What was happening in Australia at the time?
On a balmy February night in 1971, a small group of about 50 gay men and lesbians gathered in a church hall in Balmain. They met to establish a group called the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP). It was the first ever open public meeting of homosexuals held in Australia.
How did this come about?
Australian society in the late 1960s was hostile to homosexuals or, at least, its institutions were. The law treated gay men as criminals who could be locked away for 14 years for the “abominable crime of buggery”, and the police actively tried to prosecute them. The medical profession regarded lesbians and gay men as sick, and some even tried to change their orientation in horrific ways, often with legal sanction. The painful techniques of aversion therapy (such as the administering of electric shocks) were mild compared to one physician’s chosen method - a lobotomy. In comparison, the Church’s attitudes seemed modest - we were just all sinners dammed to hell.
Standing up and attempting to counter the negative images and stereotypes about homosexuals was a very brave act indeed. But that is just what two people did in September 1970. When John Ware and Christabel Poll came out in an article called ‘Couples’ in The Australian newspaper on the 19th of September, they became the first openly self identified lesbian and gay man in Australia. Of course, there were many other identities known or whispered to be gay or lesbian, but nobody had dared identify themselves.
Christabel and John were announcing the formation of an organization called CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) that aimed to counter all the negative perceptions of homosexuals. John, a psychology student, and Christabel, a public servant, had long talked about forming such a group. What they hadn’t anticipated was that they were initiating the beginning of open gay and lesbian activism in Australia.
There had been organizations attempting to make change before this – the ACT Homosexual Law Reform Society in 1969, the Humanist Societies of Victoria, Daughters of Bilitis and the Council of Civil Liberties – but these were either not gay, or openly gay groups.
What were the aims of CAMP?
John and Christabel’s aims were modest. They saw their organisation as a small, informed group of people or experts who could speak out positively. And John thought any open demonstration by homosexuals, and homosexual law reform (as had happened in England in 1967), to be still decades away.
They were astounded by the response and the enormous volume of mail they received after their coming out - so much so that they now had to revise their intentions. Over the next few months, plans were put in place for a more formally structured organization, and a magazine, CAMP Ink, was launched in December. In February 1971 the public meeting was held to launch CAMP, where John and Christabel were elected the first Co-Presidents.
CAMP focused on a variety of activities, including law reform, publicity and support. In 1973, they established what would eventually become the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service that still functions today. Within a year, a loose federation of CAMP groups had been formed in most capital cities and on several university campuses.
Then, in October 1971, CAMP held the first ever demonstration in Australia, outside Liberal Party Headquarters. It was a colourful, noisy, fun-filled demonstration that did much for the self-esteem of the participants – three people immediately telephoned home and ‘came out ‘- and thus vindicated the formation of CAMP.
Other gay and lesbian activism in the 70s
Over the years CAMP evolved as groups joined and left. Younger activists believed the organisation to be too conservative, and broke away to form Sydney Gay Liberation in 1972. Women felt unwelcome in the organisation and later formed the CAMP Women’s Association, with some later leaving to become active in Women’s Liberation. This was the beginning of the diverse community and organisations we have today.
This, however, did not stop co-operation. A noisy joint protest was held in October 1972, when Peter Bonsall-Boone lost his job as church secretary after appearing with his partner Peter de Waal, and with Gabby Antolovich and Sue Wills on an ABC TV program, Chequerboard.
Protests against the discrimination of gay liberationists at Macquarie University, Jeremy Fisher in 1973 and Penny Short in 1974, also received strong CAMP/Sydney Gay Liberation support.
There was plenty of other types of activism as well. Gay Liberationists participated in ‘Zaps’, outrageous actions in public places. For example, mass same-sex kissing on public transport. Most notable involved several activists tipping a bucket of blood and sheep’s brains into the foyer of the notorious Dr Harry Bailey, well known for his lobotomies.
The first arrest of a gay man – David McDiamand – took place in early 1972 at a gay demonstration. McDiamand, who was later important for his artistic input to the Mardi Gras, was charged with disorderly conduct.
The following year, twelve people were arrested when the police busted a demonstration during the nationally co-ordinated Gay Pride Week, as activists tried to lay a wreath on the Cenotaph in Martin Place, Sydney. The 1975 arrests at Black Rock beach in Melbourne proved a spur for law reform action in Victoria. The possible complicity of police in the death of Dr George Duncan in Adelaide in 1972 directly lead to law reform in South Australia.
By 1975, however, a lot of sting had gone from gay activism (except possibly in Adelaide where CAMP and the Gay Activists Alliance remained active). Some student radicals and activists worked with the Australian Union of Students to organise the First National Homosexual Conference in 1975. People began to move more into grass-roots activism, such as within the Trades Union movement. A commercial bar scene had begun to appear in some cities, especially Sydney’s Oxford Street, emitting a siren call that attracted many. But it really was only with the violent Police attack of the first Mardi Gras Parade in 1978 that public activism was again sparked into action.
Remembering the achievements of early activists
In a sense, some of the aims of the early movement were achieved. There was now greater visibility. The media (apart from the tabloids and, notoriously, the Sydney Morning Herald) was starting to come onside. The Police and the Parliament remained a problem (and would do so for another decade) but the medical profession had changed its attitudes. In 1973, the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists declared that homosexuality should no longer be considered an illness, a world first.
The actions of John, Christabel and the early activists, have unfortunately largely been lost from the community memory. We as an organisation of 78ers believe that this loss of history is regrettable because the diverse political and socially complex gay and lesbian communities that we know today would not exist without their actions, their boldness and their bravery.