“Sex is a revolutionary act” was one of the central political messages of Gay Liberation that I learned in Sydney shortly after arriving there as a “new gay” in the early 70s. Given that same-sex sexual desire had been demonized and associated with shame for centuries, we believed that our freedom depended on liberating ourselves from the shackles of external and internal sexual repression. Through sex, we could learn to love ourselves and be a community.
In other words, get out there and fuck around. It’s good for your soul and it’s good for our freedom and liberation. And it’s fun. The more, the better, was the message I got. Recreation, not procreation. So I did the best I could.
To help me achieve this goal, I soon realized that Sydney certainly had more than its fair share of cruising areas – called “beats” there.
Cruising areas have existed in most cities around the world especially since the 19th century in western countries: public parks, public toilets (aka cottages or bogs), beaches, etc. Their advantage, especially for closeted gays and “straight” men, was that you could be there so-called innocently, out of sight of friends and family. You could find other men without having to go into, say, a visibly gay bar.
Their disadvantage was that the police and queer bashers often also knew of these locations and could turn up at any time bashing or arresting those who were there.
Dr. George Duncan
In May of 1972, Dr. George Duncan was walking along the banks of the River Torrens, a well-known beat (pictured above), in Adelaide, South Australia when he was attacked by queer bashers, thrown into the river and drowned. It was later discovered that the queer bashers were police from the Vice Squad who, because there was a coverup, were not arrested at the time. But the subsequent uproar and inquiry revealed that police routinely threw cruising gay men into the river and, in this case, Dr. Duncan drowned. You can read more about this sad story here and here.
The reason I bring it up is because the news of his death galvanized queers across Australia, for the first time, to raise our voices and begin to fight back instead of withdrawing into the background in shame. We all knew that we could have been Dr. Duncan in any similar beat. We fought to not let police get away with this behaviour that was normal at the time. We were motivated to stand taller and push back. “We’re not gonna take it anymore”.
It took many years for those cops to be charged, but in 1975, South Australia did become the first Australian state to decriminalize homosexual relations between consenting adults – a direct result of this incident.
Green Park and The Wall
This painful news, however, did not stop us in our determination to have sex as our revolutionary obligation! My local beat was the small, but beautiful Green Park – just a 10 minute walk from where I lived in Darlinghurst – with its public toilet (“cottage”) and The Wall which allowed for standing and posing.
I remember doing my fair share of posing leading to many fun encounters with a good handful of interesting men, including a young man who lent me the dress that Barbra Streisand wore in the Roller Skate Rag number in Funny Girl whom I talked about in a previous post.
When I think back on those experiences, I remember often being more intrigued by people’s life stories than I was with whatever we got up to. If we went back to their place, I was always ready to stay the night and even have breakfast the next morning. Of course, not everyone was as curious/nosy as me and there were times I’d be shuffled out the door post-orgasm.
Luckily for me, neither the police, queer bashers or unwanted VD (as we used to call STD’s) got in the way of joy and pleasure for me during my time in Sydney.
I subsequently learned that the cottage in Green Park was torn down by the city in 1984 and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence paid homage to the site before and after its demolition, performing a memorial service! This speaks to the importance it had in the minds and lives of gay men when there were often few opportunities to meet others for sex and/or friendship.
Another aspect of our sexual revolution that we put great importance on, borrowed from Women’s Liberation, was that we should not objectify our sexual partners. We had to avoid reducing people to physical objects of our sexual desire. “We are not sexual objects”. This was an important concept because we wanted to be desired/wanted for our whole selves, not just for how we looked.
This concept, although very important, became somewhat problematic when I felt that, to prove we weren’t sexual objectifiers, were we expected to have sex with men we didn’t actually desire? How far was this concept meant to go? What role was desire meant to play in our relationships? We had been taught growing up to repress our same sex desires so when we finally came out, we wanted to take joy in our desire for others openly and happily. It led to passionate discussions in our consciousness-raising groups!
Sexual Images a.k.a. Porn
You have to remember that, compared to what we see today, homoerotic images were virtually non-existent in the 1970s. We had no gay equivalent of Playboy. Most gay men of my generation had to make do with the men’s underwear pages of Eaton’s (a Canadian retailer) mail order catalogue, if you know what I mean.
So you can imagine my delight when I came across this Australian-made Mate magazine full of fully-nude photographs of undressed men. I had to study the photos intensely to fully appreciate this new experience. Mate was an offshoot of the more news-oriented William & John gay magazine. I learned that Mate lasted one issue only – and I still have my copy!
Part of our sexual liberation involved the right to see these images. We didn’t want them censored and you can see from the back cover of Mate, the publishers were fighting that censorship battle too. “Homosexuals have a right to their own magazine.”
Ironically, I, myself, have censored this cover boy front page with a 1972 David McDiarmid Gay Liberation badge because I’m not sure what WordPress’s opinion is of dick shots!
Parties and Bars
Although Sydney Gay Liberation had its serious side with all our “heavy” conscious-raising discussions, demonstrations and arguments about sexual objectification, there certainly was a lot of fun involved too. During my time with this group in 1972, we organized parties that attracted hundreds of people, not only us “Gay Libbers”, but also gay men and lesbians from the bar scene – and straights. As you can see from the poster below, at this party, we had a “real rock band”, of which I have no memory. This poster was designed by David McDiarmid who was just starting his career as a graphic designer and artist who ended up having a fabulously successful life as an artist.
Our parties were meant to be an alternative to the commercial gay scene which was relatively small at the time and mainly run by straight owners. But, to be honest, I enjoyed the bars, especially The Rex Hotel in Kings Cross. Although I’d experienced gay bars previously, I’d never been at one where you could drink your middies, schooners and pints of beer outside in plain view of the passing public. But we did at The Rex.
How did we get away with it? Kings Cross, at that time, was an old area of Sydney close to the Sydney Harbour that I believe had a long history as “entertainment central”, providing visiting sailors looking for relief after months at sea. They perhaps were less concerned about the goings-on of the locals. And we know that wherever there are sailors, the gays aren’t far behind.
I shouldn’t, though, underestimate the bashings that also could take place in this neighbourhood when the more judgemental local hetero louts/boys had too much to drink. Again, as with beats, we straddled the tricky line between visibility and danger.
Although, as you can see, I enjoyed doing my bit for the sexual revolution, I did find myself having two partners while I was in Sydney – Terry and Bruce.
Tall, dark and handsome, Terry was an old school friend of my flatmates Robert and John which is how we met. Terry was never as engaged as I was in the gay liberation movement and avoided the demonstrations and even the parties but his handsome face and gentle manner attracted me. He seemed very attracted to me as well, even moving into our home on Liverpool Street.
I wasn’t monogamous with Terry because, as we knew through our Gay Liberation ideology, monogamy was just for repressed heterosexuals and we were experimenting with new forms of open relationships where jealousy was forbidden as we continued to explore our sexuality outside of the couple.
This suited me, but not Terry, who, I soon learned, wasn’t happy with this scenario. I really don’t blame him. I was exploring my new-found sexuality and wanted to selfishly do as I pleased, blaming him for trying to tie me down to “outmoded, bourgeois forms of relationships”, ignoring his feelings, basing it on this Gay Liberation ideology.
Of course, it didn’t help that we took a three week bus tour of the Australian Outback in the hot mid-summer that he only went along on for my sake because I’d wanted to “discover Australia” and I talked him into it. That trip is a whole other story (think tents) but, suffice to say, we broke up after it was over and out he moved.
A few years after our relationship ended, I learned through Robert and John that Terry was married (to a woman), had several children and was a teacher and later principal in a school, and had never had a gay relationship again. Was he never gay? Was I just a phase? Was I so selfish that I put him off the whole idea of being gay??
My next partner was Bruce whom I met a few months later. I can’t remember where I met him, but probably at a Gay Liberation dance or a bar. Unlike Terry, Bruce was a fully-fledged homosexual, happy to come out on the scene with me and be non-monogamous. We were suited more for each other. He even met some of the young students I was teaching at the time on an outing.
Bruce and I kept in touch over the years. This was no easy feat pre-Facebook. It was all through writing letters and postcards, keeping track of people’s moves with address books full of crossings-out and scribbles in margins. Because we had followed each other’s moves, I was able to meet up with him a few times on his visits to London, up until the early 1980s. After that, we did lose track and I can’t find him now on Facebook!
[2021 UPDATE: Bruce found me on Facebook and we’re reconnected and have plans to see each other in Australia in 2023!]
From Camp to Queer
You know you’re really getting old when the activities you were involved in get written up as “history”. When my husband, David, and I were in Australia for the Sydney Gay Games in 2002, I was browsing the shelves of a gay bookstore and came across two books that wrote about the history of lesbian and gay activism in Australia, including Sydney Gay Liberation.
- “Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia” by Graham Willett (2000) and
- “From Camp to Queer: Remaking the Australian Homosexual” by Robert Reynolds (2002)
Imagine my surprise when I saw that Reynolds in his book quoted bits from articles I’d written in the 1972 Sydney Gay Liberation Newsletter. But imagine my even bigger surprise when I’m quoted as being a “Michael Blachford” instead of “Gregg”! Being the vain person I am, I phoned him while I was in Sydney (he was working at the University of Sydney at the time) and got him on the line. We had a good laugh and he apologized for his mistake. “There were so many names!”, he said.
I mention this because it’s quite a surprise to read my 23 year old self discuss the subject of this particular post, mainly sex, in this 1972 newsletter.
I’ll finish this rather long post by quoting from Reynolds. It’s fascinating to see one’s words critiqued almost 50 years after writing them. It’s a good summary of my thinking at the time. Reynolds wrote:
“Yet, for many Gay Liberationists, part of the attraction of a truthful sex was the promise of pure forms of communication. If it was to sex that one turned to discover the truth of one’s’ self, then it was through sex that one could meaningfully reach others. In a world that was complex and rapidly changing, sex offered the possibility of authentic exchanges. An early Sydney Gay Liberation leaflet described sex as a creative expression and communication between ‘real people’. It was, argued Michael (sic) Blachford in Sydney, ‘the most basic force behind all human communication’. Through sex, Blachford continued, the barriers and defences of modern life could be broken down, revealing a truer self: ‘Our friends and acquaintances often change rapidly and sex can be a fast way to work through a person’s roles to get down to their more honest and open self.’
“By late 1972, Blachford approvingly reported a ‘considerable ‘”unshrouding” of sex and sexual activities over the last few months’. He cited a residential seminar Sydney Gay Liberation had held at Minto where there as ‘a hell-of-a lotta sex going on most of the time, in the river, in the bunks with others around, and in the bush’. The effect of all this ‘screwing around’, Blachford maintained, was the dissipation of anxiety and tenseness, allowing us to get to know each other better.”
Wow. If only… We were naive, but we in Gay Liberation did believe in an utopian future where, in tandem with Women’s and Black Liberation, we would transform ourselves, through sex and Gay Pride, and become liberated from the repressive restraints of a sexist, heterosexist and racist society. Furthermore, the liberation of us homosexuals would result in the liberation of everyone – heterosexuals included: “a vision of a glorious and transcendent future”, said Reynolds.
Fifty years later, we ended up with established civil rights and same-sex marriage, a cornucopia of homoerotic images and corporations vying to be part of our Pride celebrations – things we would have never imagined. But for many queers now, especially those with less privilege, still struggling with shame and despair, not to mention discrimination and prejudice, much more still has to be done before we get anywhere near the visions we had of major transformative change.
That’s it for now. I’ll finish by asking if you ever lived somewhere that gave you experiences that changed the direction of the rest of your life? Comments welcome.