I’ll never forget the first words Colin Anderson ever said to me. Colin was Head of Drama at Charles Sturt University. I was the newly arrived Morning Show presenter at ABC Riverina. I’d only been living in Wagga Wagga for about one week. In fact, I was still living at a local pub. Through circumstance, I found myself at an end of year theatre party at Colin’s house.
“Who are you and what are you doing at my party?” he asked me, to which I replied, “Gavin and Bryce brought me along. They said if I wanted to meet all of the interesting people in Wagga, I should get to know you”. With an impressed laugh, he replied, “Good answer, you can stay”.
This chance meeting resulted in a friendship of many, many years, right up until Colin’s death a few years ago. I told this particular anecdote at his funeral/wake.
At the time Wagga had a population of about 55,000 people, and the town’s economy was dominated by two defence bases – army and airforce – farming, and to a lesser extent, Charles Sturt University. CSU has since gone on to become the city’s largest employer, and has helped “modernise” the city in many, many ways.
Back then, however, there were no gay cafes, no gay bars, and of course no internet. Of course there were gays and lesbians, but most of the socialising occured at homes, and you had to be “invited” to get to know people.
So I headed to the Victory Memorial Gardens, a park in the centre of town. Even now, there’s a lot of stigma about parks/beats. It’s often assumed they were places where people met to have sex (often in public). But back then, they were the places where gay men in country towns would simply meet and chat. (Moreso in summer than in winter!) That’s where I met two local blokes, Gavin and Bryce, and that’s how I ended up at the party.
In retrospect, the formation of the Riverina Gay & Lesbian Support & Social Group at the second half of 1992, came as a result of the visit to the city by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir for the National Choral Championships.
SYDNEY GAY AND LESBIAN CHOIR VISITS WAGGA
Although it sounds like a fairly tame, a fairly ordinary event without much interest, the championship organisers found themselves the subject of national media interest. In the leadup to the event in 1992, the organisers had asked asked the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir to change its name to the “Eastern Suburbs G & L Choir”.
After some discussion, the choir chose not to make the change.
Well, we didn’t quite know what to expect when we got here. In fact, when we got off the train and onto the bus, that was that. But yeah, we had second thoughts and stuff, and so winning in the face of that is even sweeter.Member of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir, 1992, ABC Radio “The World Today” 31/08/1992
As the choir came on stage for the very first time, local car dealer, Tom Hillis got up and turned his back. Someone later told me they heard an audience member scream out “Sit down Tom, you silly old fool”. I don’t know if the story is true, but I’d like to think it was.
We also got the positive reception from the Wagga people, who were the organisers of the Choral Championships. They were very pleased that we were here; they were very pleased that we won. And that was from the Wagga people, who organised the championships.Member of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir, 1992, ABC Radio “The World Today” 31/08/1992
FORMATION OF THE RGLSSG
Though I don’t remember the exact chain of events, it sounds like the social and support group formed fairly soon after the visit by the choir.
One of the members of our small group, Peter Lloyd told us there had actually been another group an earlier time called called “SWAG” or “South West Association of Gays”. Peter often told the wonderful anecdote of how – in less enlightened times – he was once asked by someone at the bank what “SWAG” stood for. “South West Amateur Golfers”, he told the attendant, and then later told us with a laugh.
Our first function of the RGLSSG was held at the home/farm of Chris Jones, probably in August. Chris had previously been a student at Charles Sturt University (Riverina College of Advanced Education), and was now working in the film industry. Chris went on to play an important role for the group, as spokesperson on TV for our first Mardi Gras float, and then in taking some legal action on behalf of the group against the local newspaper.
Combining his interests in farming and film, Chris had recently worked as the “animal department co-ordinator” on the film “Babe”. A key role was ensuring the welfare of the pigs who featured in the film. Though no longer living full-time in Wagga, he maintained a property on the outskirts of town. His house/shed was full of props from the film industry, which made it a terrific backdrop for a party. But, as Chris was mostly spending a lot of his time away from Wagga, and so there was the issue of what to do about the farm. I remember there was a weekend working bee which involved a lot of grass-moving and general tidying up.
We really had no idea how many people would turn up. There were also concerns about “disclosure” as we organised our first “official” event. I remember there was a genuine fear amongst some people that we would be “raided by the police”. I think maybe fifty people turned up in the end, and there was a wonderful feeling of “relief” for many of those attending.
One of the group’s early members, Richard Roberts (formerly of the University of NSW who was setting up the social work course at Charles Sturt University) wrote a really interesting article about the difficulties of forming gay and lesbian community groups. A number of us were interviewed for the article called “Men Who Have Sex With Men In The Bush – Impediments to the formation of gay communities in some rural areas”. The article concludes these were difficult times to form supportive communities, especially at a time when there was widespread stigmatisation of people with HIV-AIDS.
The Rural Outreach Project under the auspices of the AIDS Council of NSW is making an important contribution to facilitating the formation and consolidation of gay networks and organisations in rural NSW.“Men Who Have Sex With Men In The Bush – Impediments to the formation of gay communities in some rural areas” by Richard Roberts, Rural Society Volume 2, Number 3, 1992.
Though the themes are timeless, these observations provide a good summary of some of the things we countered at the time.
During my own initiation to the bush I was confronted by a solicitor (engaged for conveyancing) informing me that a senior manager of my workplace was ‘a practising homosexual’ and that he did not approve of ‘practising homosexuals’.“Factors Influencing the Formation of Gay and Lesbian Communities in Rural Areas”, Richard Roberts, National AIDS Bulletin April 1993, Volume: 7, Issue: 3
The “practising homosexual” he referred to was Cliff Blake, CSU’s Vice Chancellor, and awesome academic.
Tony was born in Sydney in 1963 and moved to Wagga Wagga, a small town in regional NSW with his family six years later. After his parents separated in 1970 Tony moved in the public housing with his mother and his two younger siblings. Tony explains that while there was a strong Aboriginal community in Wagga Wagga but he was surrounded by white families and they never talked about being Aboriginal. Tony resented his hometown and endured racism and homophobia from other students “who made my life hell” during high school and concluded “out of Sydney it’s just a nightmare if you’re gay”Group member, Tony Creighton in “HIV Survivors in Sydney: Memories of the Epidemic” by Cheryl Ware.
Incidentally, Tony who died in 2015, was also interviewed for a collection in the National Library https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/6387184 (Recorded on 20 October 2013 in Darlinghurst, New South Wales.) Access closed until 2034. The book by Cheryl Ware also indicates Tony created a documentary, “Black & Out” which documented many of the experiences of Aboriginal men who are gay, which you can watch on SBS on Demand.
I am a 29 year old who wants to come out but doesn’t know how to go about it. My employment while officially recognising gays frowns strongly and prejudices harshly.RGLSSG correspondence 1995
One night I was walking across the bridge over Wollundry Lagoon. Two drunk guys were on the other side of the road, and one yelled out look, there’s a faggot let’s go bash him up. They didn’t, but the fear was always there.Allan, Wagga born, quoted in an exhibition about queer history at the Riverina Museum in 2017
EARLY DAYS OF THE RGLSSG
Over the next few years, we held many, many events. Some of them formal; others informal. We also teamed up with people from near neighbouring communities, such as Griffith and Albury.
For a while there was also a separate “women’s group”, “Women Out & About In Wagga”. After a while, we all soon realised we could be stronger (and have more fun) by working together, as the groups were officially merged in 1994.
In July 1993, the renowned poet, Dorothy Porter began a six-weeks residency at the Wagga Writers Centre at Charles Sturt University. As a fairly well known lesbian at the time, there was a lot of interest around her residency, and she was involved in a number of events.
Sandy is attempting to organise a function so Dorothy is able to meet members of the region’s lesbian community. It will probably be in the form of a pot luck dinner.RGLSSG Newsletter July 1993
In the Western Riverina people have been getting into the spirit of things by celebrating Christmas in June. A number of people made the long distance treck from Griffith to Ardlethan to attend a dinner early in June. In the Eastern Riverina, the mystery car rally found its way to another equally wintery spot, Adelong in the mountains. It was a wonderful afternoon culminating at lunch at The Old Pharmacy.RGLSSG Newsletter July 1993
In the early 1990s, AIDS was still a very big issue for our community.
Two members of the group have participated in the Aids Council’s Rural Outreach Training Project for Gay Men. Issues covered over the two day workshop, Covered, for example safer sex, listening skills, gay identity, beats and discrim ination. An informal gathering and much socialising over the weekend contributed to a sense of cameradare and helped to break down barriers. A highlight of Day 1 was an explanation of the mechanics of HIV, explained in a manner that was both detailed, yet understandable. The trainer also explained how drugs like AZT and ddI help combat the virus. A highlight of Day 2 was a frank discussion of beats in the country, their social and sexual roles. (It wasn’t long, however, before the trainer soon realised he was dealing with experts in the field !!) Another highlight of Day 2 was the opportunity to hear and share the experiences of three men living in the country who arte HIV+. Only two days together, but a true sense of belonginess developed from share experience.Glen Andersson in the RGLSSG Newsletter, December 1992
At the end of 1992, the AIDS Quilt came to Wagga and was hosted at the local office of ABC Radio.
PAULA DENHAM, has recently commenced work as the region’s Sexual Health Nurse. Paula, a registered nurse with six years experience, has been working in Sydney in HIV with gay men and intravenous drug users. She has also worked as a carer for people with HIV and has a personal interest in HIV/AIDS issues. “I have a couple of close friends with AIDS.” she says. She believes “informed choice” is the most important part of her job, giving people information, so they can make choices for themselves.RGLSSG Newsletter, May 1993
Though I don’t exactly recall when, the local Health Department established a community-based “AIDS Task Force”. A copy of an early newsletter records there was forum chaired by Deputy Mayor, John Harding held on May 18, 1993. The newsletter says “50 people in the South West Health Region were either symptomatic or had died from AIDS in the previous three years.”
A seminar on HIV/AIDS, held recently in Wagga, attracted more than 170 people. Keynote Speaker was Bill Bowtell, (National President of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisatons)RGLSSG Newsletter, June 1993
One of the members of the group, Andrew Bishop from Cootamundra, had been living with HIV/AIDS for a number of years. After several years living in Sydney, he returned to his hometown. In the article he wrote in the magazine “Talkabout”, he described how some of his friends in Sydney had pretty much given up on him, knowing (at that stage) there was no cure for AIDS. In the article, he spoke about a number of things about country life, including the friendship and support he received through the group.
This has opened me to the endless social events on the Riverina Gay & Lesbian Social & Supports Group calendar (these events being public and private). I quickly formed a group of friends. They are a good lot of fellas and girls, as we say in the outback.Bishop, A. (1994), ‘A Wagga Boy’s Own Story’, Talk About, July, 30 – 31 (full article here)
Around this time, the AIDS Council of NSW, had begun to run a rural outreach program, run by a wonderful man called Nigel Carrington. Thanks to the project, we also regularly received copies of Capital Q, the Sydney Star Observer and Lesbians On The Lose to distribute locally. Nigel reminded me recently through email, we had an awesome Sexual Health Nurse, called Paula Denham.
It was so nice to be reminded of those days and the amazing work you and the others did as well to support the development of the group down in Wagga Wagga. I think it is so great you are writing this piece and ensuring all the time, effort and good work associated with the group is recorded for history. It is important to validate gay history and especially so in rural and regional areas.Nigel Carrington, former Rural Outreach Officer, ACON in an email, February 2021.
There are lots of letters in the RGLSSG Archives held at Charles Sturt University which talk of the impact our group was having on people’s lives. In particular, on the lives of people who lived in more remote communities who would often drive two or three hours to visit. Understandably, those letters aren’t on public display, as they are private.
GAY AND LESBIAN POLICE LIAISON OFFICER FOR WAGGA WAGGA
Wagga is the latest in a growing number of towns to have its own gay and lesbian police liaison officer. The appointment of Kevin Nisbett (his name is not for general public consumption, but for the gay and lesbian community alone… we’re not sure at this stage why, though) was made last week by Chief Inspector, Kevin Wales. A consultant to the NSW Police Force on Gay and Lesbian issues, Sue Thompson, says the appointment recognises the growing and more visible community now found in Wagga. She says it is not in response to any specific concern raised by either the community or the police force. There are many officers now throughout NSW (including a female detective in Albury). Only once, says Sue Thompson, has an appointment “failed”. Although not knowing the officer personally she says, in general terms, the job goes to “a high ranking community-minded officer”.
The appointment of the officer was announced on Prime TV by Kevin Wales in terms of “a need to clean up Collins Park”. Sue Thompson has confided that she is disappointed with such comments and would be willing to raise the issue if comments like these continue. Within two days of the appointment, a “raid” was conducted on Collins Park. There was, apparently, only two people in the park (typical!!!) and they fled quickly.RGLSSG Newsletter, May 1993
Sgt Nisbett reports the “in house discussions” were often heated, especially amongst the younger police officers. “The older police Officers have been around, they are more understanding”, he said. There was, from sections, a lot of resistance to the appointment of a gay and lesbian liaison officer.Kevin Nisbett was the first Gay & Lesbian Liaison Officer appointed to Wagga Police. RGLSSG Newsletter, June 1993
THE GAY AND LESBIAN CHOIR RETURNS
In August 1993, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir came back to Wagga Wagga. Sadly, this time around they didn’t win, they came third. But there was still a lot of joy in seeing them compete. The choir invited members of the Riverina Gay and Lesbian Support & Social Group back to a restaurant on Forsyth Street to join with them in a joyous celebration of food and song.
SYDNEY GAY AND LESBIAN MARDI GRAS 1994
THE DAILY ADVERTISER
Under the previous editor, Graham Gorrell, the “Daily Advertiser” had a track record for anti-homosexual articles. But when Michael McCormack (in 2021, the Deputy Prime Minister) took over, the editorials and articles increased both in sheer volume and in the severity of their tone.
These articles came to national attention thanks to the ABC-TV program, “Media Watch”. The program reported that on May 1, 1993, Michael McCormack had published a column ‘from the editor’s desk’ demonising homosexuality.
A week never goes by anymore that homosexuals and their sordid behaviour don’t become further entrenched in society.Daily Advertiser, Wagga Wagga, May 1, 1993
The Federal Minister for Health, Senator Graham Richardson, along with AIDS organisations and gay groups, attacked the Editor of a Wagga Wagga newspaper this week over an editorial accusing gay men of being responsible for AIDS.,Richardson described the Daily Advertiser 1 May Editorial as being demonstrative of ignorance “beneath contempt”.Capital Q Weekly Friday, May 7, 1993 p. 3
The Australian Press Council has dismised complaints by Dr Richard Roberts (of Charles Sturt University/University of NSW) against “The Daily Advertiser” involving Michael McCormack’s famed “Sordid Homosexuality – it’s becoming more entrenched” editorial. In dismissing the complaint, the Press Council ruled the article was clearly labelled “comment” and said that many of the alleged inaccuracies in the columns are the gist of considerable public debate and the newspaper would have been at fault had it stifled opposing views. The Press Council said the Daily Advertiser deserves commendation for the enormous amount of space it devoted to readers’ views on the issue – some 50 letters published in the following three weeks, most of them vigorously critical of the columns. Dr Roberts, who was recently in Wagga Wagga, commented that he did not even attend the hearing into the case; it was scheduled at a time when the Press Council knew that he was overseas.RGLSSG Newsletter, November 1993.
The campaign by the local newspaper against the gay and lesbian communities of Wagga Wagga was relentless.
In 1995, RGLSSG member, Chris Jones took action against the newspaper in the NSW Antidiscrimination Board and won, with an undisclosed settlement. I have tried to obtain details of the settlement, without luck, as all correspondence to the board is confidential to the parties involved.
THE SECRET BALL
One day in May 1994, I remember seeing the front page of “The Daily Advertiser” and thinking “Oh my God”. The phones ran hot amongst group members, as we absorbed the front page story about local sex worker, “Dallas”. Though we obviously knew there were sex workers in town – “The Daily Advertiser” seemed happy to take their advertising – none of the core group admitted to knowing who “Dallas” was. To the best of our knowledge he had never attended any of the groups social functions, and wasn’t on the mailing list. My friend, Glen has later reminded me “Dallas” lived in the same apartment block as him, and had been verbally abusive towards us on at least one occasion. In the article, “Dallas” spoke about the “secret ball” that people were reluctant to attend, because of homophobia in the community.
The article about a “secret ball” sparked the outrage of Wagga Wagga City Councillor, Jim Eldridge. On May 30, 1994, he addressed the City Council. He said all of the homophobic things you might expect him to say, and of course it was front page of the newspaper. Over the next few weeks, there were several articles in “The Daily Advertiser”, and lots of letters, all of which were presumably an attempt to bully us into cancelling the event. One article suggested Jim Eldridge had received “death threats”.
The “Black and White” dance party was ’ blessed with many of those touches of country hospitality that are, sadly, missing from your run of the mill Sleaze Balls and Mardi Gras dance parties., I sneakily suspect that the “Black and White” ball was the kind of show that even the most cynical of PanDA readers from country stock would havé wanted their Yr 12 formal or sisters’ 21st to be really like.,In the face of formidable and less than supportive rhetoric from local politicians and the editor of the Wagga Daily Advertiser – the organisation is a real credit to. the spirit of the local community. All power to them.Paul Lehman in PANDA (Canberra) Vol 3, Iss 5
A forum was held a week later (July 11, 1994) at the Riverina Playhouse. Though the title seems a little old fashioned now – “Sexual Orientation: Does It Inhibit A Positive Contribution To The Community” – it was perfect for the time. The guest speaker was Stevie Clayton from the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.
A few weeks later on July 23, there was another “forum” held, involving people from the AIDS Council and the Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby.
A meeting held at Red Hill Road on the 23rd of July was a huge success with over 30 people in attendance. The following people were in attendance from Sydney. Stevie Clayton, David McLachlin- Sydney Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby Susan Harben President of Mardi Gras. Many issues where raised by members in attendance.RGLSSG Newsletter, August 1994
“I wanted to attend the forum to learn more about the community and to make myself known to gays and lesbians in the area. Because I was on annual leave, I decided not to go in uniform, – that was probably my biggest mistake”, says Constable Genevieve Graham. When the media gathered in the main street later that afternoon, one announcer happened to mention the words gay and lesbian as the TV camera panned across Graham’s face. Although the announcer went on to say “liaison officer”, apparently hundreds of Wagga residents had already gone into shock. Shock – that such a high profile person, a police officer and a former “Miss Wagga” might actually be a lesbian. For the next few months the young police woman had to endure speculation that she was “one of them”.“Pink Politics & Blue Uniforms” by Jo Clark, Lesbians on the Loose Volume: 6 , Issue: 3 (March 1995)
Susan Harben, then president of Mardi Gras, Stevie Clayton and David McLachlan from the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby came to Wagga at their own expense to help the gay community to work out strategies for acceptance within the local community as a whole and make us more aware of our,rights. We thought that everybody in Sydney was too comfortable within their own ghetto, and didn’t really care about anyone or anything living beyond the Great Dividing Range, or even know that gays and lesbians existed in the country.Allan Briggs, Letter in Capital Q, Friday, Feb. 10, 1995
Many years later, at ANZAC Day in Turkey of all places, I ran into Stevie Clayton and spent some time with her over a couple of days. As I recall, her partner was a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, and I was there for the ABC. She smiled with surprise when I mentioned our meeting in Wagga Wagga all those years earlier. I hope I was able to convey the appreciation we all felt for the support she and others had provided to us.
Whilst i have always remembered with fondness my visit to Wagga in 1994 with Stevie and Susan your article jogged my memory about some of the detail. Up until then we hadn’t been out of the inner city very often on behalf of GLRL but that visit prompted a number of other outreach visits to suburban and regional areasDavid Maclachlan, who was Co-convenor GLRL commenting in “Lost Gay Sydney”, Facebook 2021.
I think, like David, I have fond but not detailed memories of visiting Wagga Wagga. I guess 26 years does make the memories fade a bit, but your blog post helped me to remember a bit.Stevie Clayton, former Co-convenor, GRL in an email 2021.
Thursday, the 27th of November will go down in local history as the evening that the local commjnity celebrated in style, with a very public display of taffeta, sequins, lyrca, stilettos and fishnets as the RGLSSG premiered, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of The Desert” to a packed house in the Plaza Twin Cinema, with part proceeds going to special olympics (being held in Perth).RGLSSG Newsletter, November 1994
LOTS OF ACHIEVEMENTS
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
I left Wagga at the beginning of 1995, and and so my involvement in the group abated. I took part in the 1995 float, and I probably travelled back a few times for other events in the next couple of years. In 2002, I travelled back for the funeral of Chris Jones. And since then I’ve travelled back on a number of occasions. But I really can’t remember much of what happened with the group after the end of about 1995. The next part of the story will need to be written by someone who was there.
As I went through the archives at Charles Sturt University recently, with files donated by Wayne Ditchfield, I was amazed to see what else the group went on to achieve. For example, they had a phone support line, received financial support towards their activities, and a much more flash newsletter than the one I published on a cheap dot matrix printer.
WAGGA WAGGA NOW
It’s wonderful to see there’s still a local group called “Rainbow Riverina”, and they’re still doing awesome things, like holding their own “Mardi Gras”.
CORRECTIONS / UPDATES / CONTRIBUTIONS
This article is my own personal story, as I’m remembering it almost thirty years later. In hindsight, there’s not enough in the story about the involvement of women (even though there were lots of lesbians involved in the group) and nothing about the trans community. That’s both a reflection of the times, and of my own experiences as a gay man not being able to fully reflect on that story. If you can contribute, please do, to make this a more fully rounded story.
If you’re reading this, and think I have gotten something wrong, or have missed something, please drop me a note, and I’ll make the correction. Also, if you have some photographs/stories to contribute, I’d really love to see them too. You can write to me at james @ jamesobrien.id.au, or leave a comment below.
This will be an article that is updated as new information comes to had.
Many thanks right now to
Glen Andersson and Allan Briggs for their contributions, both photographic and in memories.
Wayne Ditchfield for donating the collection to Charles Sturt University, and many thanks to the CSU Archives for allowing me to take a look through the collection.
Nick Henderson for pointing me in the direction of Australian Queer Archives, https://www.facebook.com/AQuArchives/