By Julie McCrossin
Born in 1954, the messages I received about homosexuality when I was growing up were quite straightforward: homosexuality was a criminal act, a mental illness and against God’s will.
I was 13 when I first felt the creeping sensations of shame, fear and dread when I realised I may be a lesbian. It was the night before a Latin exam. I was transfixed by a film on the TV called The Loudest Whisper.
The film, released in 1961, starred Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. It was based on a true story that playwright, Lillian Hellman had transformed into a hit production on Broadway called The Children’s Hour.
It tells how the lives of two women teachers, who ran a small private school, were ruined by a false allegation from a disturbed child. The girl whispered to her grandmother that she had seen the two teachers being affectionate. It wasn’t true, but, as the drama unfolds and parents withdraw their students from the school, Shirley MacLaine’s character sobs, “I think I do have those feelings” and then takes her own life.
The word lesbian is never used in the film. Yet I knew I too had “those feelings”. It brought a burden of anxiety into my life that only LGBTI people of my generation can truly understand. It was nearly 10 years before I heard anyone say anything positive about homosexuality.
I was lucky enough to arrive at Sydney University in 1972 in a climate of student activism that drew on the civil rights, women’s liberation and early gay liberation movements of the United States. Yet before I arrived at university, the primary source of information about the life of a lesbian for women across the western world was a book, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, published in 1928.
It tells the story of women ambulance drivers in WWI and has openly lesbian themes. There is nothing sexually explicit in the book, yet it was subject to an obscenity trial and a British court ordered all copies destroyed.
The title gives an indication of the emotional tone of the depiction of lesbian life. It was a plea for the acceptance of our existence.
This brief snapshot of homosexual-themed popular culture provided the back drop to the explosion of gay rights activism that I was lucky enough to join in the early 1970s.
But that wild night in 1978 was preceded by scores of other demonstrations and public meetings — and by the systematic lobbying of community and political leaders.
It was at a Penny Short demonstration in George Street Sydney that Julie was first given a megaphone to lead the chants. (Supplied)
In 1974, a student teacher called Penny Short lost her scholarship after publishing a lesbian love poem in the student newspaper at Macquarie University in Sydney. The early Gay Liberation movement protested and sought unsuccessfully to have it reinstated.
It was at a Penny Short demonstration in George Street in Sydney that I first was given a megaphone to lead the chants. I loved it. In 1975 Mike Clohesy, a teacher at a Catholic school, lost his job immediately after speaking on ABC TV in support of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
The following Sunday, we protested outside St Mary’s Cathedral, calling unsuccessfully for his reinstatement.
Swept up in the wild zeitgeist of the time, I dressed for that demonstration as a nun and was escorted down the steps of St Mary’s by a uniformed constable and a plain-clothed detective. The distressing events of 1978 were a culmination of years of struggle and many confrontations with the NSW Police.
Julie, dressed as a nun, is escorted by police down the steps of St Mary’s in 1975. (Supplied)
What are the messages we give young people today? Homosexuality stopped being a mental illness in 1974 when the American Psychiatric Association supported its removal from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Homosexuality was decriminalised in NSW in 1984. The first state or territory to take homosexuality out of the criminal code was South Australia in 1975 and the last was Tasmania in 1997.
The struggle for a welcome from faith groups continues. Gay and lesbian people can be ordained in the Uniting Church. Many faith groups have individual religious leaders who make LGBTI people welcome in their houses of prayer.
The only religious group to publicly support the Yes vote in the current Australian Government survey on marriage equality is the Quakers. The Uniting Church has taken a neutral position. The leaders of all other faith groups have recommended a No vote.
As a Christian myself and an elder of the South Sydney Uniting Church, I take great comfort from the welcome we offer to LGBTI people and all people in our very diverse parish.
And I say, “thank you” to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim people who are speaking up in support of the Yes vote and our full inclusion as citizens of Australia.
Julie McCrossin charts the rise of the Australian LGNTQI rights movement in part 3 of Compass’ Power to the People this Saturday, September 23 at 6:00pm on ABC TV.
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