I grew up on the north-west coast of Tasmania. I spent my childhood on a dairy farm near Sheffield. I have a sister who’s four years younger. However, both my parents were from quite large farming families so I have a multitude of first, second, third, fourth and fifth cousins. There’s a grain of truth in every stereotype, and one stereotype of Tasmania is that everyone’s related. So I went to school with lots of people who were my cousins. The frightening thing about it was that my mother and father could identify instantly what their relationship was to me, even if it was as distant as a fourth or fifth cousin.
I found it a bit restrictive both intellectually and also, of course, in terms of my growing awareness of my same-sex attraction. I didn’t feel much room to be able to explore that in a community that's so small and tightly knit. It was quite a conservative and also homogenous place. Of course, looking back I can see that there were lots of advantages to where I grew up. There was a strong sense of place and community which meant there were strong bonds between people. It gave me an appreciation, even though I didn’t realise it at the time, of the importance of those bonds and of that sense of place and community. I think it made me stronger, although at the time I didn’t really appreciate that.
I was lucky that my parents were quite active in the community and they got out, and did a lot of things. My father was quite curious, intellectually and also an atheist. So I was brought up to query and challenge things, but I found that often querying and challenging didn’t go down nearly as well with other people as with my parents, and then sometimes not with my parents all that well either.
So I moved to Hobart when I was 17 to study at the University of Tasmania which was quite liberating, I had a bit of space to myself. I was able to read and get a perspective on sexual diversity. So it wasn’t until I came to Hobart that I felt comfortable enough to come out. At the time it felt like it was difficult to come to terms with my sexuality, although looking back now, knowing how other people struggled, I see that my struggle wasn’t all that great.
What prompted me to come out was falling for a straight guy at the residential college I was living at. My feelings for him sort of interfered with my study a bit. I was feeling sorry for myself and trying to hide how I was feeling… Nothing really developed with him: it was love at first sight, even if it wasn’t reciprocated. I’d been one year at residential college, one year at university and then he came to the college the next year. He was from a Bass Strait Island and he was full of energy but, perhaps a little bit naïve, which was charming. He was very good-looking, very athletic, and very friendly. We came to be friends, although, of course, my desire to be his friend was motivated by desire for something more. Which never happened. Eventually I told him the truth. He said he was fine but I think it was just what he felt he should say. We didn’t have much to do with each other after that. (Coming out)
So those conflicts led me to the student counsellor and eventually to admitting what the real issue was. From there I was put in touch with social groups that existed in Hobart at the time.
The first group that I was sent to was GUSTO. It was called Gay University Students Tasmania Organization. Although it had by that stage moved off-campus and was made up mostly of guys from the city. I was completely horrified because no-one used their last names and no-one wanted to know the last names of other people there. If you used your last name, you were told not to. I felt like I was in the Resistance. I didn’t really care much for that. So out of that group grew this series of discussion groups and one of them was about the law. From that grew the Tasmania Gay Law Reform Group. I was much keener on being involved in that because it drew people who were younger and a bit more open, a bit more willing to do and to take action. It wasn’t long before I was sort of speaking on behalf of that group. Not necessarily because I wanted to but because I was the least unwilling. That didn’t go down well at all with my family. It all happened in just a few months.
I just found it a complete affront that there should be a law that says I’m a criminal just because I was in a sexual relationship with a man. I mean, I was arrested for being gay before I even had a chance to dance with another man.
So I wanted to get out there and change things. We started pretty modestly with letters to MPs and the petitions at the market. But we found that quickly, even that would provoke a completely over-the-top reaction. We were arrested when we set up our stall at Salamanca market to gather petition signatures to have the law changed. It wasn’t just a case of official indifference to community problems: it was a case of official oppression. So it’s hard to walk away from that. Once it’s begun you feel like you need to see it through. I had that strong sense of duty and strong sense of: this isn’t right and has to end.
So for the next 10 years I just did that. And there was more than enough to do. Over that 10-year period there were parliamentary debates almost constantly. There was our appeal to the United Nations and then to the High Court. There was the involvement of Amnesty International and boycotts in Tasmania. There were rallies almost constantly for and against. There were letter-writing campaigns. There was daily media coverage. It was the biggest social issue in Tasmania for a decade. So I didn’t have time to do anything but this. Well actually that’s not entirely true. I did take up a job, a part-time job for three years as the editor of a magazine, which was a good break from things. However my main focus was the law reform.
I came out to a few different people that I was friends with, including someone who would then I’d go on to have a relationship with. I came out to him and he came out to me. We had formed a friendship in the residential college and moved out together as flatmates. I was studying Arts and he was studying Science. After that I came out to several people then I came out to my parents.
They didn’t take it very well. They used to say that, as parents do, that they’d support me in whatever I wanted to be or do in life. It had never occurred to them that this might be one of those things. So they were unhappy, quite unhappy. The first thing my mother said to me was that no-one else should know, particularly in the family. Unfortunately it wasn’t long after that that I disappointed her on that score too.
The strength of their reaction was quite unexpected, I guess it’s an example of when people expound a particular principle, they should be aware of what the ramifications are. I mean that just didn’t occur to them that the questioning they had encouraged, would extend to my sexuality. That’s not to say they weren’t familiar with other gay people. In fact, much to my surprise and a little bit of irritation, after I came out I learnt that there were quite a few people in my family, amongst those second and third cousins, who were gay and they’d just moved. So I learnt that there were quite a few other people in my family who were in the same boat but their boat took them to Melbourne. That was the second thing my mother said to me.
The first thing was, “Don’t tell anyone else in, in the family,” and the second thing was, “Just go to Melbourne.” It was almost a reflex reaction. It was assumed that moving would be the only option and it caused quite a bit of disruption to peoples’ expectations when I didn’t do that. There was a lot of disbelief amongst some people that an openly gay person would want to live in Tasmania. Disbelief amongst a lot of gay people that someone who was gay would live in Tasmania and be open about it. There was also anger amongst a lot of people that someone would be openly gay in Tasmania. Deep, deep anger.
I can’t overestimate the disjuncture there was in peoples’ minds between being openly gay and being Tasmanian. You couldn’t be both. The first time I spoke about law reform in the media there was a series of gay men who called me beforehand and, what they thought was for my own good, put immense emotional pressure on me not to do that. To do that, in their view, would be to die. You were signing your own death warrant. That’s really what they felt. These gay men were like, “If you’re gonna stay, be silent and invisible.” When it became apparent that me and other people of that generation weren’t gonna do that, then the reaction was completely over-the-top irrational anger. Fury from the authorities and from ordinary people.
We were together for six years and we helped each other come out. It was a very supportive relationship. He was a very sensible, down-to-earth, balanced kind of guy. Which was immensely useful for me in terms of providing a support there – an anchor, if you like, so I could fly my activist kite without flying off into the distance. I think also for him too, to have someone there who inspired him to take some action and get involved in things. So we complemented each other in a way. Although my family was a bit down on things to start with, his family were relatively accepting and so I had them to talk to and turn to. Despite the fact that they were very catholic or maybe even because of it, they were quite supportive and accepting. (Religion and sexuality)
In terms of meeting other men, I guess there were beats and there was an after-hours nightclub. I think I went once. I’m not really a clubby kind of person so I can’t say that I found it really enjoyable. Dancing’s fun with friends and you get to meet a few different people. But I’m not a huge club person. I’ve gone to clubs in Hobart at various stages down through the years to put in an appearance and to dance around with friends. Not regularly though but that’s just a matter of personality. I prefer socialising with friends at peoples’ houses than going out, and that kind of thing. (Getting out there)
So socialising would be at community events. Not necessarily law reform events but some of them would be. Given the attitudes they started off pretty discretely at first. For a few years there it was a restaurant that would turn into a nightclub after hours, and it wasn’t advertised. But as the law reform debate went on and attitudes began to improve quite dramatically, clubs would sort of come out a bit more and they’d advertise a bit, and they’d be a bit more high profile. There started to be dedicated clubs rather than just sort of restaurants turned into clubs. Now in Hobart I can think of a couple of clubs and they have big rainbow flags outside, and huge billboards, and they’ve got big ads in the entertainment pages. So it’s probably been that way for about 10 years now. It’s like the gay community came out and its social venues came out too.
It’s good to see, but it’s really just a side-effect of a much bigger and more gratifying change. Which is the change in the hearts and minds of the people we’re talking about. Not just gay people but straight people as well. I mean we’re talking about, according to the opinion polls, a really dramatic shift in the hearts and minds of hundreds and thousands of people.
After my relationship ended I met a Dutch guy who was a student from Holland who I saw on and off for about a year. Then there was a fellow I met in Hobart who was a medical student and he had visited the little dairy farming district that I’d grown up in, which was kind of charming and a little bit strange. That was a really lovely relationship that went on for about two-and-a-half years. The relationship I’m in now I’ve been in for five years with a fellow who is an Australian citizen but is originally from Venezuela.
We met in Hobart. He’d just moved. He’d been in Sydney for four years after coming over from South America and we met just after he arrived. I had never met him before and I didn’t realise when I met him who he was, but he had been in a relationship for four years prior to his arrival, with a good friend of mine in Sydney. I’d heard this guy’s name previously but I didn’t associate the two, until it all came together, which was a bit weird. Anyway it’s been five years and that’s going strong. My friend (who he was with previously) is actually my fourth cousin. Thankfully nothing phases him and nothing ever is difficult for him. So it wasn’t awkward at all.
In 1988 when I came out and started dating there was none of the uncertainty of like five years prior to that in regards to HIV. I mean there were still people dying of HIV and it was a major issue but coming out then there was just no question: safe sex, full-stop, end of story. Sometimes condoms break which caused anxiety, but there’s never been an infection. I was the one wearing a condom in those rare situations. So the chances of infection were very low. (Topping)
The AIDS Council was a sort of a centre for gay community activity which from the start I felt a bit uncomfortable with because that was the only funding available for any gay stuff and even then it was always precarious because the state government was so antagonistic. Even so I was uncomfortable because I thought that being gay was more than being an HIV risk. Whilst people in other places were talking about an HIV crisis, in Tasmania the crisis wasn’t about HIV. Infection rates were still pretty low and they’ve always stayed pretty low. So the crisis in Tasmania was a crisis of homophobia. (Homophobia)
Well we’ve got consistently 60 percent community support but we don’t seem to be able to break that barrier. We need to reach out to people who are undecided or conflicted about the issue more effectively. Also that 60 percent isn’t translating into support at a political level and we really need to break down the resistance of the major parties to this issue. That needs to include or should include a conscience vote. The new governing arrangement may make a big difference to that but we’ll have to wait and see.
In terms of what changes still need to be made, just a couple of words in the Marriage Act need to be changed to allow same sex partners to marry. Pretty straight forward, but for such a simple reform it certainly does create a lot of resistance. Well I shouldn’t say ‘a lot of resistance’ – that’s not true. Very strong resistance amongst a small number of people and they’re chiefly people for whom marriage is a religious institution and homosexuality is a sin. They’re the ones who find it most difficult. Of course, in reality, marriage is a civil institution so it’s irrelevant whether homosexuality’s a sin or not and I think that’s how most Australians see it. I mean most Australians now don’t marry in churches so it’s not like they confuse the two.
Even though the law changed in Tasmania in 1997 and I was no longer a criminal there was still a lot of ground to make up. Attitudes had changed so markedly in Tasmania that there was a real appetite for more. So I stayed involved in that kind of stuff and there was a big sense of achievement. I was also involved and remain involved in national issues like marriage equality, which didn’t become an issue until 2004 but has taken up a lot of time since, and other issues remain important for me such as The Blood donation issue. So from ’97 to 2003 there were these major reforms in Tasmania that I was involved in such as The Anti-Discrimination Act, the Relationships Act, as well as education and health reforms. Then from 2004/5 to now there were the national issues like marriage equality, blood donation and some other issues that I stayed involved in.
Things with my family are much improved. They got used to it pretty quickly and they could see that I was doing something that was important. So they adjusted. I have a very large, extended family almost all of whom are farmers and they seem fine. As well as being relatively conservative, they’re also pretty pragmatic.
At some point I’ll stop doing this completely, and I’ll have what my mother calls ‘A proper job’. I’d really like to be an academic because that’s my main interest really.
I guess the important thing to take away is that however difficult change might seem, it is possible if we work together. If we believe in ourselves and each other, and trust each other, we can do anything. I mean if you can change the laws in a state that was, in effect, a police state then anything’s possible. When I came out, people wouldn’t share each others’ surnames and the police arrested anyone who was openly gay. I mean Tasmania went from having the worst laws to having the best. That indicates I think the truth in what I’m saying.