Fresh from finishing high school in Goulburn in 1972, an eighteen-year-old Jeremy Fisher arrived in Sydney, tracked down the newly formed Gay Liberation movement, and soon found himself on the city’s streets attempting to electrify its residents. ‘Zapping’ was a mode of activism practised by gay students of the early 70s that involved performing acts of homosexual love, such as holding hands and kissing on buses, in order to ‘zap’ the public into accepting the valid existence of gay people and dragging homosexuality into the light.
Zappers would return home afterwards with bruises, spit in their hair, and gay slurs ringing in their ears. But they were determined to free themselves from the moral persecution purveyed by the society and law of the time – homosexuality wouldn’t be decriminalised for almost another decade. At that point in his life, Jeremy believed that to be gay was to be an activist, and to a degree this was true when acting on his sexuality could have him hurled into prison.
He was living at Robert Menzies College (RMC), an under-construction accommodation block administered by the Anglican Church for students of Macquarie University, where Jeremy was studying linguistics. One night he left his room to go to Capriccio’s, a long-gone gay joint off Oxford Street. There he met an older man, who took Jeremy down to a grassy area near the Boy Charlton pool underneath a statue of Henry Lawson.
The man raped him. Jeremy caught the bus home with blood on his jeans. A week later in his dorm room, he swallowed a packed of antihistamines and cut both of his arms.
Waking up twenty-four hours later in Macquarie Hospital, Jeremy was grilled by a psychiatric registrar, who told him that Gay Liberation badges had been found in his room. Jeremy admitted he was involved in the group. The master, Alan Cole, refused to allow Jeremy back into the college until he sought help to repress his homosexual urges, and also refused to return Jeremy’s bond because of the ‘mess’ that had been left in the room.
‘Death is nothing but white light,’ Jeremy later wrote in Overland of the suicide attempt, which for a moment was successful, as he was pronounced clinically dead in hospital before he was resuscitated. ‘I remain convinced that I have been to the other side and there is nothing fucking there.’
There are four churches on the way from the light rail station to Dr Jeremy Fisher’s home in Haberfield, and a broad-shouldered school building topped with a stout crucifix. I duck under a short arch of wisteria to get into the front yard. Jeremy meets me at the front door, at first a blurred shape beyond the frosted glass and security bars, and then a tallish, stooped man wearing thick black sandals with a Velcro strap, like my grandma wears. He tells me later that he has a neuromuscular condition that limits his movement – I assume the shoes assist him walking – which is why he delivers most of his lectures to writing students at the University of New England offsite.
‘Sorry to muck you around with the date,’ he chuckles in a kind, soft voice, leading me to room overlooking a long garden fringed with frangipani trees.
‘They’re making this movie, it’s actually for the fortieth anniversary of Mardi Gras, and it’s partly about my days at Macquarie,’ Jeremy explains. ‘They asked if I could be at the set tomorrow night at Fox Studios, and I’m afraid I bumped you down so I could make it!’
The movie is called Riot. It follows the Gay Rights movement in the 70s, including Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1978, which Jeremy attended. The glitzy extravaganza that parades down Oxford Street each year began with an impromptu celebration organised by the Gay Solidarity Group, and was aimed at drawing attention to discriminatory laws targeting LGBTQI people and the routine police harassment of the queer community. Hundreds of people walked down Oxford street, shouting ‘Out of the bars and into the streets!’.
They were met in Kings Cross by police, bashed, and thrown into paddy wagons. The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of every person arrested. Many were outed publicly and lost their jobs as a result.
‘It wasn’t really a march,’ says Jeremy. ‘It was a protest. I didn’t get to the end of it, and when I got home and the phone started ringing to get bail money so we could get people out of jail.’
By this point Jeremy had gained notoriety as an activist. When Alan Cole expelled him from Robert Menzies College, students mobilised in such force that it’s remembered as the moment that the gay radicalism that flared in New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots finally hit Australian shores.
The Macquarie Students’ Council immediately pushed for the disaffiliation of Robert Menzies College from the university unless Cole revoked Jeremy’s expulsion, and the Staff Association similarly condemned RMC’s conduct.
Further, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) trade union urged their members to walk off the many construction sites on campus. The BLF, led by environmental activist Jack Mundy, protected Sydney’s environmental spaces and housing areas for the vulnerable by implementing ‘green bans’. Workers would walk off a site where a development was seen to be unethical or environmentally damaging. Through this kind of strike action, iconic parts of the Rocks were protected from redevelopment, chunks of the Botanic Gardens were saved from demolition, and housing for Indigenous Australians in Redfern was preserved.
Robert Menzies College was still under construction in 1973; students had to trudge across a muddy field to Dunmore Lang for their meals. The BLF decided to enact a green ban in support of Jeremy. Workers refused to pick up their tools until the expulsion was reversed; the strike is now remembered as the world’s first ‘pink ban’. According to Jeremy, this was the first time industrial action occurred in support of gay rights.
‘The guys on the working site didn’t give a rat’s arse about people’s sexuality,’ Jeremy says. ‘All they cared about was people getting a fair go, and they didn’t see my situation as getting a fair go.’
The university executives didn’t see things the same way.
‘Justice Rae-Else Mitchell was the Deputy Chancellor,’ Jeremy recalls. ‘He took charge of the committee which was investigating the charges that RMC shouldn’t have the right to exclude people, because it should be a secular college and not impose religious viewpoints. But he was just a bastard. He railroaded this view that basically I was a little shit, and that the college could do what it liked. As far as he was concerned they were all doing what people should be doing – standing up for Jesus.’
RMC eventually bowed to the pressure mounted by national media coverage and offered Jeremy his room back. He didn’t take them up. Jeremy had never wanted to return to the college; rather, he wanted to challenge the precedent that gay people should hide their sexualities or suffer the consequences. The progression of civil rights, Jeremy says, is about visibility.
‘Before that time, gay people were invisible. But by saying, “don’t throw me out of college, here I am, I’m not going away,” we established a visibility that then eventually allows parents to say, “I can accept my gay children. They’re there, and they should have the same rights”.’
This experience of activism inculcated a wilfulness in Jeremy that he would carry into his career in publishing. During his tenure overseeing the Australian Society of Authors, he fought for increased lending rights (so authors earn more for their books loaned out through libraries) and the recognition of Australian literature at the upper levels of government with the establishment of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
Academically, a main research interest of Jeremy’s is Gerry Glaskin and his novel No End to the Way, which is believed to be Australia’s first ‘gay novel’.
‘It’s about two men in a relationship, they start living together,’ says Jeremy. ‘It’s set in Perth, and was published in 1965. There’s Ray and Cor, who’s Dutch. Cor is married, and leaves his wife to move in with Ray, and they have this relationship which goes on for most of the book, and then Cor up and leaves. So it’s sad, but nobody dies, which is what had to happen for many of the books of that time to make it a tragic ending.’
Jeremy discovered the book in 1973 on a trip he took with his then-boyfriend up the coast to escape the trauma surrounding his expulsion. Their train stopped at Gympie, a rural town in Queensland, so they went to the local bookshop to kill time. A yellow paperback caught Jeremy’s eye, mostly for the blonde hunk on the cover in skimpy speedos. It was the American edition of No End to the Way.
Despite the fact that this paperback must’ve been an illegal import – censorship laws at the time banned books that contained any homosexual content – Jeremy says the book isn’t salacious at all, as the cover might suggest. Rather, it’s known as ‘a classic portrayal of homosexual marriage.’ Cor and Ray’s domestic lives, Jeremy says, allowed him the first glimpse of a gay life that wasn’t marred in activism and persecution. Glaskin – writing under the pseudonym Neville Jackson – presented what Jeremy and his comrades were spilling their blood on the pavement for: normalcy, domesticity, marriage.
I show Jeremy a copy of his book The Dirty Little Dog I found discounted in Darlinghurst’s The Bookshop – it was the last one left, a display copy that got water damaged when a gutter broke. In it, a hard-boiled political crime plays out over a dystopian version of Sydney where the gay-straight divide is still drawn in dark pen. But the two main characters – an exiled journalist and a reluctant PI – do find happiness with each other despite the oppressive state in which they live. I’m a little embarrassed to hand the book over to Jeremy, with a Rorschach test of mildew between the cover and the first page and, perhaps gallingly, a Macquarie University branded pen to sign it with. But he takes it in good humour.
As he signs the book Jeremy mentions he’s receiving an OAM in a few days’ time. I ask what he’s receiving it for. He shrugs and tries to play it off.
‘I have no idea why –’
‘It’s for education, professional association and services to the literature industry,’ says his partner, Lloyd, who comes in from the garden and proudly recites the full name of the prize in a way that partners of humble people get used to doing. Jeremy and Lloyd have been together for three decades after meeting through an ad in Outrage, a gay magazine from the 80s.
I ask what they make of the debate about same sex marriage that raged last year.
‘Well in the early 70s, we were arguing that the patriarchy needed to be dismantled and that marriage was a chain for women, and that nuclear families kept everybody in thrall,’ Jeremy grins. ‘I guess my views have modified from that.’
I notice silver bands around his and Lloyd’s ring fingers. Behind them, a crucifix is nailed to the wall, painted with flowers.
‘To think these days the whole issue of same sex marriage is even there, and people support it … I mean, you were a pariah to admit you were gay back then. From my perspective, looking back over foty years, there’s been a tremendous amount of change.’
Jeremy looks up at Lloyd and smiles, then glances at the ‘I voted yes’ sticker on my laptop.
‘For now, I think, our work is done.’