Gay History: Historian Charts Lismore Region’s Hidden Past and Evolution to LGBTIQ Acceptance

Article originally posted by ABC News North Coast on 29 June 2017, by Samantha Turnbull.

The Tropical Fruits New Year’s Eve festival begins with a parade through the streets of Lismore. Supplied: Brad Mustow

Australia’s first gay commune, homophobic newspaper editorials, and one city’s role in the anti-discrimination debate are all part of the hidden history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community of northern New South Wales.

Historian Ian Gray has been researching the region’s LGBTIQ community for more than 10 years, and now part of his work has been curated into an exhibition called Lismore Has A Diverse Past: Celebrating 40 Years of Hidden Her/History.

Mr Gray said while Lismore and northern New South Wales had become regional Australia’s self-proclaimed “gay capital”, it had been difficult to uncover stories more than 40 years old because of past taboos relating to sexuality.

“We were much more hidden, much more in the closet, and it was much more dangerous to come out in the 1970s and particularly before law reform,” he said.

“We were only beginning to really find ourselves in the 1970s and 1980s and beginning to talk to each other, let alone putting our stories out to the wider world.”

Mr Gray said the region’s journey into LGBTIQ acceptance began with the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival, which was co-organised by gay man Johnny Allen.

Historian Ian Gray has been charting the LGBTIQ history of northern New South Wales. Supplied: Tropical Fruits

Queer in the country

In an article by Mr Gray called Queer in the Country, included in the exhibition, he wrote that many LGBTIQ people decided to move to rural areas as part of the counter cultural movement.

For those LGBTIQ folk already living in the Northern Rivers in the 70s, being out in towns and especially in the bush was a very risky business.

There were no organised groups or venues, so spending time with other ‘gays and lesbians’ and being yourself could only occur at occasional house parties and picnics organised within friendship groups.

The exhibition also includes research about the establishment of LGBTIQ-friendly farms throughout the region, including Australia’s first gay commune Mandala at Uki near Murwillumbah.

Mr Gray said Mandala was set up by Melbourne film director David Johnstone in 1973.

The Mandala community was Australia’s first gay commune. Supplied: Lismore Has A Diverse Past

“He envisaged it as a harmonious, vegetarian, ecologically sound rural resource centre for gay men and their friends,” Mr Gray said.

“At its peak it had over 540 names on its mailing list and quite a profile in the national, Brisbane and Sydney gay press, which encouraged capital city ‘gays’ to visit.”

Mr Gray also researched and wrote about a community at Tuntable, near Nimbin, which was a popular home for transgender women in the 1970s and 80s:

They were escaping from working in Kings Cross and the legendary Les Girls all male revue.

They were a cohesive tribe and set up their own hamlet Trazadia.

Clashes with local newspaper editor

Mr Gray said the former editor of the local daily newspaper, The Northern Star, wrote a series of homophobic editorials in the 1980s that were documented in the exhibition.

The Northern Star newspaper has gone from running anti-homosexual editorials to articles embracing the LGBTIQ community in northern New South Wales. ABC North Coast: Samantha Turnbull

“We had a battle with The Northern Star newspaper and editor Jim Brigginshaw, who had a bee in his bonnet about homosexuality,” he said.

“He ran editorial after editorial really slamming the community in the mid-80s, and then AIDS came along and really got him going.”

The LGBTIQ community responded with letters, but most were not published. One letter that did make it to print was met with the following editor’s note:

If ever homosexuality was accepted as being normal and right, the future of the human race is in jeopardy … perhaps the conservationist should be more concerned whether the human species is to become extinct than they are about the future of trees or other aspects of the environment.

However, Mr Gray said The Northern Star had since evolved into a broad-minded publication and employed several LGBTIQ journalists.

“There was a change that happened and the newspaper really embraced our community,” Mr Gray said.

“In 2005 one of the editors put a pink triangle, which is the universal LGBTIQ symbol, on the front page of the newspaper, which was a big moment.”

Lismore’s role in anti-discrimination

Mr Gray said much of the local media furore in the 1980s generated increased public interest in the broader issue of discrimination, and in 1984 the Anti-Discrimination Board visited Lismore for three days where it hosted several community meetings.

At a post meeting press-conference spokesman Greg Tillet was quoted as saying:

“Lismore is the most cosmopolitan country town in NSW, and an attempt to whip up hostility towards gays generally has clearly been unsuccessful. In general, the people of Lismore appear tolerant and easygoing.”

The board then released a report into discrimination against homosexuals, and homosexuality was decriminalised in NSW the same year.

The Tropical Fruits Festival is Lismore’s signature LGBTIQ event. ABC North Coast: Samantha Turnbull

Looking to the future

Mr Gray said Lismore now hosted the largest LGBTIQ event in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Sydney’s Mardi Gras — the Tropical Fruits New Year’s Eve Festival — and was marketed to tourists as the Rainbow Region.

However, he said the region was not completely free from discrimination.

“There’s still the same issues where it’s still not safe for instance to be out at night and be an overtly open gay or lesbian couple without abuse and that sort of thing,” he said.

“And most LGBTIQ-identifying young people say their biggest issue is bullying at school.”

Mr Gray said recording the community’s history was an important part of the process to fostering acceptance.

“It’s part of building up our own pride in who we are and what we do,” he said.

“It’s a little bit like Indigenous history — it’s often hidden or changed, and our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex history has been even more hidden I think because we’re not obvious in the community.

“When we’re hearing our stories we realise we’re not alone, and when younger people hear the struggles we went through it helps them make sense of the world.”

The exhibition is on at Southern Cross University, Lismore, until Friday.



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