It’s thirty years since the decriminalisation of consensual male sex in New South Wales, and “some of the leading figures responsible for that change have all died in a six month period”, we were told by Murray Maclachlan at the Australian Homosexual History Conference held at Sydney’s University of Technology. He was referring to former politicians, Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran and Ron Mulock, and to the academic and homosexual activist, Lex Watson.
As a young man thirty years ago, first becoming aware of homosexual liberation politics, Lex was a name I knew well. He was the “go to” person for the mainstream media for discussion about homosexual law reform. It’s amazing to think it was only thirty years ago that you could go to gaol in NSW for gay sex. In fact, the laws were so incredibly odd that the penalty for homosexual rape in NSW was seven years, whereas the penalty of consensual homosexual sex was fourteen years (I don’t think I’ve misrepresented the case there).
At the conference a series of speakers spoke about the moves to homosexual law reform in the different states and territories during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In some states and territories, the changes were as the result of the state government leading public opinion, in others, the politicians had to be dragged along by the sentiment of public opinion. In others still, it was a combination of both. And then you have Tasmania, where it was the result of strong action by a small group of activists, who had to take their battle internationally, before the long overdue change could occur back here.
The keynote speaker for the conference was the former politician, and now Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan. She told the conference she had grown up in a fairly conservative Catholic family, and so it wasn’t until she went to university that she learned about homosexuals. “Camp as a row of tents was a phrase that was used at the time”, she told us, reflecting on both the negative and positive use of the phrase. Feminism informed her understanding of sexuality, she added. She spoke early in the piece about the political turmoil of early to mid 1970s, and how there was deep distrust of her in the heavily male-dominated Australian Labor Party. “There was a general view in the ALP in support of homosexual law reform, but there were fears about the political consequences”, she said. Forty years later, she pondered the opinion gap between the public and politicians on the issue of homosexual marriage, with a clear majority of Australians in favour of making the change. “The community won’t go backwards so the politicians will need to go forward”, she said. Now, as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, one of her major concerns are the issues facing older homosexual Australians in faith-based aged care. Though she says the sector says they don’t discriminate, she thinks that needs to be tested, though noting “there haven’t been any complaint yet”. During her speech, she reflected on the massive changes which have occurred in the last forty years, saying with a grin, “We used to say in the women’s movement how come they’ve done better than us?”.