for American technical savvy and dislike for its sexual permissiveness. These views may seem predictable in Islamic countries – in the case of Indonesia, fundamentalist Islam is in the minority but politically influential – but similar attitudes are widely expressed in parts of the world influenced by Christianity, whether it be the Russian Orthodox Church or the variety of Protestant evangelical churches in much of Africa, the Caribbean and Papua New Guinea.

Often homophobia is more direct and violent. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Uganda, where legislation introduced in 2009 would have mandated a death sentence for repeated acts of sodomy. Under considerable international pressure this move was temporarily withdrawn. But the following year a prominent gay activist, David Kato, was murdered shortly after winning a lawsuit against a local magazine that had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. Even at his funeral the Christian minister preached against the gays and lesbians present, prompting activists to grab the microphone and force him to leave the pulpit. In Nigeria, where homosexual sex is already illegal, there are frequent calls to toughen up legal restrictions and punishments for any expression of homosexuality. In much of the Middle East the punishment for homosexual behaviour remains draconian, with five countries (Mauritiana, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran and Yemen), as well as some regions of Nigeria and Somalia, applying the death penalty.

Boellstorff’s analysis helps explain what is often seen as rising homophobia in many parts of the “developing” world, and links concerns around changing sexual and gender norms to larger sociopolitical factors. Homophobia might be explained as expressing individual psychological needs, which leads to its being understood as an individual psychological flaw that should be corrected (ironically a mirror image of the homophobe’s view of homosexuality), but it might also be used to explain state actions and scapegoating.

BECAUSE the Don Dunstan Oration is partly sponsored by Oxfam, let me suggest a few reflections on the relationship between sexuality and development. When I joined the board of Oxfam Australia in 2006 – I no longer am a board member – I was struck by the deep concern for gender-relevant policies and the equal lack of interest in how these might relate to sexuality. It is true, of course, that the economic inequity between women and men is one of the most basic dimensions of poverty, although it is also true that gender does not always override divisions of class, race and geography. Middle-class women in Australia and the United States clearly enjoy privileges unavailable to most men in the poor world, and even in some poor countries upper-class women are far better off on all criteria than many men.

Nor is gender simply a matter of the distinction between women and men. We know that gender is in fact a complex continuum of biological and emotional factors, and that some people struggle with the gulf they perceive between their assumed gender and how they feel themselves. Some societies have long recognised what are often referred to as third-sexed people, and in many countries in our region there are terms to describe this – for example, katheoy in Thailand and waria in Indonesia. Some work has been done on the particular problems facing transgendered people in humanitarian crises, where they encounter reinforced ignorance and discrimination, but I have never heard this discussed within the Australian development sector.

With a few exceptions the development sector does not see sexuality as relevant. Yet as I recall pointing out to Oxfam colleagues, when the anti-homosexual bills were being debated in Uganda, improving the livelihoods among women was not particularly important for those women who faced rape, beatings or even murder because they were – or were presumed to be – lesbian. That an organisation based on “rights” and a commitment to secularism has been so reluctant to take up questions of sexuality is surprising, although I would note some exceptions, such as Oxfam Ireland, which has developed work on sexuality in its programs in East Africa. The current Oxfam International statement on “sexual and reproductive health and rights” makes one passing reference to the right “to choose their sexual partner or partners and sexual orientation,” but Oxfam in general is far more timid in expressing concern for sexual rights than either the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, or British Conservative PM David Cameron.

How we in the West should best address massive discrimination and persecution in countries that claim the cultural and religious right to maintain their way of life is a difficult problem. When leaders such as Clinton and Cameron pronounce the need for protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and when they threaten to make this a condition of development assistance, the danger is that it just creates a backlash, allowing the most reactionary forces in the countries under attack to mobilise around anti-imperialist slogans. Support for “LGBT” – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – rights from US embassies, with flyers using American-style rainbow flags, can quite understandably be seen as crude attempts to impose a particular set of moral understandings on other cultures.

In the end, though, I stand with such eminent South Africans as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Justice Edwin Cameron, who insist that basic rights can never be trumped by appeals to culture, tradition and religion. To persecute, torture and rape on the basis of perceived sexual or gender dissidence is simply a crime against humanity, and one that our political leaders rarely are prepared to acknowledge. When the Commonwealth heads of government met in Perth last year, a majority of the leaders were unwilling to support arguments put forward by the eminent persons committee, of which Michael Kirby was a distinguished member, that considerations of both public health and human rights demanded an end to the criminalisation of private adult sexual acts across the Commonwealth, where a majority of countries have retained colonial-era laws against sodomy. I understand, though, that these recommendations have now been endorsed by the Commonwealth foreign ministers who met last month in New York.

Let me suggest that there needs to be far closer collaboration between human rights organisations such as Amnesty and those development agencies, such as Oxfam, who work with a rights-based approach. Let me further suggest that Australian foreign policy needs to take far more seriously the questions of supporting people who are persecuted, oppressed and in some cases killed because of their sexuality, and Australia has access to a number of international forums where it can raise these issues in ways that will further the legacy we are honouring tonight. There is evidence that hostility towards those perceived as homosexual is rising in Indonesia, and the Malaysian government has promoted very crude and stereotypical anti-homosexual propaganda. Are these not issues that a country that talks about human rights should be taking up at all levels of diplomacy?

Sexuality is private and public at the same time. The specific pleasures and practices of an individual’s sex life are rarely relevant to those other than his or her partners, and should be left to novelists and film-makers. But how we understand and imagine our sexual identities and to whom we are attracted, and whether we act on or repress those desires, are integral to who we are, and will inevitably affect how we behave in the world; they are legitimate questions for public debate.

It has become increasingly common to speak of LGBT people as if we are a self-evident minority who should be recognised as such. This view of sexuality is expressed in popular shows like the luckily now-defunct Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and has entered popular language as a way of linking together everyone who is either homosexual or transgender. But Don Dunstan’s own life, with his complex and deep relationships with both women and men, suggests that a more radical way of understanding sexuality is both possible and necessary. None of us can be identified solely in terms of one part of our identity, but at the same time we cannot pretend that our sexual desires, identities and behaviours – such central factors – are irrelevant to who we are and how we act in the broader world. •