It was an historic moment last Wednesday when it was announced that the Australian people had voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality.
The Dictionary of Sydney has a number of articles that chart the history of the gay and lesbian community in Sydney. Leading historians Garry Wotherspoon and Rebecca Jennings have written great books on gay and lesbian Sydney and their essays for the Dictionary provide a wonderful overview, charting the LGBTQI community’s subcultures, the scandals – both whispered and wild – and the outings.
The LGBTQI community has always been a part of every facet of Sydney’s society, but for many years their preferences had to be kept much more covert. We’ve had a gay Governor, in the form of Lord Beauchamp in 1899, while female gangster Iris Webber got involved in two separate shooting affrays for ‘luring away’ female companions from the razor gangs to come and live with her in the 1940s. Cases of cross-dressing or trans people have been recorded by the police since the early 1830s.
The criminalisation of all these behaviours and people makes it difficult to uncover the history of this community so the historian needs to read between the lines to interpret events as well as understand the nuances of the language of the period, and to use personal papers and oral histories as well as official records. It also means that records of people in the community can be found in collections like State Records NSW and the Police & Justice Museum where records and photographs document those arrested and incarcerated, or worse.
Given the heated debates surrounding same sex marriage, it is sobering to realise the precarious nature of many of the rights now accepted by our community.
In the lead up to the 40th anniversary of the first Mardi Gras here in Sydney I encourage everyone to read up on Sydney’s LGBTQI community and to celebrate this historic decision.
Dictionary of Sydney
Lesbians by Rebecca Jennings
Gay men by Garry Wotherspoon
Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras by Garry Wotherspoon
Drag and cross dressing by Garry Wotherspoon
Sydney’s rainbow crossings by Megan Hicks
Sydney’s Pride History Group
Pride History is a volunteer community group dedicated to researching, writing about and recording memories of Sydney’s LGBTI history. Click here to go to their website.
The National Library of Australia is also collecting ephemera relating to the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. To find out more, visit their site here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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