Written for UQ Ally Network, originally published 28 June 2019.
Hello and welcome to an incredibly limited exploration of Brisbane’s queer identity as it’s developed in the twentieth-century. Like you, academics are fascinated by the complexity of Brisbane’s queer history, as well as its effects on queer identities across the globe. Men who once called themselves ‘mollies’ here began using the term ‘camp’ to define themselves – just as the term ‘homosexual’ arose in their place and now gives way to ‘queer’. But it’s only now that we’re beginning to understand the magnitude of Brisbane’s queer history, with thanks largely to Dr Heather Faulkner and Dr Yorick Smaal from Griffith University.
To ease you into this topic, we’ll stick to summarising their work and filling in gaps using information garnered from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. We acknowledge this as a learning process for all of us, and encourage you to investigate this history further.
Smaal’s Sex, Soldiers, and the South Pacific provides a window into the lives of queer men living in 1940s Brisbane. Picture it: WWII is in full swing, both Darwin and Pearl Harbour are bombed by the Japanese, and Brisbane becomes the gateway to the South Pacific for Allied forces. Our city of 330K is inundated by a staggering 90K American soldiers – up to 2M before the war ends in 1945 – causing new tensions between Australians and Americans already shaken by the 1942 Battle of Brisbane.
Australian soldiers and civilian men are placed at a disadvantage when looking for female company as they earn almost a quarter of the American wage. These anxieties compound under rolling blackouts, rationing, and rural Queenslanders flocking to the capital for work, making Brisbane an especially chaotic place to live.
In terms of queerness, Smaal’s research grants insight into how sexual needs were satisfied between these desperate men: what they kept quiet, what they exploited, and what they punished. ‘Molly’ and ‘cissy’ (‘sissy’ in America) were terms gay Australian men used to describe themselves in the early 1900s. They’re taken directly from English vernacular, and give way to ‘camp’ by the end of World War II. In the latter half of the 1900s, Americanisation saw ‘camp’ replaced by ‘gay’, ‘homosexual’, and ‘queer’ – though the culture of ‘camp’ would remain as a genre in popular culture.
Brisbane’s ‘cissy’ culture was already well-established by the 1940s, with beats and molly houses reminiscent of England scattered primarily in the South Brisbane area. These flamboyant ‘cissies’ enjoyed an abundance of curious men suddenly gathering around war memorials for sex, while a prison-like culture of ‘bitch and butch’ men sprung up between active soldiers driven more by sexual need than identity. These worlds met in bars and cafés where ‘camp’ would emerge as a term between men looking for long-lasting companionship with other men.
As Smaal explains, ‘the war exposed uninitiated men to new sexual pleasures and cultural experiences, and confirmed for others their repressed or denied feelings’ (23).
When the US changed their regulations around homosexual acts in 1943, they gave commanders the freedom to discharge soldiers instead of court-martialing them. Smaal quotes that locals became ‘too thoroughly frightened to even be seen with a US soldier, let alone attempt to promote a relationship with one’ (19). The US then conducted investigations into homosexual activity even among Australian soldiers and civilians, and pressured local law enforcement to act on information gathered. Soldiers stationed at Somerville House (Base Section 3 HQ) rebelled against this, however, by leaking ‘shake-down’ information for several months until the Americans intervened – suggesting a desire among Australians of the time to protect camp culture.
Faulkner’s North of the Border is focused on the history of lesbian culture in Queensland over the last fifty years, but its interviews and photographs help illustrate what life was like for all queer folk under the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government. Australia’s early anti-gay laws were specific to ‘acts of buggery’, and therefore did not extend to lesbianism. When Bjelke-Petersen gained power in 1968, however, he introduced a string of political campaigns that would mirror America’s McCarthyism with frightening similarity.
Bjelke-Petersen represents the most terrifying era in Australian history of queer people. For the first time in our history, laws were proposed to criminalise lesbianism and limit the movement of known homosexuals between states. Attempts were made in Queensland to prevent homosexuals from teaching in schools, and universities were encouraged to refuse support groups for homosexual students. The AIDS epidemic of the 80s further fuelled campaigns to discredit us, with conservatives claiming the disease was punishment from god. And by the 90s, Bjelke-Petersen’s government succeeded in convincing Queenslanders that links existed between homosexuality and pedophilia – therefore making us unsafe around children.
That all sounds super grim, but Faulkner’s interviews give us a first-hand account of just how resilient queer Queenslanders remained despite our hardships. In 1961 – before the events of Mardi Gras in ’78, and even before the riots of Stonewall in ’69 – a local organisation called LINKS started The Queen’s Birthday Ball as a reprieve from rising violence and discrimination. Anti-gay sentiment from American occupation festered under laws imported from England in 1788, and happiness became almost unattainable under Bjelke-Petersen’s rule. Yet The Ball blossomed as it welcomed other parts of our modern rainbow family, and today we call this event The Queens Ball Awards: the longest-running queer event in the world, running right here in Brisbane.
For further reading, check out Sunshine and Rainbows by Dr Clive Moore.