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Although Australia has a human history stretching back some 60,000 years, dating from the arrival of the indigenous peoples, recorded history begins with the arrival of British settlers in 1788 at what is now Sydney. In the subsequent 200 years, Australians have occupied and unified a continent as large as Europe or the continental United States, created the world's eleventh largest economy (with a population of about 20 million, or two percent of the world's total), and have forged a vibrant, cosmopolitan, and strikingly gay-friendly society.

Despite its image as a land of beaches, deserts, and Outback-dwelling Crocodile Dundees, Australia is in fact highly urbanized, with most of its population living in six major cities.

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Australia's history is a very queer one, in most senses of the word. Three-quarters of those on the First Fleet, which arrived in January 1788, were prisoners, convicted of various offenses and sentenced by way of punishment to be transported to the other side of the world to found and to live in a penal settlement, essentially a sprawling outdoor prison. Until the end of this system of convict transportation in the 1840s, about half of all those who came to Australia came in chains.

The colonists (by the mid-nineteenth century the continent had been divided into six self-governing colonies) brought with them British law and British attitudes and until the 1860s the crime of was punishable by death. In New South Wales, there were only four executions, all in the decade after 1828, after which the practice fell into disuse. In Tasmania, however, a dozen men were executed, the last in the 1860s.

The horror of sodomy and "unnatural connection" generally – between men and between women – figures strongly in the colonies during the convict era and one of the strongest arguments against the transportation of convicts (the vast majority of whom were men) was that it encouraged homosexuality. With "No prospect being afforded them of a woman's Love,--without hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, their already darkened reason became more clouded. Their lax morals gave way and they indulged with apparent delight in every filthy and unnatural propensity . . . ," as one campaigner put it.

Over the course of the nineteenth century as the British parliament amended its laws, the colonial legislatures tended to follow suit--reducing the penalties for homosexual acts from death to relatively short terms of imprisonment, but expanding the number of offenses from the initial crime of to include eventually all sexual contact, attempted sexual contact, and soliciting for sexual contact between men. (As was usual in the British world, there were no offenses pertaining to sexual acts between women).

Australia Today

Given this history, it is surprising perhaps that Australia now has exceptionally gay-friendly laws and public attitudes. All six states and both territories have now decriminalized male homosexual acts--a process that stretched over twenty-five years from South Australia's reforms of 1972 and 1975, to Tasmania's in 1997.

All jurisdictions have now outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexuality and all the special rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples have been extended, to a greater or lesser degree, to same-sex relationships. This has been done primarily through the extension of de facto or common-law rights and responsibilities (well-entrenched in Australian law) to gay couples, rather than through marriage, which has very little resonance in Australian public life anyway.

Gay men and lesbians can serve openly in the armed forces and the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian citizens have immigration rights. Since very shortly after its establishment in 1976, the Family Court (which deals with divorce and its associated disputes) has tended to ignore sexuality as an issue in the granting of custody of children. Real legal equality, then, is now well within our grasp, with only a conservative federal government holding out on some areas, such as retirement funds. It is widely assumed that the remaining areas of discrimination will be addressed after the retirement of the current Prime Minister or the election of a Labor government.

In terms of public policy, state agencies are actively challenging the remnants (often rather potent remnants) of their past. Police-gay liaison has been institutionalized, challenging what one commentator has called the "loathing of generations" between these two groups. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has special outreach programs to address the needs of same-sex attracted young people in rural Australia (which tends, in general, to be somewhat --but only somewhat--more conservative on moral issues). Trade unions and professional organizations have long recognized their responsibilities to their gay (and more recently bisexual, , and intersex) members and constituencies. (GLBTI is the current abbreviation employed in Australia.)

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