Gay History: Australia’s Secret History Of Sexual Fluidity

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, fluid: The spectrum of sexuality and the labels we use to describe it might seem very new, but if we look back, we can see that Australia’s past is chock-full of queerness, Graham Willett writes.

PHOTO: Sexual fluidity may feel like a new thing but Australia’s history suggests otherwise.

There was a time when we had fewer choices. Respectable people called us “homosexuals”. Vulgar people called us “poofters” and “lezzos”. Generally, we called ourselves “camps” — or sometimes it was spelled “kamps”, which was supposed to refer to a police abbreviation for “known as a male prostitute”. 

These days we have a profusion of labels for “people” — gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, intersex, queer… It’s usually abbreviated to LGBTI, though I recently saw LGBTIQ+. 

I assumed the + was for HIV-positive people, but I am told that it means “everyone else”, or at least those who are not unambiguously heterosexual and cisgendered. The asterisk on “trans” itself gestures towards a plethora of identities, behaviours, attractions.

It all seems very new — and it is. But not perhaps in the way that people think. What’s new, really, is that people are inventing and celebrating these labels in very public ways, and insisting that society take them seriously. It is the visibility of sexual diversity that is new, and the politics.

Because, when we bother to look, we discover that Australia’s past is chock-full of queerness. 

Same-sex marriage in colonial days

There is, for example, a secret history of same-sex marriage (or “marriage-like relationships” if you prefer) in Australia that goes back to colonial days. One observer reported in 1846 that on Norfolk Island there were as many as 150 cohabiting male couples, happily describing themselves as married and referred to themselves as “man and wife”.

In Sydney, younger convicts had (or perhaps took) names such as Kitty, Nancy and Bet, and lived under the protection of older, more experienced men exactly in line with heterosexual norms of the time.

In the female prison-workhouses in Tasmania, women convicts flirted, and fought for the affections of the prettier girls, who “titivated” themselves to appeal to those they fancied. 

Women sent out as servants were known to behave badly, so as to be sent back to the workhouse where their partner was still incarcerated.

So, too, with cross-dressing. When Edward De Lacy Evans was transferred from Bendigo Hospital to Kew Asylum in 1879 it was discovered that he was a woman.

Edward De Lacy Evans was in 1879 discovered to be a woman, but he had lived, dressed, worked and loved for many years as a man.(State Library Victoria: James Waltham Curtis)

He had lived and dressed and worked and loved for many years as a man. He had married three times — and his third wife had given birth to their daughter in 1877. 

Then there was Bill Edwards, of Melbourne, who, in 1905, was discovered to have been born a woman and became known in the sensational media coverage thereafter as Marion-Bill Edwards. 

Far from shame, though, s/he embraced infamy and turned it into something very much like celebrity, penning an entirely unreliable memoir entitled The Life and Adventures of Marion-Bill Edwards, the most celebrated man-woman of modern times: exciting incidents, strange sensations.

Ellen Maguire, of Fitzroy, was a notorious prostitute, which was bad enough. When it became known Maguire was a man, John Wilson, whom many young men had paid for sex, he was condemned to death by the courts.

More on gender and sexuality

(The sentence was commuted, but he died in prison not long after, broken by his sentence of hard labour, in chains).

Ellen/John is an interesting moment in our history. But so, too, are the young men. Could they really not have known Maguire’s true sex? 

The sexual encounters took place in the dark, with both partners fully dressed, and sexual knowledge less widespread than it is today. It is possible they didn’t know; of course, the penalty for sodomy was death, so they had a pretty good reason for lying about it.

By the 1920s and thirties, Melbourne and Sydney had healthy kamp scenes, where men who loved men and women who loved women could mingle.

Cafes and pubs that catered to bohemians and theatricals and political agitators — and people “like that” were scattered around town. Parks and streets provided opportunities for smouldering glances, an exchange of pleasantries, coded conversations … leading to a quickie, or the start of something wonderful. 

Always quick to adopt new technologies and turn them to their own nefarious ends, kamp men and women used telephones and the post to keep in touch, and found cars and trains to be convenient alternatives to bedrooms and alleyways.

Kamp scenes of the 1920s: the start of something wonderful

In the 1920s, flats became popular as a way of living away from family — perhaps sharing with a ‘friend’ to split the cost. First-wave feminist activism sparked many a romance between middle-class women

Monte Punshon, c. 1920s (Published in City Rhythm magazine, 1985)

Pretty much everything we know, however, we know because something went wrong. Court records and the tattle-tale tabloid press were ruining lives by outing and shaming people, to be sure — but they were recording our history for us, too.

Which means that what we know must be nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.

All those women who passed as men and who did not get caught, all those men who fell in love and lived happily ever after and whose family and friends and workmates did not notice, or pretended not to — these don’t turn up very often in our histories, although historians are still discovering them.

Monte Punshon was born 1882 in Melbourne and was a lover of women. Her great love was Debbie, but this was not her only love affair by any means. She mingled in a very camp world and when Debbie broke up with her, Punshon was consoled by a group of friends she called her “homosexual boyfriends”.

Monte Punshon, c. 1930s (Published in City Rhythm magazine, 1985)

We know about Monte’s life because, unlike many of her generation, she chose to talk about it — beginning at the age of 102! She never used the word lesbian, but she knew herself and created a life that allowed her to be that person.

All of these people — and many, many more than we will ever know — are part of our history. And by “our” I do not mean queer people only — these lives are part of the history of our cities, regions, states, nation. 

We understand ourselves better if we know about them; they remind us that human beings have a remarkable capacity for self-invention: as individuals, and through the creation of scenes, subcultures, communities and movements. That self-invention generates more social diversity that we might realise — and always has.

How we respond to it is the challenge we always face.


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