Garry Wotherspoon, Gay Sydney: a history (NewSouth Books, 2015)
ISBN 9781742234830 RRP: $29.99
Garry Wotherspoon’s excellent new history of Sydney’s gay life is very much more than a mere updating of his ground-breaking 1991 history City of the Plain. Much of City remains, but things have moved a long way since 1991 and Gay Sydney reflects this. The original material has been re-written and recast, incorporating more recently published research, and made less ‘academic’, thus making it more accessible to those who will most want to read it. And, of course, events and developments of the last quarter century are given the prominence they deserve.
Not only is it a complete revision and updating, but it is enlivened by accounts of the author’s personal experiences to illustrate some of the points being made. So it is both a properly documented and serious history, and at the same time a personal history by one who lived through much of it and had the initiative and the capacity to record and analyse it. He says “I was a participant in many of the events of the late twentieth century … part of my own story is interwoven throughout this history …”
Looking back, it is astonishing that so many things which were inconceivable in 1990 are now common-place and mainstream. Consider same-sex adoptions and fostering, same-sex civil partnerships (though not marriages – yet), openly gay people holding public office, and the NSW Police Force joining in the annual Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade which they tried so brutally to crush in 1978.
City of the Plain, written in the midst of the AIDS crisis, ended with a brief Epilogue on “The Impact of AIDS”. This has been expanded to a major chapter on the effects of AIDS on gay Sydney – both catastrophic and community-building – and a discussion of the concurrent history of the long battle for homosexual law reform. As AIDS became accepted as a public health issue rather than a ‘gay’ disease, so society’s attitudes towards gay people had to change and mature. With AIDS also affecting heterosexual people it became everyone’s problem rather than just ‘their’ problem and stronger ties were forged between the gay and straight communities in a common fight to support those affected and to find a cure.
The gradual acceptance of gay people as part of the mainstream of society has not been without its strains, especially for some in the gay community. “Have we come to the stage where we are being seen as ‘just like everybody else’?” asks Wotherspoon. If so what does that mean for a ‘gay identity’? Many older gay activists are unhappy that gay life has become assimilated into the mainstream. What happened to the revolution? But the majority, who were not at the forefront of gay activism, are simply getting on with ‘normal’ life in the suburbs, enjoying acceptance and a sense of security which they never had before.
Can gay culture survive integration? Because there will always be some who dispute our legitimacy and deny us acceptance and respect there will likely always be a need for older gays to act as mentors, role models and supporters for the next generations. Wotherspoon’s thoughtful insights into these issues in his last chapter are worth the serious consideration of all who are part of gay Sydney, or who care about it.
Regrettably, unlike City of the Plain, Gay Sydney lacks any illustrations which could have given an added interest and context to many of the events described. Otherwise it is a handsomely produced book, well indexed, with a bright and arresting cover which, hopefully, will draw attention to itself in the bookshops and say “buy me”.
While Gay Sydney is primarily one person’s interpretation of events, that person was actively involved in many of the events it records. Wotherspoon’s training as an academic historian allows him to step back and record and document, but his personal experiences along the way enable him to inject real life into the story of the journey from a hidden and illegal past to Sydney’s gay world of today. We are in his debt.