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March 08th 2016 print

Tony Thomas

The Bad Old Days for Gays

Anyone who opposes same-sex marriage, or merely supports a plebiscite on the matter, is apt to be pilloried by Mardi Gras paraders and the like. How today's activists would have coped with the homophobic Perth of my youth is anyone's guess

gay cureWhat a nice town my hometown of Perth was in 1968!  Optimism in the air as the Pilbara development got under way.  Pretty Swan River, friendly tolerant  folks. Classy intellectuals at the University of Western Australia. What I mean, actually, is that Perth was a nice place for heterosexuals. For homosexual males, not so benign.

Public or private sodomy earned you a maximum 14 years hard labor plus a whipping. Masturbation with another man, “gross indecency”, attracted a milder maximum of only three years hard labor, plus the whipping.   Nor was the legal threat an empty one. About 25 convictions had occurred from 1960-68, with three offenders currently doing time. The police minister in 1968 was Jim Craig. He wasn’t all that homosexual-tolerant, in fact he told me that personally, “I’d have their balls out!”

Today, of course, we celebrate homosexuality (plus LGBTI etceteras) and from primary school onwards, the rainbow banner proudly waves. Using Perth 1968 as a case study, it’s amazing how social mores have changed in 50 years. Perth police style, 1968, was not to go hunting down homosexuals, but if someone complained to the Criminal Investigations Bureau (CIB) detectives had to follow-up and prosecute if evidence went that way.

csillagAt the time, Dr E.R. Csillag  (left) was senior lecturer in psychiatry at WA University and sought  to “cure’”homosexuals via aversion therapy. This involved showing his patient erotic homosexual pictures and texts followed by an electric shock, then showing an erotic female picture with no shock. “Dr Csillag tried the shock on himself once,” I reported, and I quoted him, “I swore like hell!” A  consulting clinical psychologist, Mrs A. Creed, sought to correct “faulty attitudes towards women” through counseling.  She told me, “To the homosexual I am the safe but warm mother-figure who cares, and all the sexual deviates I have helped have said that aspect was the most potent factor in their recovery.” Good for Mrs Creed!

By now you may be wondering how and why I was getting up close and personal with Perth’s homosexual set. You doubtless suppose that reporter Tony Thomas wrote a feature on the topic and my employer The West Australian published it. No, no such revelations ever surfaced in that conservative, dull newspaper. So the back-story is worth telling. The features editor of The West was an old stick-in-the-mud who only wanted stock-standard mainstream matter. But I liked writing odd stuff. These pieces, comprising a little pad of paragraphs (one paragraph per A5 triple-sandwich wad so that stories could be sent piecemeal to the “hot metal” compositors at their Linotype machines) would usually come back to me with the simple word “No” on the front of it, plus feature editor’s initials.

tony thomas rotatedTwo miles to the west, in the suburb of Crawley, was WA University, where I was doing Australian Literature part-time (that’s the young me at right, by the way, on the job with pen and notebook in hand).  The Arts faculty had a monthly journal, The Critic, which I discovered was happy to run, without fee, my rejected pieces from The West. (Given that  a 12-month subscription was only $1.75, The Critic’s non-payment for work was understandable). I was always a bit nervous when my pieces appeared in these samizdats, wondering if my paymasters at The West would view it as lese majeste. A typical piece rejected by The West and run by The Critic involved my research into liqueur chocolates on sale around town, and my discovery that nearly all of them were devoid of actual liqueur. I noted that serious eaters of liqueur chocolates knew how to get hold of the imported variety with real 2%-proof liqueur in them. This caught the attention of Fremantle’s Customs officials, who intended to enforce the existing ban on 2%-proof imported chocs. The ban was designed to protect innocent children from the ravages of chocolate-coated alcohol. Customs demanded that I disclose who was doing the importing. “Never!” I shouted. “I’d go to gaol first.” Anyway, that’s all off-topic, except that The West spiked my story and The  Critic ran it.

It was investigating homosexuality that got me into big trouble at The West. My feature was rejected with fury and sanctions. If I hadn’t slipped the piece to The Critic, an important  slice of Perth life, circa 1968, would have gone unrecorded. To that date, May of that year, I confidently reported there had been no surveys or public analyses whatsoever of the Perth homosexual community. A cone of silence enveloped the topic. The only mentions of homosexuality in The West were occasional Magistrate’s Court reports of convictions (as per the headline below from Perth’s Daily News.) In polite company and the press the topic was unspeakable.

gay wa headline

 

During my high school years (1953-57) at Perth Modern, there was one lad in my year, Geoff, who showed no fear of girls and had louche habits like removing a false tooth and menacing you with it.  Geoff wound up in The West as a library assistant, so we saw each other often. In 1962, when I was in hospital with TB, I saw an item in The West to the effect that police had raided a party at a suburban house, arrested numbers of men dressed as nuns, and secured sodomy-type convictions. Geoff was among those convicted, hence was named and shamed before the world. I think he was fined. I wondered about this small-town tragedy, and felt I should contact Geoff in a friendly way. But I had no idea how to express my condolences, and never called.

A few years later I acquired a girlfriend, Trish, with a very conventional family that included her older brother, Clive, a bachelor with a very close male friend, Ted, but the family tip-toed round the issue and assured each other that one day Clive would find Miss Right and settle down. Even though Clive and Ted behaved like a couple, Ted was always dubbed Clive’s “best friend”.

I felt motivated to lift the cone of silence by doing a solid feature on the topic. I suspected The West would disapprove, so I did all the work “off the books” between normal jobs. I thought that when I presented the editor with my finished article he would be impressed enough to overcome any reservations and give it the OK.

My first task was to locate and interview homosexuals (“gay” in those days still meant cheerful). Easier said than done. First, I was unworldly  and never involved in night-life, drinking circles and other places where people acquire sophisticated know-how. Second, I could hardly ask a question like, “Are you homosexual? If so, may I interview you?”  Might as well have asked, “Are you a burglar? Done any jobs lately?”

I wandered around in the evenings keeping an eye out for any two or more men behaving unnaturally with each other, and even accosted groups of men in pubs and asked if they knew any homosexuals for my interview fodder. No success: indeed, looking back, I suspect I was viewed as a shy homosexual trying to line up a rendezvous. Finally, someone told me about a night club involving cross-dressers and libidinous goings-on. I turned up and joined a table of rough-looking males, after explaining to them my reportorial mission. They were non-committal —  but made frequent side-trips to the toilet or adjacent lane and discoursed in a coded way about incomprehensible (to me) activities. I departed none-the-wiser.

Word got out around Newspaper House about my project. A few colleagues dropped by, ostensibly to chat but really to try to sniff out what my line was. For all they knew, I could be preparing to “out” them or otherwise draw attention to matters hitherto undisturbed by media scrutiny.

arch ellisI then did the rounds of some Perth professionals who dealt with homosexuals. They mostly viewed homosexuality as a pathological condition.  Only one of them, WA’s Director of Mental Health, Dr Arch Ellis (right), had a view which has stood the test of time. He told me the law against homosexual acts was medieval and capable of making criminals out of one-third of the male population (i.e. who, according to Kinsey, had a same-sex experience at least once in their lives).  The main problem was not the condition but the draconian laws and their potential for blackmailers, he said. A government solicitor opined that Perth would not be ready for any legal change to homosexual laws for ten years to come. A law reform Committee had recently been appointed in Perth but it deliberately ignored the homosexual laws, saying those were for the state government to decide.

craig waI got an interview with the then-Police Minister James Craig  (left) a Country Party stalwart, whose views would not be described today as enlightened. I wrote in the piece that Craig  had read some of the recent UK Wolfenden Report proposing UK reforms, “but (he) considered the British eagerness to legalise evils like drug-taking, prostitution and homosexuality was largely responsible for the state of morals in Britain today.”  The danger with legalizing homosexuality was that inverts would prey on youths, he said. I wrote, “Basically, he considered homosexuality unnatural. This was on personal grounds, not religious ones. Homosexuals were perverts, he said, and he had no intention of legalizing their behavior.”

My punchline went:  “One cabinet minister said the government had an open mind on the laws. Another said bluntly: ‘I’d have their [testicles] out!’”

Feeling pleased with my draft feature, I dropped it in my feature editor’s in-tray. Next morning, I was summoned to the presence of the editor himself, Griff Richards, who inspected me as if I were a blowfly on his blotter: “We are a family paper and this – (smacking my wad of copy against his desk) – is not what our readers want to read over the breakfast table!” He followed up with some strictures to the chief of staff,  Viv Goldsmith,  to keep a closer eye on me, to keep me productively occupied and to ensure that no repeat offences of this nature occurred.

I certainly took a risk handing my manuscript to The Critic for publication. Luckily no-one in Newspaper House was a Critic reader.

Perth no longer gaols and whips homosexuals, I’m glad to say. Attitudes have changed in the past 50 years, but I rather wonder what Perth social norms will be 50 years hence.

Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope

Comments [8]

  1. Jody says:

    My son is married to a Perth girl and lives there now. 10-12 years ago when he was first living there, both he and his (then still a girlfriend) expressed total disgust at the government of the day (Jeff Gallop?) for approving lowering the age of consent for homosexuality to 16. I’m pretty sure it was that kind of a decision. They both believed this was very wrong and could lead to abuse. Anyway, the point of telling this is that there are still legions of people who feel antagonistic towards homosexuality and who have trouble with the ‘morality’ of there being available a mobile phone service that scans for gays to hook up for casual sex. I’ve forgotten what the site is called, but people are very conveniently airbrushing the moral decline that has facilitated so much of this modern behaviour. I’m afraid I’m in Cory Bernardi’s corner on all this.

    And my son was only in his mid 20′s when he made his observations about the WA government and not the product of a Christian fundamentalist upbringing!!

  2. Bran Dee says:

    What is there not to like about a cleverly written reminiscence such as this by Tony Thomas? It is really a rhetorical question, but there may be two actual questions. Firstly, just for curiosity because the writer has revealed so much interesting history and quite a bit of it personal, why among all the good pictures is there no picture of the writer himself?
    Secondly, and this is a quibble, why do we find the words “homosexual acts” and “one third of the male population” in the same sentence?
    How could an informed figure of 3% transform itself to 33%?
    It may be only anecdotal but my cattle breeding acquaintances see about the same 3% of ‘unusual’ behavior in their male breeding stock. This means that about 3% of stud bulls have no interest in doing what bulls do and are retrenched so to speak. It is cautionary as it would become quite difficult for any cattle farmer if the herd mooed the number up from 3% to 33%!

  3. Mayan says:

    It’s always struck me as bizarre that the penalty for homosexual acts was confinement in an all male environment.

    Perhaps the behaviours in places such as gaols might explain some of the ’33%’. That figure, although it seems rather high, probably also includes the many men who aren’t gay, but might have had an incident or two in their past.

    There is some evidence for the idea that the gay identity is a somewhat recent phenomenon. That 2% or whatever percentage it is have probably always been around, but the notion that someone is gay could be more recent, some say, and in the long ago there were certain behaviours not spoken about in polite company, certainly frowned upon, and not solely the province of that small number of what we now call gays.

    I doubt that the ‘moral decline’ can be blamed on the gays. There are similar mobile phone apps for all manner of sordid encounters, and let’s not forget the rather recent Ashley-Madison scandal, out of which tumbled the adulterous secrets of millions. And, yes, most of the names were men’s names. And to think that some religions believe that it is women, and only women, who promote vice.

    Although society as a whole could do with some relearning of sexual ethics, it’s better that we don’t waste time bothering the small number who are different. They’re not going to change, and police time and gaols are expensive. As for the times changing, Perth’s best known gay bar is next to a police station, something its patrons view as comforting, if ironic given the not-so-distant past.

  4. Richard H says:

    The line “from primary school onwards, the rainbow banner proudly waves” had looked like it might soon need revision.

    It had been reported in the media south of the Murray that the State government planned to stem the menace of five-year-olds entering primary school filled with homophobic rage, by way of appropriate education in kindergartens. Sadly, the thrust of the reports has been denied, so the threat remains to the bigots’ nonconforming classmates.

  5. Jody says:

    Perhaps those five-year-olds will be set aside for “re-education”, Scientology style. Don’t laugh!! I’m not trying to be funny.

  6. Bill Martin says:

    Reading this fascinating article, one wonders how and why was homosexuality transformed from a despised, punishable crime to a celebrated phenomenon. Surely, there is a vast chasm between outright animosity and a “warm embrace”.

    It seems, though, that the pendulum had swung rather too far from rejection to not simply casual acceptance, but outright celebration. That, it would seem, is to the detriment of homosexuality, as such. The overwhelming majority of heterosexuals are accepting of the fact that a minute proportion of people are attracted to the same sex, wish them no harm and are largely disinterested in the matter. These same people, however, find homosexual sex disgusting and resent being censured for that feeling. Having their noses repeatedly rubbed into it does not enhance their empathy toward homosexuality, either, nor does the oft-repeated slogan that “I am gay and proud of it”, nor yet the claim that “homosexuality is just as natural as heterosexuality only different”, which they insist on inculcating into young, impressionable minds.

    Heterosexuals don’t feel duty bound to unconditionally embrace homosexuality as expected and demanded by the homosexual lobby. None of this is “manufactured” homophobia, but a “gut reaction”, driven by the same hormones that fuel the attraction to the opposite sex, making it entirely natural.

    The “popularity” of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gra is a false indicator of society’s attitude toward homosexuality. While a few thousand people gawk at the spectacle, it leaves millions of others cold at best, many strongly disapproving of the event.

    • Mayan says:

      Mardis Gras? Or as a gay friend calls it, ‘The Running of the Queers’.

      Seriously, though, a great many gays and lesbians don’t much care much for it. Once upon a time, it was a protest march that served a valid purpose, but now a large number of those whom it claims to represent just roll their eyes at the mention of it.