'Lesbian Brides' marching group, Mardi Gras 1994 Photograph by C. Moore Hardy, Courtesy City of Sydney Archives (C. Moore Hardy Collection 061352)

‘Lesbian Brides’ marching group, Mardi Gras 1994 Photograph by C. Moore Hardy, Courtesy City of Sydney Archives (C. Moore Hardy Collection 061352)

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.      

Listen now  

William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp, and Governor of New South Wales 1899 Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a593005 / ON 219/123)

William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp, and Governor of New South Wales 1899 Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a593005 / ON 219/123)

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.

Tom Hurly was a transgender resident of the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum whose life was described in an account of a visit to the asylum reported in the Australian Home Companion and Band of Hope Journal in June 1861. 'We now passed into the female department, which is divided from the men's ward by high walls..... On leaving this room we saw a little dapper man approaching, dressed in neat frock coat and trowsers, and somewhat shabby white hat. A visitor we enquired? "No," replied Mrs. Statham, "that is one of our characters - it is a woman who fancies herself a man, and whom we humor by allowing her to dress according to her ideas." This strange character took off her hat, and introduced herself as Tom Hurly, offering us a pinch of snuff, and shaking us heartily by the hand. There was a world of humor in the merry twinkle of the lady's eye, and the rich brogue in which she spoke. At our suggestion she proudly sat to Mr Terry for her portrait, which we here present, vouching for its accuracy. In reply to our queries, she stated that she had three wives, and she named them all. She said she had been in the country over a hundred years, having been sent from Limerick in 'woman's wearables' as she did not then know her own 'karacter'. 'Tom' was very amusing and chatted freely while her portrait was doing, and we left her, proud and important that she had been so noticed. Poor woman! her's is an extraordinary case; we have never heard of any other instance of such an extraordinary delusion. She is in general quiet, but occasionally breaks out, and has to be confined. If her fancy of dressing as a man were denied her, without doubt she would be in a constant state of excitement and violence.' The Australian Home Companion and Band of Hope Journal, 1 June 1861, p3

Tom Hurly was a resident of the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum whose life was described in an account of a visit to the asylum reported in the Australian Home Companion and Band of Hope Journal in June 1861. ‘We now passed into the female department, which is divided from the men’s ward by high walls….. On leaving this room we saw a little dapper man approaching, dressed in neat frock coat and trowsers, and somewhat shabby white hat. A visitor we enquired? “No,” replied Mrs. Statham, “that is one of our characters – it is a woman who fancies herself a man, and whom we humor by allowing her to dress according to her ideas.”… If her fancy of dressing as a man were denied her, without doubt she would be in a constant state of excitement and violence.’ 

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.

Further reading:

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

Books
Gay Sydney: A History by Garry Wotherspoon, NewSouth Books, 2016
Unnamed desire: A Sydney lesbian history by Rebecca Jennings, Monash University Publishing, 2016

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.

Listen to the podcast with Lisa & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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