Queering the past: the learned absence of homosexuality in Australian history

I have been studying Australian history both in an academic setting and as a general interest for a number of years now (not including the minimum education we all received throughout primary and early secondary school – the overview of colonialism and Captain Cook, some history of Indigenous Australia and the 1850s Victorian gold rush). Thanks to second-wave feminism and the establishment of women’s history as a legitimate field of study, I can read into the nation’s past to examine the perspectives and experiences of Australian women, and these histories are only continuing to expand. What I have real difficulty in finding is any information on Australia’s queer history, not so much in the late twentieth-century when pride activism became prominent, but in our colonial and pre-colonial period. There is a lack of resources in this area, and an even greater lack of discussion in the academic and education fields.

In the 1992 collection of essays, Gay Perspectives: Essays in Australian Gay Culture, Robert French states, ‘Any researcher who has worked in the field of Australian history is all too aware of the effect the limitation of sources has on his or her work. This is even more so for anyone wanting to work on gay history.’ Reading this more than twenty-five years after its publication, I’m surprised by how little has changed.

Why has it never been brought to my attention, throughout my primary, secondary and tertiary education, that Australia has a vast queer history? Only independent research has led me to discover the extent of Australia’s homosexual colonial past. The teachers and lecturers of Australian history, whom I have been a student of, have never touched upon the country’s queer histories. I don’t believe that this is due to homophobia on an individual level; rather, the amount of resources available on queer history is so limited in comparison to heterosexual histories that they are simply forgotten, or disregarded, in the makeup of a VCE or tertiary course curriculum.

But there are still resources available, so I wonder why teachers and lecturers, and education coordinators and authorities, aren’t making this conscious decision to at least inform their students that yes, of course Australia has a queer past, and not just one that begins in the 1970s. The expansion of feminist and women’s history has been beyond beneficial for women-identifying students and teachers of history, in the sense that our history has become much more accessible and much less male-dominated. Imagine the lengths we could go to if the same occurred for queer histories.

Some of the information I have come across in books (notably Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians: A History, Robert Aldrich’s Colonialism and Homosexuality and Robert French’s Camping by a Billabong), journal articles and a general Google search focus on the most known histories: male convicts cohabiting as husband and ‘wife’, men and women living, dressing and loving as members of the opposite sex, female convicts in Hobart factories forming romantic and sexual relationships with one another. I’m sure that there are countless queer stories from this era that are yet to be uncovered, or perhaps are permanently buried due to past laws and secrecy. I wonder whether Australia’s queer history is rarely mentioned due to an absence of evidence, or because historians and public officials are not focusing their studies with an LGBTIQ+ perspective in mind. Is it because there is little to find, or because not enough people are looking?

Britain’s sodomy laws were implemented in Australia at the beginning of colonisation in 1788. Interestingly, lesbianism was never considered an illegal act, and so the only queer individuals to be convicted  – and consequently available to find within public records – were men. This is most likely due to sexist assumptions that women did not enjoy sex, did not have sex drives, or that lesbian sex wasn’t really ‘a thing’ because of the lack of penis penetration. Male homosexuality was arguably the more relevant issue for colonial authorities wanting to uphold ‘civilised’ British values, considering the huge gender imbalance during the early years of colonisation.

In a land scarce of white women, Australia was first presented as an environment where single British men could earn their fortunes without ‘feminine influences’. It was also argued that the lack of a white female presence ‘ensured the emergence of lawless, immoral bush cultures, in which alcohol, gambling, violence, and cross-race and otherwise deviant sexual relations were prevalent’ (Lisa Chilton, Agents of Empire, 2007). ‘Deviant sexual relations’ strongly suggests homosexuality, and there’s further evidence that the rate of men being arrested for homosexual behaviour did not dramatically decrease upon the arrival of more women, with men in all colonies (most prominently in New South Wales and Tasmania) being convicted of ‘unnatural offences’ into the early twentieth-century.

My instinct is that the education systems I have been a student of have been largely coordinated by heterosexual authorities, creating course work that doesn’t address sexuality because perhaps this doesn’t fit into the conventional story of Australia’s past. Australian history has progressed to a point that academics actively work to deconstruct the myth of colonial identity – that of the Bushman, of ‘Australia for the White Man’. Australia’s identity pre-Federation was produced with the ideals of mateship, the bush and trade labour – women did not fit into this, Indigenous Australians and non-white settlers did not fit into this, and queer people did not fit into this image. While it is now commonly accepted – not only by academics and students of history, but the general public – that Australia was not a White Man’s country, it is not as commonly acknowledged that it also wasn’t a Straight Man’s country.

Considering the enormous backlash to the Safe Schools Coalition, it makes sense why secondary schools don’t directly address queer history. It would only take one offended parent to stop any further discussion in classrooms, to prevent their child from being taught ‘radical’ perspectives of the past. But this isn’t just a queer interpretation of colonial Australia, it’s our documented history. This actually happened, and by not teaching this we risk letting queer individuals’ histories become erased. If our history is thought to be exclusively heterosexual, this makes it more difficult for today’s members of the LGBTIQ+ community to be accepted into society – our histories and identities have been part of a continued learned absence.

Institutions have an obligation to address marginalised histories rather than prolong static teachings. The nature of Australian history has evolved over the last few decades to acknowledge the brutal mistreatment of Indigenous Australia and to widen our knowledge of Australian women’s histories, but there are still gaps in our education that need to be addressed – we owe this to LGBTIQ+ students wanting to see themselves within Australia’s past, and we must also do justice to the queer individuals who lived in that past.


Image: The Last of the Flock: An Incident in Australia / Charles Douglas Richardson (1882) 

Danielle Scrimshaw

Danielle Scrimshaw is a Melbourne writer and enthusiastic Spotify playlists curator. She has spent the last year researching queer women's histories for her Honours thesis, and would absolutely love to talk to you about Lesbia Harford.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. When I was working as a lecturer at La Trobe History dep. I once attended a staff seminar about the history of two women who were nurses in WWI together. Shared a bed at their Greek posting, wrote letters justifying why they had to when they were busted and told to stop, and then wrote loving letters to each other for the rest of their lives- one marrying a cis man , the other not. I pointed out to the room where everyone else was straight, including the researcher, that this is not close friendship necessarily – it looks to me like lesbian or queer sexuality and life. The researcher, and another lecturer of high profile straight cis woman told me that I can’t put my own personal ideas onto people in the past, and the paper was published about ‘female friendship’ – this was in 20098 or 2009. Yep. Its pathetic.

  2. Encouraging institutions to teach and explore queer/homosexual histories is vital to discovering and keeping these histories alive. But in doing so we need also to highlight one of the main reasons that queer/homosexual histories are hard to find or, for that matter, why historical records are overwhelmingly biased against sexuality diversity.
    While being homosexual, camp, or a queen was not exactly a crime in Australia since colonial invasion, such people were often prosecuted for their associations or behaviours. As you mention, punishable behaviours included buggery and gross indecency. These remained crimes across Australia until the mid-1970s. South Australia was the first state to repeal its homosexuality laws in 1975; Tasmania was the last state to repeal its homosexuality laws in 1997.
    In this context, many queer/homosexual people could/would not create artefacts – especially personal ones such as photographs, letters, journals/dairies, etc. – for fear of incriminating themselves. Which is why, I believe, a lot of our queer/homosexual histories have been, as you write, ‘permanently buried due to past laws and secrecy’.
    We must also acknowledge that there is an even larger gap in our extant queer/homosexual historical records, and that gap is in what our predecessors have not recorded about gender and sexuality diversity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
    With the historical knowledge and artefacts we do have, what then can we learn about what we do not know? And how do we communicate this in a meaningful way?

  3. If you are part of some communities you have access to oral histories.
    Recently heard a couple of old guys talking about where all the goldrush Beats were, knowledge passed down through the Gay community hereabouts. Doubt such knowledge has been shared with Breeders if at all, the historic environment surrounding homosexuality is not conducive of deep trust.
    Times change maybe if people knew that academics were interested, then such information might get shared…dunno.. I’m just a blow in.

  4. Such an interesting article! I wish to study in deep this subject, is there anyone who could recommend me any work that talk about lgbt history in colonial Australian and homosexuality among aboriginal people pre colonial era? Thanks!

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