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From CAMP to Queer: How Far have we Come?

On Sunday 15 November, the 28th Keith Harbour Address was delivered by longstanding gay rights activist, academic and author - Professor Dennis Altman AM. He is well known for his pioneering work with Gay Liberation in the 1970s, his leadership throughout the AIDS crisis, and his published works including Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation in 1971 through to Unrequited Love last year. Here is his address titled From CAMP to Queer: How Far have we Come?

Later this month the State Library of NSW will open an exhibition marking fifty years since the establishment of CAMP—the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, which, along with the slightly older Australian Lesbian Movement and Homosexual Law Reform Society of the ACT, marks the establishment of queer political activism in Australia.

I am slightly shocked to be old enough to have been there—if not at the first meeting of CAMP, but instead at early gay liberation meetings in New York. That experience launched my career as a writer, and I’ve long had an uneasy relationship to activism which I try to explain in my latest book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist.

Under the influence of American activism we came to call ourselves ‘gay’, a term which originally included women as much as men. I want to traverse five decades in which we have gone from using camp to gay to queer, and greatly expanded our view of who is included within a queer community. The title of my talk comes from a book Robert Reynolds wrote almost twenty years ago, which as Robert writes “is a history of the hopes, desires, disappointments and conflicts that fueled the re-making of gay life”.

Let me say upfront I am deeply uncomfortable with the increasingly long acronyms that are used to describe our “community”, a term which is thrown around so much it has become meaningless.

My views on current debates about identity are rooted in my own experience of the past few decades, and to that extent are limited by my own experiences. In retrospect the gay liberation movement of the 1970s badly misunderstood trans identities, which have proved to be the most radical critique of how we understand sex and gender, able to provoke a very frightening backlash in right wing attacks on “gender ideology”. We thought that as rules around what it meant to be a man or a woman became more fluid there would be less need for people to seek a gender identity other than that defined by their genitalia, and we were wrong.

As the list of acronyms gets longer I’ve noticed some people being so politically correct that they talk of the LBTIQ community—deliberately omitting gay men. This makes me both sad and angry. Sad because of the enormous loss that the AIDS epidemic meant for a generation of gay men, only exceeded by the losses of young men with haemophilia who seem too often forgotten in accounts of the early years. Angry because globally gay men are often the prime targets of vicious persecution, including imprisonment, torture, death.

My solution is to use the word queer to identify everyone who breaks the boundaries of conventional rules around sex and gender. But within this umbrella we need recognise that there are more specific identities, and the history of the AIDS epidemic in Australia is inextricably linked with the history of gay men.

The generation who founded the organisation formerly known as the AIDS Council were battle scarred from an adolescence and early adulthood in which being gay was criminalised and regarded as both a moral and a psychological problem. The emergence of homosexual activists is part of a broader set of cultural changes from the late 1960s on, which crystallised in the Whitlam government of 1972. My generation grew up knowing only conservatives in power, and the election of 1972 changed Australia more than any election since.

By the mid-1970s there were queer groups in every state and the beginnings of legislative change. Australia had inherited the British laws that made male homosexual behaviour a crime—similar laws remain in many countries in the world, including some in Australia’s region. The first state to repeal those laws was South Australia, following a campaign after George Duncan was drowned by police in the Torrens River, which I’ve always felt should be seen as our Stonewall moment. Victoria followed in 1980, ahead of NSW, and the last state to remove the law was Tasmania, after a protracted campaign including an appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee

In the decade leading up to AIDS there was a flourishing of women’s liberation and gay organisations, events, spaces, businesses and publications.

Mardi Gras, which is often seen as the birthplace of the movement, was only possible because of eight years of activism beforehand,

and the original march was linked to a gay international day of action. This meant that when the first signs of AIDS appeared at the beginning of the 1980s there were already community organisations and activists ready to respond, and the people who established the Victorian AIDS Council in 1983 were largely veterans of the movement.

The first decade after its founding were ones of extraordinary commitment by hundreds of people who volunteered in some of the best prevention and care programs anywhere. This was a period when there were no effective therapies against HIV, indeed when some of the therapies that were used probably hastened people’s deaths. It was also a period of great fear and stigma, when people with HIV—or indeed anyone thought to be homosexual—were ostracised and denied services. It was also the period when the Australian partnership approach gave legitimacy to marginalised groups that had been unimaginable before the epidemic. I recall one national advisory meeting where I sat in a room with both an Anglican Archbishop and a sex worker.

Credit to the partnership goes to national leaders such as Minister Neil Blewett and his advisors, including Ita Buttrose: I recall sitting behind Ita at an early AIDS Conference as she carefully polished her nails during a discussion of anal intercourse. Credit goes equally to the leaders of the community organisations, and as we’re in Victoria let me pay tribute to the first four Presidents of VAC: Phil Carswell, Adam Carr, Peter Grant and Keith Harbour.

I was Vice President at various times with three of these guys, of whom all but Keith are still with us. Keith—whose name is remembered in the current organisation—was the first person with HIV to become President, and was a maddening and inspiring figure, someone not part of the early gay movement who became an activist through his exposure to AIDS. I don’t want to talk about the history of VAC; there is a history of the first 35 years of the organisation—Under the Red Ribbon—and a very good account by Adam Carr of the formative years: A Dangerous Decade

The world has changed between the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the current global COVID pandemic. Some years ago Melbourne’s leading gay historian Graham Willett was attacked at history conference for saying things had got better in our lifetimes. Some of those in the audience felt they faced ongoing discrimination and resented what they saw as Graham’s complacency. But while I am aware that many in our communities feel things are tough it is also true that the range of possibilities to live as a queer person are far greater than they were even ten years ago, certainly than thirty years ago.

It was not until 1994 that the Hawke government used its powers over foreign affairs to compel Tasmania to accept the ruling of the HRC to decriminalise homosexual behaviour. Two decades later a large majority of Australians—including every electorate in Tasmania—voted to recognise same sex marriage. Whatever our views on marriage it was clear that this was a vote in favour of greater acceptance, and a vote that was won in every state in the country. It’s also worth remembering that the current PM skulked out of the chamber to avoid voting for a measure his electorate had strongly supported, but Morrison is deeply pragmatic and knows there is no advantage to him in poofter bashing.

Indeed if one looks back at the social movements of the 1970s there’s an argument that the gay movement has been more successful than its counterparts. Across the rich liberal democratic world there is considerable evidence that acceptance of homosexuality has accelerated at an extraordinary degree, and over the last few years, despite resistance from the troglodytes in the White House and the Murdoch Press, there have been huge strides in our understanding of the complexities of a trans* identity.

Within Australia we have seen remarkable shifts in government attitudes, most notably in Victoria where the State government, ably prodded by our LGBTIQ Commissioner, has funded a raft of projects that would have seemed inconceivable twenty years ago. It seems that covid may have ended our usual January day in the Alexander Gardens, which kicks off Midsumma, but there will be events and celebrations throughout 2021. As an aside: Midsumma began in 1989, and its founder, Danny Vadasz, said at the time that it grew out of the community which had been forged by AIDS.

Whether the brake COVID has put on so many community activities will be permanent is hard to tell; already the internet and its myriad applications, have seen huge changes in queer life. I don’t subscribe to the sometimes-heard view that grindr has killed gay community, but it has both extended and altered how we interact.

I deliberately spoke earlier of the “liberal democratic world” because attitudes of sexual and gender diversity are deeply polarised globally. There are still fewer countries that accept same sex marriage than there are countries that criminalise homosexual behaviour, and even where there are no legal prohibitions people who are sexually or gender non-conforming face persecution. South Africa was the first country to protect sexual orientation in its constitution, but it also has high rates of violence against queer people. Brazil was the first country to raise sexual and gender identity in international institutions, but it also has very high rates of murder of trans* people. And while Indonesia has no laws prohibiting homosexual behaviour there has been a frightening crackdown on queer people in the past few years, justified by both religious and nationalistic rhetoric.

I raise these examples deliberately because the queer movement in Australia has tended to be remarkably insular and unwilling to engage with issues outside our borders. AFAO and Equality Australia have engaged in a certain amount of polite lobbying, and my experience of DFAT is that Australian foreign affairs officials are often ahead of our community in raising these issues. In part there is a sensible reluctance to grandstand on issues where too loud a voice only feeds the rhetoric of many governments that to raise queer rights is a sign of western imperialism. But there are two areas where there is clearly space for our organisations to be more active.

The first is the need to provide asylum to people who flee their countries because they are persecuted for being queer. I’ve met some of these people and their stories should jolt us into some perspective when we complain about every possible slur or mis-use of a pronoun. Over the past year several organisations have developed, led by queer asylum seekers, and they need our support, both financial and political. [BC1] The Pride Foundation is coordinating some fund-raising and I urge everyone to support them. The government has quietly cut Australia’s refugee intake: have any of our organisations reacted to this?

In some of the countries which are most queer-hostile, the single largest Australian presence comes from development organisations, such as Oxfam, World Vision, Save the Children etc. In all of these organisations there are queer employees and others very supportive of our issues, but we need to build a much stronger presence in the development sector, which often is squeamish in addressing issues of sexuality and gender identity.

When gay liberation emerged in the early 1970s we saw ourselves as part of a broader political movement that sought widespread social change to create a more just and equitable world. Over time the gay movement developed into an interest group, less interested in justice for all than in its own particular concerns. For me that is symbolised by the fact that there are more openly gay MPs sitting on the government benches than the Opposition in Canberra. I rather like those gay Liberal MPs I’ve met, but I would not vote for them, and I would certainly not vote for them because they are gay.

Sharing a particular identity is essential for a sense of community but is it sufficient? Should a queer organisation adopt broader political positions and ally itself with other movements seeking social justice? I’d say yes, but I recognise there will be disagreement about where this takes us.

Part of giving a lecture in memory of Keith is the right to be provocative, so I want to suggest a couple of political principles.

Danger of identity over riding principle

We will all have our own views about what a progressive politics should look like. I regard horse racing as barbaric, the contemporary equivalent of bear baiting. I was disappointed to receive an invitation from the Pride Centre celebrating the Melbourne Cup, which is not something I’d want to encourage. I would have hoped our movement would ally with protection of animal rights rather than an establishment bacchanalia.

We need to be more generous...

and distinguish between people who would attack and persecute us, and those who may be struggling to understand concepts of sexual and gender identity that defy everything they have taken for granted. Think back to the marriage debate: there were clear homophobes leading the No campaign, but not everyone who had doubts about changing definitions of marriage was necessarily homophobic. Particularly for people who come from communities with very strong traditional views about what is natural their resistance to same-sex marriage deserved empathy rather than abuse.

2020 has been an extraordinary year, and one overwhelmed by a global epidemic that has yet to reach its peak. The experience of COVID has inevitably brought back memories of the early years of AIDS, when we agonised about whether to get tested and when the wait for a result was extremely stressful. But HIV was very different, in part because it seemed to only affect a few largely marginalised communities. HIV brought us together in new and demanding way; COVID has forced us apart, into isolation and a retreat behind borders, originally international, then within Australia, and for several months within our immediate surroundings.

My fear is that necessary physical isolation will encourage a rejection of the outside world in favour of a narrow Australian chauvinism. Certainly the impact on travel will be felt for years: who would now feel confident embarking on a cruise? Which foreign student will want to come to study in a country that has made clear they are the first to be abandoned when things get tough?

For me, the lockdowns and the end of international travel has meant the end of a two- year relationship with a fellow academic in Ecuador. Ours is a melancholic, not a sad separation. It does not compare with the awful enforced separations that infection, war, expatriation, incarceration forces on millions of people, separations that will only be intensified by corona-inspired lockdowns. After all, as a wise friend pointed out, ours had been a virtual relationship for most of the past two years. The difference now is that there is no fixed point where the virtual might become real. The epidemic has upset our very notion of the future.

But let’s end on a more optimistic note. I began my memoir, Unrequited Love in the shadow of Trump’s victory in 2016; now we are on the cusp of the installation of a new American President. I hope this marks the beginnings of a new acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, not just here in Victoria but across the world.


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