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social sciences

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There is widespread public tolerance--even, arguably, acceptance--of gay people and the gay community in Australia. Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has been one of the great spectacles in that city's annual calendar for fifteen of its twenty-five years, with scores of thousands of people, many of them family groups, gathering in the streets to watch the parade. Almost all cities now have annual festivals and marches and it is the politicians and community leaders who fail to send messages of support who are expected to explain themselves. The embrace of the gay community owes much to modern Australia's sense of itself as a multicultural nation--a nation of communities, one of which is the gay community.

How and Why Change Occurred

In the past forty years gay people have gone from being marginalized and vilified to being one of the elements of a modern, open, and celebratory society. We are now, variously, a market to be exploited, voters to be wooed, and (since the publication of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Cultural Class) a community asset to be nurtured.

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A number of factors help us to understand these developments. In the first place, the Christian Right has never really managed to make itself a significant political force in Australia. Australia has a remarkably secular public life. While some 70% of Australians claim to believe in God, there is very little acceptance of the idea that religious values ought to influence public acts. Australian politicians do not invoke God's blessing; sports heroes and celebrities keep their beliefs (if they have them) to themselves. Even our currency does not trust in God. Attempts therefore to import American-style faith-based politics have never been successful and all recent attempts to invoke God's disapproval of homosexuality as a basis for law and public policy have proved unavailing.

Secondly, although Australia experienced to some extent the Cold War panic around homosexuals as security threats, this panic was largely confined to governing circles--the Cabinet, the security and intelligence organizations, the police and armed services. Homosexuals were restricted in their career choices, arrested in reasonably large numbers, subject to rejection by employers and family and friends in this period, but there was nothing like the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the early 1950s in the United States, which brought the homosexual threat to public attention not merely at the national level but down into local communities.

It is likely that, prior to the rise of the gay rights movement in the 1970s, most Australians never gave a moment's thought to homosexuality from one year to the next unless they happened to know a homosexual. And in that case, a rather interesting process kicked in. Australians have a remarkable capacity to dislike groups of people in the abstract while exempting from their opprobrium members of those groups that they actually know. They may not have liked homosexuals in general but if Uncle Bob happened to be "like that," then as long as he kept it to himself, well, that was all right.

The homosexual subculture (the "camp scene" it called itself, though in Australia "camp" lacked the connotations of high theatricality that it had in Britain and North America) existed in Australian cities as it did in sizable cities around the world. Garry Wotherspoon has tracked its existence in Sydney back to the 1920s and in most other cities it seems to have existed by then, or shortly afterwards. Organized around more or less discreet gatherings in pubs and cafes, in friendship circles and private parties, and in the bohemian world of theater (with its shading over into the worlds of petty crime and left-wing politics), the camp scene was one in which women and men lived reasonably happy--if rather careful--lives.

This started to change with the emergence of a liberal politics that argued for decriminalization and greater public tolerance. These ideas found ready acceptance in Australia. This politics drew upon British precedents (especially the law reform ideas of Britain's Wolfenden Report of 1957) and it tapped into the idea that Australia needed to reform and modernize itself in a host of ways, one of which was in relation to archaic sex laws (abortion, prostitution, and homosexuality, in particular).

The liberalizing trend accelerated with the foundation of the first national homosexual rights organization, established in Sydney in 1970, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP). Intended as a small group to monitor the media and correct misinformation, CAMP found itself inundated by homosexuals ready to take to the public stage, and within a year had branches in all state capital cities as well as on many university campuses.

By 1972 the import of gay rights and gay liberation ideas had propelled the movement well beyond the existing homosexual politics. Demands for radical social change and self-transformation took center stage, facilitated by the return to Australia of Dennis Altman, whose Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation expressed international gay liberation ideas in their purest form. From this point on Australian gay and lesbian politics tended to follow the U. S. model, but there were significant divergences. Some of these have been discussed in relation to the failure of the Right to resist the advances of the gay movement.

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