Sydney’s gay men and lesbians were living in an oppressive culture. Clerics and cops, politicians and parents, shrinks and social-workers, employers and estate agents, hoons and kids could all attack them – in blatant and subtle ways.
We have to recognize that criminal interests were paying our politicians and cops to ignore, and sometimes encourage, their casinos, brothels and gay spaces. Macquarie Street was happy to have them in the inner Eastern Suburbs, where the legendary Bumper Farrell ran the Darlinghurst Vice Squad. He and his larrikin mates believed that prostitution, gambling and after-hours drinking were part of the ‘Australian way of life’. They used to raid the brothels, SP bookies and gambling clubs, fine them and let them get back to work. Farrell used to torment the drag queens. Nikki Rich, a Les Girls dancer, said he shoved and browbeat ‘the girls’ because he hated gay men (Writer 2011 p 286). He also directed his ‘peanutters’ to entrap men and they ‘made over 4,000 busts in the public toilets and parks… but were disbanded when [they] arrested too many politicians and judges’ (ibid p 302).
Although Farrell retired in ’76, he had cultivated a poofter-bashing culture. Duncan McNab claims that drunken detectives went to Bondi Beach to terrorise the beat queens. He was working in the 21st Division in 1978, when they were still catching bookmakers, raiding casinos, arresting drunks and peanutting poofs (McNab 2017 p3-4). Gay Sydney was onto this:
One policeman from the 21st Division said proudly at a recent court that he had made 750 arrests of men in public toilets for ‘offensive behaviour’. Each conviction involved a minimum fine of $30. He told the magistrate… he was watching for people who were ‘up to no good’. This policeman had become so obsessed that he spent all his time peeping under cubicle doors. (The Australian 24 June 1978).
A gay newsletter reported that a copper had bashed a ‘homosexual activist’ in a gay bar and that some cops had arrested some drag queens because they had ‘a social disease’. Meanwhile too, detectives were intimidating women at Ruby Reds, forcing them to squeeze against them on their way to and from the toilets.
The activists knew that the gay bars paid for protection and Dennis ‘Flo’ Fuller, who ran Capriccios, eventually explained that the Darlo cops were ‘on the books’ (rather than collecting paper bags).
They used the Summary Offences Act (1970) to arrest the beat queens. But they could also use it if anyone assembled to commit a ‘violent act’ or ‘breach the peace’. It meant that activists [of any persuasion] had to apply to the Police Commissioner to hold their demonstrations.
In this climate, John Ware and Christobel Poll set up Sydney’s first gay and lesbian political group. Their Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) wanted to educate the public, stress the homosexual’s ordinariness, develop his confidence, alleviate his guilt, provide support and engage with the ‘helping professions’. CAMP held social events, ran phone-a-friend and published a newsletter.
But some militant members were soon demonstrating against a Fundamentalist’s attempt to gain Liberal Party preselection and supporting a campaign to shame the (closeted) Prime Minister in the 1972 election. They had already organised Sydney’s first gay and lesbian street demonstration (March 1972), a Sex Lib Week march (July 1972) and a rally against the Anglican Church (November 1972). Some brave souls even came out on television’s Chequerboard (1972), Monday Conference (1977) and This Day Tonight (1977).
The CAMP Political Action Group also tabled submissions to a Royal Commission of Enquiry into Human Relationships (September 1975) and organised a tribunal on Homosexuals & Discrimination (November 1976). Some militant groups withered away but The Sydney Gay Liberation argued that the homosexual’s self-loathing encouraged anonymous sex, objectification and rip-off bars. Its members donned drag and zapped the Festival of Light (1973). But when 200 of them placed a mock wreath on the Cenotaph and refused to leave the steps of the GPO the police arrested 15 people and The Sun Herald ‘rewarded’ them with three paragraphs of visibility (16 September 1973).
After this, they set up smaller, specific religious and professional groups. When the Homosexual Caucus of University Students organised annual National Homosexual Conferences and Sydney was planning another one for August ‘78. Other activists worked in the trade unions, or in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), International Socialists (IS), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or the Spartacist League (Trotskyists).
By 1978, they were sharing houses; decrying organised religion and psychiatry; critiquing capitalism, patriarchy and the nuclear family; bonding at demonstrations; attending conferences and consciousness-raising groups and dancing to live women’s music. They saw the camp world as a relic of homosexual oppression, and dismissed the commercial scene as capitalist exploitation. But they were only one of gay and lesbian scenes. CAMP’s counselling service was still helping people acknowledge their same-sex desires and hosting dances. And the Pollynesians, the Boomerangs, the Regents, Clover, The South Pacific Motor Club (SPMG) and other social groups were offering emotional support and fun times.
Several religious groups were offering solace for the spiritually inclined. But even so, a lot of gay men were just doing the pubs, the bars, the saunas, the backrooms and the beats. They were disco dancing and butching-up. Others kept away from any scene.
The new gay man was visible and beautiful. He had lost that wounded look that ‘fags all had ten years ago’ (Ginsberg). He was challenging religion and psychiatry. He was uncoupling his same-sex desires from effeminacy.
The new lesbian was visible and beautiful. She had her own concerns. The International Women’s Year (1975) celebrations had encouraged many women to feminism and a lot of lesbians were fervent new converts. They were separatists, radical feminists, Marxist feminists and butch-femme (bar) dykes. Although many women were more gender focused than lesbian identified, the lesbian activists were contesting the silence that surrounded women’s same-sex desire and lesbians’ isolation. They were building friendship networks (rather than a commercial bar scene) and arguing that ‘feminism was the theory, lesbianism the practice’. They thought that when a woman came out, her lesbianism would constitute her central identity. Some of them had worked with men, but many women were hostile to bi-sexuality, drag and butch-femme relationships. Challenging male violence and oppressive gender roles, they were supporting women’s health centres, rape crisis services, women’s refuges and childcare cooperatives. Some had withdrawn to Amazon Acres and women-only households, arguing that gay men were their arch-oppressors.
When Gore Vidal trawled along Oxford Street in 1973, he quipped that they could have been in New York twenty years earlier. Five years later, The Australian had discovered the pink dollar. But there were still only three gay watering holes between Taylor Square and Hyde Park although Ruby Reds, Sydney’s only lesbian bar, was just around the corner. There were some gay-friendly restaurants and coffee shops as well as back-rooms and a sauna, but there were no gay pubs. The Cricketer’s Arms was in Surry Hill, The Unicorn was in Paddington and the Bottom’s Up Bar was in Kings Cross. In fact Kings Cross was still the centre of Sydney’s night life and had some camp-gay spaces including The Barrel Inn; the Bunk House, Castellos, the Chevron Hotel, the Rex Hotel, Ida’s Disco and Les Girls.
The big money didn’t roll into Oxford Street until 1979. However, CAMP felt that a lot of men were already drifting away from its outreach services and heading for the bars and discos.
Authors: Gavin Harris and John Witte.