State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 87 May 2011


Graham Willett
Making an Exhibition of Ourselves: GLQ History as Public History

The Writing of Australia's gay and lesbian history begins in 1977 when Martin Smith, a Sydney gay activist, started publishing a series of articles on the early years of the British colony in Campaign, the national gay newspaper. In twelve instalments, based on his research using manuscripts, letters and colonial newspapers, he revealed a homosexual history of quite remarkable richness and complexity embracing prominent individuals and a thriving, if hidden, homosexual underworld.1 It is true that Smith read too much into some of his evidence – detecting, for example, homosexuality where others might only detect the flowery language of the time. And he displayed little sensitivity to the ways in which sexual categories are time-specific. For Smith, homosexuality was homosexuality, pretty much regardless of time and place and, for him, all historians needed to do was to unearth it. These flaws, while important, seemed minor in comparison to the magnitude of his achievement.
Except, as it turned out, the problem with Smith's work wasn't that he misread his sources; it was that he simply made many of them up. As Robert French found, when he went to examine for himself the various citations that littered the articles, many of them could not be located.2
This rather disappointing start to Australian gay history writing is a stark reminder that the internet is not the only place where dodgy information lurks, waiting to trip us up. And it did have one positive outcome – having discovered the problems with Smith's work, Robert French went on to write a series of his own; meticulously researched, sources clearly spelled out – and no less lively than Smith's tales. Published first in a gay newspaper in 1992 and 1993, they were eventually collected as Camping by a Billabong by the community-based publisher Blackwattle Press. The volume – now long out of print – remains a model for the writing of community-based and community-oriented history.
In this article, I want to explore that kind of history writing, to consider the ways in which GLQ history has always been, to a very large extent, community-focused. This is partly a matter of necessity, but it is not, in any significant way, a disadvantage or a failing. On the contrary, I want to suggest that this orientation has been a source of considerable strength and innovation for the field and that academic scholarship might well look to this field for inspiration and models for its own work. This is not an issue that has been much discussed in any formal way, although Garry Wotherspoon offered an important exploration of the issues as early as 1992.3 This article aims to take the discussion further, drawing upon the experience and developments of the last twenty or so years.
The origins of GLQ History in Australia
At the same time that Robert French was publishing his work, others were also moving into the field. In 1987 Margaret Bradstock and Louise Wakeling edited a collection of lesbian autobiographical essays in which eighteen women discussed their lives. It was a book that uncovered some of the richness of Australian lesbian history stretching over the entire twentieth century and celebrated optimism and courage that many might have found surprising in the lives of an oppressed group.4 Garry Wotherspoon edited a comparable collection of male life-stories in 1986 titled Being Different and then, in 1991, he produced City of the Plain, his history of camp and gay Sydney since the 1920s.5 Building upon the work of the Sydney Gay History Group, an informal gathering of those interested in pursuing research in the infant discipline, he went on to edit and co-edit several volumes of Gay (later Lesbian and Gay) Perspectives, which brought together the work of many historians of gay Australia. Wotherspoon was an academic, a lecturer in economic history at the University of Sydney, and he brought to all this work a rigour that demonstrated beyond doubt that gay and lesbian history was a field that could grow in scope and credibility. But he brought, too, the sensibility and the insider-knowledge that his active participation in the emerging Sydney gay and lesbian community gave him.
This combination of academic skill and community connections marked Australian GLQ history from its birth, and remains an important element in its ongoing development. Denise Thompson, inspired by research she conducted as part of her employment by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, published in 1985 a detailed examination of the early years of gay and lesbian politics in Sydney, providing a lively and challenging account strongly inflected by her lesbian feminist perspective, giving many readers, for the first time, an insight into the political divisions of the movement and its historians.6
All of these works were scholarly in the best sense, drawing upon careful attention to their sources, respect for participants and a desire to communicate with wide audiences. For the most part, too, their work was published by reputable, mainstream publishers. It is not surprising that many expected a breakthrough into the universities – bringing gay and lesbian studies to fruition as an academic discipline, with the same kind of research, teaching and publishing structures that women's studies had achieved in the 1970s and eighties.
A community-based history
These expectations, however, were not met. In general, the universities have played a minor role in GLQ history. This is not based on any hostility to homosexuality – many scholars have built successful academic careers in this and cognate fields. The universities have facilitated research and publication in these fields, especially during the heyday of 'queer studies', which reflected the rise of postmodernism, textualism, the 'linguistic turn' and discourse theory in the 1990s – a field in which Australian scholarship achieved
an international standing. But there is very much less to report in relation to university teaching. In 1999, Donovan and Chan conducted a survey of GLQ studies as it was being taught in Australian universities.7 They found very few subjects devoted exclusively to GLQ issues and only 32 which had significant GLQ content. While there was certainly some under-reporting in the figures, the fact remains that this was a surprisingly small number of subjects for what was emerging as a major national research field.
It is doubtful that a similar survey conducted today would reveal any increase in the offerings available, and in the meantime, the only subject devoted exclusively to Australian gay and lesbian history has come and gone. 'From Mateship to Mardi Gras' (FMTMG) was taught at the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne and brought an interdisciplinary approach to two centuries of Australian queer history. Offered at various times as a summer intensive incorporating a field trip to Mardi Gras and as a standard semester subject, FMTMG inspired some community-based scholarship (such as Rachel Cook's Closets Are For Clothes, a history of queer Australia for young adult readers) and occasional honours theses. In the end, the subject fell victim to structural issues rather than homophobia. As universities have become increasingly business-like, managerialist assumptions about profitability and economies of scale have started to squeeze out small subjects. Why pay someone to teach 20 or 30 students in seminar-sized classes when you can pay them to teach 200 or 300 or more in a lecture theatre? There was, simply, not enough consumer demand for GLQ studies, not enough of a market, to justify offering such subjects.
Equally important, though, is the place occupied by sexuality studies generally, and queer studies in particular, within the broader world of the university. It was striking to observe that, of those students who did FMTMG, about two-thirds to three-quarters were women, divided pretty equally into gay and straight; about a third or less were men, and they were mostly gay. It is a fact – surprising to some of us – that gay and lesbian studies has remained very much within the minority-studies paradigm. Unlike gender and race, which are widely seen as structures and practices which have contributed fundamentally and foundationally to the nature of the national community, sexuality is seen as entirely marginal; and homosexuality, especially, is seen as being not much more than the state of being of a small group of people; at most, as a community whose history may well be worth unearthing and celebrating, but not one that is in any way important. Indeed, so little is it seen as a central part of the national story that very few scholars – and very, very few straight scholars – include it in their teaching at all.
But actually, this matters less than might be expected. (Which is just as well, as there are few signs that it is likely to change any time soon.) Universities often see themselves as a society's primary generator and repository of knowledge. This is not true. Most knowledge that most people have about anything has only the most peripheral connection to the world of scholarship, and much that is new and interesting in the universities has its origins outside in the wider community. Queer history is a case in point. Queer history comes into the universities through people embedded in the
movements and community and it survives and thrives chiefly as a form of public rather than academic history. It does this not only because it has to, because the universities are doing so little of it. It survives and thrives also because it is able to; the necessary resources exist outside the universities and are nurtured and developed there. An infrastructure exists to sustain the work associated with the construction of the field of gay and lesbian and queer history. It is an infrastructure with many elements which, between them, add up to a solidly-grounded community-based and community-oriented research and dissemination structure. I would like to review some of these.
The existence of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives is a case in point. Established in 1978 by a vote of the Fourth National Homosexual Conference, which was held that year in Sydney, the collection has been housed in Melbourne because this is where those who wished to set it up, and were prepared to do the work to build it, happened to live. In the 30-plus years since its establishment, the Archives has built a collection that is indispensable for the doing of Australian GLQ history. (At some point a decision was taken to restrict collecting activities to Australian materials). The Archives includes newspapers and magazines produced by the movement and community dating back to 1969-1970, as well as newsletters, books, t-shirts, badges, posters, ephemera, newspaper clippings, scrap books, oral history interviews, off-air recordings, and papers of organisations and individuals. The range is impressive enough; the comprehensiveness even more so. Virtually every issue of every newspaper and magazine published since 1970 is held – over 1000 titles (over 40 000 items). There are scores of recorded interviews; posters and badges in their hundreds. The ephemera files (containing flyers, tickets, topical sets of clippings) – from 10/40 Conference to Zipper Club – number 1700. The Archives has been, from its foundation, a community-based, volunteer-run, notfor-profit organisation. Financially, it is sustained by membership fees and donations, occasional small community-based and, more recently, government-sponsored heritage grants, and the generous provision of space (the collection's single biggest need) by the Victorian AIDS Council. The spare-time efforts of dozens of individuals over the decades have collected, preserved, listed, indexed, publicised and celebrated the holdings, and the history that they embody. ALGA is not the only such collection in Australia. The Women's Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archive, now housed in the University of Melbourne Archives, and the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Western Australia have more tightly defined collecting interests. State libraries have, in recent years, been more actively collecting in the field as well.
As this emphasis on the volunteer and community-based nature of the collections suggests, one of the great resources of the GLQ history world is the time and energy, or the passion (to use a somewhat debased term), of large numbers of individuals. (The GLQ history community, at least, has reason to be very excited by the aging of the population, with all that that means in terms of new swathes of free time waiting to be utilised.) Much of this work goes on unseen by the wider world. The people who list and index the collections, negotiate with donors, answer inquiries, develop policy, hold open
days and working bees and design and maintain website, almost without exception, do so without payment and in their own time.
Beyond collecting, such dedication finds expression in individual projects. Jean Taylor has produced a monumental herstory of the women's liberation movement in Victoria covering the decade of the 1970s. In 770 pages she details the lives and struggles of womyn8 activists with particular attention to Indigenous and lesbian activists, whose work has been so often overlooked in mainstream histories.9 On a smaller but no less valuable scale, we have Wayne Murdoch's listings of camp and queer references from Melbourne's Truth newspaper. Adam Carr began an index to the community paper Gay Community News and Outrage; this was later expanded and completed by ALGA volunteers, who have since continued their work on other publications. Graham Carbery has researched and published a history of Mardi Gras, a listing of newspaper editorials, and a national state-by-state history of homosexual law reform. Even less visible, perhaps, is the work of Gary Jaynes who has relentlessly tracked the lives of Cyril Howe, Max Du Barry, Val Eastwood and a small host of other characters who now enliven our histories of pre- and post-War Melbourne.10
Of course, all this work would be of little value if it were not made public. And again the GLQ communities have the resources to bring this material to the world's attention. The gay and lesbian press has been very keen, at various times, to publish regular history columns. Usually between 100 to 250 words in length, and appearing weekly or fortnightly, these columns present snapshots of events, people and places that have shaped the camp/gay/queer world. Topics ranged from beats to AIDS to Radicalesbianism, from Dennis Altman to Fred Nile, from the Tasty nightclub raid to Pride March. The press has also been a vehicle for publicising the books and other products of the history-writers. Beyond the press, the community has supported other initiatives which facilitate the collection and dissemination of queer history. The annual Australian Homosexual Histories Conference brings together established and junior academics, independent scholars and the just plain interested, and provides them with opportunities to present and discuss the work they have in progress. On two occasions, some of the papers of these conferences have been collected and published.11
The skills required to edit and publish are widespread within the community and many of the publications that exist are the product of community-based work rather than of commercial publication. In very recent times we have seen the emergence of a business model that will allow for the publication of hard copy, and electronic and print-on-demand versions of the same book in what looks to be commercially viable ways, exemplified, for example, by Monash University Publishing. This has broken down the barriers between commercial and community publishing to the benefit of the field of GLQ history, amongst others.12
The existence of such outlets for the dissemination of GLQ history is important. Knowing that one's work does not need to sit rotting in the bottom drawer; knowing that there are ways of sharing it; knowing that there are others doing it too – all of these
are powerful motivators for what can often be lonely work. There is no point trying to evade the emotional and psychological aspects of what is going on here. The desire to collect, to share, to celebrate our lives, which drives most GLQ activism, is done by many of us as a way of sharing, celebrating and validating our history. There are many ways in which this might produce less than rigorous work, and be based on reluctance to problematise some of the underlying assumptions discussed below. The work does what it does and the way that it does it for a particular set of reasons and those who seek to do it differently (unambiguously academically, for example, or via methods of critique and problematisation) have plenty of scope for doing so within purely academic contexts.

The first edition (published under a pseudonym) and the second edition of Kerryn Higg's novel All That False Instruction, nominally set in Sydney but actually based on lesbian life in Melbourne.

The first edition (published under a pseudonym) and the second edition of Kerryn Higg's novel All That False Instruction, nominally set in Sydney but actually based on lesbian life in Melbourne.

Perhaps more than anything, for the community-oriented historians there is the solace of knowing that there are people wanting to enjoy one's work. The audience that clearly exists is also a resource of its own kind. Audiences consume the histories of GLQ Australia that are produced but they also often provide the material that historians and collecting institutions have to work with; and they shape the forms in which it, the histories, are presented.
Exhibitions are important and there have been more of them than the casual observer might expect. By one count (which actually underestimates the number of exhibitions and gets some of the details wrong), between 1982 and 2005, there were 27 exhibitions focusing on GLQ history staged in Australia.13 For the most part, these were small-scale, community-based efforts supported by small institutions. The Liverpool Regional Museum, for example, has hosted two such exhibitions – 'Just Sensational!' (2000) and 'Edges' (2001) – and in 2005 the City Gallery, operated by the City of Melbourne's Art and Heritage Unit, staged 'Camp As . . . Melbourne in the 1950s'. But when major state institutions throw their weight behind such efforts and draw on community-based expertise, these exhibitions can be impressive affairs. 'The Gay Museum' at the Western Australian Museum (2003) and 'Prejudice and Pride', at the Museum of Brisbane over several months in 2010 are perhaps the finest such exhibitions staged in Australia to date. Such exhibitions have the benefit of funding and curatorial skill that no community group could ever afford – which is reflected in the very high production values of the displays and catalogues. But they benefit, too, from the expertise of community-based historians who know the stories and can access artefacts and memorabilia.
State support can come in other, less obvious, forms. The 'Forbidden Love, Bold Passion' exhibition was based on interviews conducted by members of History Inverted, a lesbian history collective, in which Melbourne lesbians were invited to share their stories. Fragments of some of these were turned into a display which opened in the foyer of the State Library of Victoria in 1997. Stylishly designed, with closet doors to hold the placards and display items, the exhibition attracted good crowds. But the funding was not just for the Melbourne exhibition. The display toured Australia with the financial support of Visions of Australia (the federal government's touring exhibitions grants scheme) and appeared in a number of localities including Hobart and Newcastle. The organising collective's decision to encourage those regions which took the exhibition to prepare and include panels focusing on their own pasts, encouraged local lesbian histories to be unearthed and incorporated into the national story.
Gay and lesbian audiences embrace these histories enthusiastically. The newspaper columns have been, by all accounts, among the most popular items in the papers in which they appear. History walks – offered on a regular basis in Melbourne and Adelaide and occasionally in Sydney – usually garner paying crowds in their scores (hundreds if we are not careful). The income generated matters to the small organisations that offer the walks, but so too do the stories that members of the crowd bring along with them, or suddenly remember: places we had not known about; or stories of attending a certain venue and of something interesting or poignant that happened there; or even just a description of what the places looked like inside. Then there are the rumours, remembrance of old gossip, never written down, of course: a certain local councillor, perhaps even the mayor of Fitzroy having been 'that way'. These stories are an invaluable source of clues for further research. One of ALGA's great treasures is its set of Tommy McDermott's photo albums. They show in a few dozen photos the social life of Tommy
and his friends – drag parties, both domestic and public; a weekend away at Sorrento, couples embracing for the camera – and it came to light as result of Russel Grant's visit to the 2005 'Camp As . . .' exhibition, which set him wondering whether the Archives might be interested in the photos that he had inherited.
As this suggests, this work is directed at wide publics (both gay and straight), and it is produced in the vernacular – in ways that appeal to, and make sense to, people without academic training. In newspaper columns and history walks and exhibitions, queer history has been presented as entertainment. So, too, in radio programs, such as 'Queen City of the South'. Produced by Barry McKay with the support of Joy Radio, Melbourne's GLBTI radio station. 'Queen City' was broadcast in 23 episodes and then made available as a website.14 But other more ambitious projects have been undertaken, too. In Adelaide, two staged musicals have been presented drawing upon the rich oral history interviews of Adelaide camp men from the 1930s and 1940s, collected by John Lee. 'The Pink Files' (Music and Lyrics by Sean Peer, Book by Ian Purcell) tells the story of Bert Heinz and the Lampshade Shop scandal. 'The King of the West End' recounts the sexual adventures of Bert Edwards who was, at various times a publican and community leader, Labor member of the state parliament, prisoner in Yatala gaol, and city councillor for the West End of Adelaide. Set to music, these stories come to life in ways that mere words on pages rarely do. In Melbourne, prominent drag performer Kaye Sera has used published and unpublished sources, as well has her own interviews, to enliven her set of songs of the 1960s. One of the most memorable examples of how to bring scholarship to the people was offered by Susan Aykut, then of Monash University's public history program. During Midsumma 2004, she offered a paper on the history of the bathhouse, from ancient times to their contemporary incarnation as sex-venues for gay men (and, occasionally, lesbians). Strikingly, it was presented in Wet on Wellington, one of Melbourne's premier gay saunas, during non-business hours. To the delight of a capacity crowd of 100, Aykut was ushered to the lectern by men dressed only in towels (the usual attire at saunas), from whence she proceeded to present the results of her research. From time to time, as she was about to quote from her sources, one of her assistants would pop up from the audience, and recite it for her. Lavishly illustrated, she presented what was a perfectly respectable scholarly paper, in a less-than-respectable environment, to an audience who positively lapped it up . . . and no doubt learned much in the process.
But the audiences were not only queer. The political motives of most of those who were celebrating GLQ history brought them to seek ever-wider audiences in the broader community. In celebrating our lives and history we were hoping, among other things, to transform public opinion as well.
In 2001, for example, the gay and lesbian communities were keen to participate in the national Centenary of Federation celebrations. And the various state Centenary of Federation funding agencies were happy to assist with grants for the production of events. It was for the Centenary that Adelaide staged 'The Pink Files'. In Sydney, an exhibition entitled 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know', celebrated the 'Oscar Wildes of Sydney',
Lord Beauchamp, the gay governor, and Iris Webber among a host of other camp/gay/ queer figures from Sydney history. Initiated by the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, it was presented in the foyer of the state parliament, and formally opened by the President of the Legislative Council. In Melbourne, Pride March and the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives were funded to organise a contingent in the May 2001 parade commemorating the opening of the first federal parliament. A crowd of a couple of dozen lesbians and gay men, transgender and bisexual folk, wearing pink, black and white uniforms marched with cube-shaped display boxes bearing the images of GLQ historical people, places and events. The watching crowd was receptive enough, although it was said at the time that, as the contingent approached the cameras that were beaming the show into the nation's loungerooms, the directors chose to cut to an ad break.

Notice in venue window promoting the Camp as. . . Melbourne in the 1950s exhibition held in the Melbourne Town Hall in 2005.



In its reliance upon, and orientation towards, these community audiences, GLQ history is doing what a lot of academic history aspires to do – it is making its stories relevant to the wider world. But this history-making is worth the attention of scholars in other ways too. In struggling to make sense of a past that has been largely concealed, GLQ researchers and writers have had to find ways to access, and to understand, lives that were vilified, marginalised and (in the case of gay men) criminalised, and subcultures that, when they existed at all, carefully concealed themselves. Evidence of homosexual lives and practices was often not produced at all; or it was destroyed by family, friends and colleagues keen to protect the reputations of their loved ones. Unearthing such histories calls for techniques and approaches and ways of seeing that are not necessarily those practiced or valued in the more formally constituted institutions. It calls for what classical historian Mary Beard refers to, in a rather different context, as 'those tantalising processes of investigation, deduction, empathy, reconstruction and sheer guesswork'.15
What we might call a queer eye, a camp sensibility, or a 'little bit of intuition' is of value here. Looking at the forecourt of the State Library of Victoria, for example, queer folk may see a space rather at odds with the civic intentions of the designers. On the left, St George,16 a finely-muscled, stark naked man upon a rearing stallion, enormous lance in hand, a writhing serpent impaled under him. On the right, St Joan of Arc, a notorious cross-dresser. It is no surprise that many of the Lesbian and Gay Archives history walks begin here, at what is arguably ground zero for Queer Melbourne.
Less frivolously, perhaps, there is the expertise that someone trained in, and committed to, queer history can bring to the task of unearthing the GLQ past. In her article in this volume, Kate Davison discusses the survey which she conducted for the Museum of Victoria and the State Library to locate public holdings of LGBT records and artefacts in Victoria.17 In the space of a year or two her efforts took the Museum's catalogue listings of items relevant to queer history from nine objects to 97 – with another 80 which were relevant to sexuality more generally and to feminist history. This remarkable increase refers not to the new collections and items that she unearthed (they are recorded separately), but to material that was held already but had not been understood in a GLQ context. This is not to suggest that – as might have been true in the past – that curators had deliberately concealed such associations; rather it is to argue that it requires a willingness to see, and an ability to do so, that the discipline of queer history has cultivated in its practitioners.
The willingness to see is important. Many of those who do GLQ history talk of giving the past 'the benefit of the doubt', reversing the heterosexual assumption that we must have incontrovertible evidence of homosexuality before we can name it as such. Arguing that this creates a burden of proof that does not apply to the identification of heterosexuality in past lives, the suggestion is that we might want to remain open to the possibility of reversing the onus of proof, or at least keeping our options open. A few blocks down Swanston Street from the State Library stands Charles Web Gilbert's 1925
statue of the explorer Matthew Flinders, which might plausibly be included within the queer geography of Melbourne. A letter of February 1800 which Flinders wrote to his shipmate George Bass surfaced in 1998 when it was purchased by the State Library of New South Wales.18 In it, the 21 year old Flinders writes of his admiration for his friend and mentor, and of the distraction Bass's mere presence is: 'I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me a degree of pleasure; your footsteps upon the quarterdeck over my head, took me from my books, and brought me upon deck to walk with you'. But Flinders' ardour was not always reciprocated: 'your apparent coolness towards me [he writes], and the unpleasant manner you took to point out my failings, roused my pride and cooled my ardour'. Historians, auctioneers and museum directors rushed to assure us that all this effusiveness is best understood as an example merely of the flowery language of the time.19 Maybe. And yet, if we allow ourselves to think beyond the text for a moment, what do we see? What behaviour is described? What feelings? Bass's presence upon the deck breaks Flinders' concentration and the younger man rushes up on deck to be with him. Bass's coldness produces a state of acute anxiety. These behaviours and emotions surely tell us about something other than epistle-forms: if this was a Miss Bennett writing to a Mr Darcy, we would be in no doubt at all as to what it meant. None of this is to suggest that Bass and Flinders engaged in the kind of genital intermingling that might let us claim them as homosexual in any modern sense – the fact is, we cannot know at all whether such acts ever took place. But in trying to think about what these words reflect, it is not so much that we are overplaying the queer eye here; rather, it requires a certain doggedness not to see Flinders' emotional turmoil as anything other than the outpourings of a man in (unrequited, and perhaps unconscious) love.
None of this is meant to suggest that these processes of seeing, of locating queerness in the past, are unproblematic. To take one example: in her survey for the State Library and the Museum, Kate Davison identifies a silver teapot held by the Museum and locates it within the story of Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb, 'the lady squatters', whose life together on their property on Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula between 1840 and 1853 has long been claimed for lesbian history. Bev Roberts, who has edited an edition of Drysdale's diary and began researching their lives in the hope of claiming them for the lesbian pantheon, has concluded that it makes very little sense to think of these women as lesbians at all.20 The Davison-Roberts debate alerts us to the ways in which our assumptions, and the ways in which we weigh evidence – and how we weigh the absence of evidence – will shape our conclusions. Despite their similar backgrounds as feminists with an interest in lesbian histories, these women have come nonetheless to very different conclusions about the nature of the past that they are seeing – a reminder of the inherently complex and ambiguous nature of the queer past.
The fact is that we often cannot know for sure what it is we are seeing, but this can elicit efforts beyond those usually required of historians, and can provide models for doing our history with less complacency. Take, for example, the Arthur R. Groves'
manuscript book of verse, held in the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. This handwritten volume contains about two dozen poems organised around several themes: love poems, war poems, poems in a lighter vein and post-war verses. Each poem is noted with place and date ranging from 'At sea 1906', via 'Entre Rios' (Argentina) 1909 and 1910 and Paraguay 1913, to the war poems from France 1915-1917 and Italy 1918, to London and England 1919. The cover has stuck to it an Australian-stamped envelope addressed to Mr Stuart Hunter of Lakes Entrance.21
Beyond that there is precious little that we know for sure. (It didn't help that for some time we had assumed that the author was Greys, rather than Groves, having misread the handwriting.)22 But the person who found the volume in a second hand shop and donated it to the Archives had little doubt about what he was looking at, though the volume does not reveal itself explicitly, unambiguously or definitively. We need to bring to it some of the skills we have been discussing here, which may be summed up in the word 'speculation'. The book contains a photograph of 'the author of these verses', Arthur R. Groves. He is wearing something that looks to the modern eye strikingly like a feather boa; it is more likely the collar of a pilot's flying jacket. But questions arise: are his eyebrows artfully shaped? Are his lips rouged? Is that pose, with the demurely downcast eyes, just a little too wistful? And what of the dedication – ' To my friend/from his friend/ the author of these verses/London July 1920'?
And then there are the poems themselves. Love appears frequently. Nothing unusual there. But always as 'he': O cover me with lilies! In the day/Love came to me with splendour and a sweet surprise,/And took my hand in his, and stole away/My heart with his unfathomable eyes'. Again not unprecedented. But in a collection of poetry, written by a man, dedicated and sent to a man – surely we are entitled to consider the possibility that there is a bond here that goes beyond mere mateship. To consider, but not to conclude. But sometimes that is all we have to go on, and as far as we can go.
Or consider the case of Ethel May Punshon – Monte to her friends. Monte's scrapbooks came to the Archives shortly after her death in 1989 at the age of 106. As far as we can tell, she had been clipping newspapers and magazines over many years, and at some point she sat down and pasted them all into two large scrapbooks. No sources, no dates, although they seem to be 1930s and forties and after. But it is the subject matter that is most interesting. Apart from a number that were clipped from Japanese press (Monte fell in love with Japan after a visit there in the 1920s and went so far as to learn the language), the content is entirely composed of stories and photos of nonconforming women. There were 'aviators, motor-boat racers, racing motorists, jockeys and sailors, and women adventurers and sportswomen'.23 There were passing women – women who lived 'disguised' as, or 'personating', men – and even naked women, artfully but revealingly posed for the camera. Many of the photos were of attractive and stylish women but with a particular emphasis on the style of the modern, rather boyish, look of the 1920s and 30s: short hair, slim lines and flattened breast lines, occasionally rather mannish clothes such as jackets and ties.

Cover of the first edition (1971) of Dennis Altman's ground breaking Homosexual: oppression and liberation.

If all we had were the scrapbooks we would be required (as with Arthur Groves) to engage in what Ruth Ford has referred to as 'speculating'.24 This is not about wishful thinking, or imposing our values on the past, or reading too much into the evidence. Speculating is a technique employed by historians for particular purposes – to make sense of events, episodes, people about whom we do not have clear, unambiguous knowledge. It starts with intuition or a queer eye, but goes beyond these. It is best thought of, I would suggest, as a kind of archaeology. Not in the Foucauldian sense of seeking origins, but in the more literal sense – modeled on the way that archaeologists themselves use their craft to know the past from very partial evidence. An archaeologist presented with a shard, or a figurine, or the remains of a building, will know very much more about it than the object itself reveals – he/she will draw upon the accumulated knowledge of many people over many years to locate and understand the piece, usually with a high degree of confidence and accuracy.
So too for those of us who practice the art of queer history. Presented with a poem or a letter or a photo, we often know more than is obvious; we are often able to divine – from our knowledge of the historical period in which it was produced, and of the ways in which people expressed themselves, and from our work with the history of
mainstream and marginalised cultures – what this object might mean. It is always, of course, somewhat provisional, and is subject (as all historical knowledge is) to debate and correction or later reinterpretation. But things taken in context (a knowledge that is the outcome of years of work by many people), speak very differently to things taken in isolation. For example, Monte's scrapbooks cannot be definitive. They are, as Ruth Ford argued, a 'rich autobiographical source'25 and when Ford places their contents side by side with other evidence that we have about Monte – photos reproduced in her autobiography, Monte-San,26 a wider knowledge of the styles of the 1920s and thirties and so on – it would not be hard, or unreasonable, to draw the conclusion that Monte was, in our terms, a lesbian.
What is definitive, however, is Monte's own account of her life. Monte lived long enough to give an account of herself and her life. In an interview with City Rhythm, a Melbourne-based gay scene magazine in 1985 (when she was 102) she discussed her 'first love, and the greatest experience of my life . . . the love of my life', a woman called Debbie. She discussed their relationship including the great mental and physical attraction between them, and the pain that she experienced when, after 12 years, Debbie left her for another woman.27
Monte never, so far as we know, referred to herself as a lesbian; but there is no doubt at all that her primary emotional and physical attraction was to women, and that the one great romantic relationship of her life was with Debbie, whose loss she mourned for many decades. Her friends included a group of camp men (her 'homosexual boyfriends' she called them in her City Rhythm interview) and she moved in camp circles all through her life, and, in the very last years, was reasonably at home in the gay and lesbian scene. Our speculation as to Monte's sexuality, had we needed to engage in it, would, we know, have been right in this case. We cannot always have such certainty, but this case gives us reason for a certain modest confidence in the methodology.


Universities have a very high opinion of themselves and often assume that they are the prime source of society's knowledge and ideas. But in the case of gay, lesbian and queer history, this is much less true than in other realms of inquiry. By necessity and by choice, GLQ history has largely been the work of community-based scholarship, as much celebratory as academic, emerging from, and oriented towards, a very different set of peers. This is strength as much as a deficit. And it has led the discipline to develop innovative approaches that academic work might well want to consider more closely. In the absence of such engagement, it is not the community-based history that is the loser.

Letter from Ben Morris to Harry Bruin, 28 July 1919. PROVPRS 30: Criminal Trial Briefs 1920/10.


Martin Smith, Twelve part history series, Campaign, April 1977-March 1978.


Robert French, Camping By a Billabong: gay and lesbian stories from Australian History, Sydney: Blackwattle Press, 1993.


Garry Wotherspoon, 'From Private Vice to Public History: Homosexuality in Australia', Public History Review, vol. 1, 1992, pp. 148-159.


Margaret Bradstock and Louise Wakeling, eds, Words From the Same Heart, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1987.


Garry Wotherspoon, Being Different: nine gay men remember, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1986; and his City of the Plain: history of a gay sub-culture, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1991.


Denise Thompson, Flaws in the Social Fabric: Homosexuals and society in Sydney, Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1985.


Raymond Donovan and Leong K. Chan, eds, Gay Lesbian and Queer Studies in Australia, Sydney: Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research, University of Sydney, 1999.


See the following note for an explanation for the use of the spelling.


Jean Taylor, Brazen Hussies: a herstory of radical activism in the Women's Liberation Movement in Victoria, 1970-1979, Brunswick East, Vic.: Dyke Books, 2009. The use of 'herstory' and 'womyn' reflects a radical feminist respelling to extricate the category 'women' from its linguistic (and therefore social and political) dependence upon the category 'man'.


For an overview of the Archives and its collections, see the ALGA website


David L. Phillips and Graham Willett, eds, Australia's Homosexual Histories: gay and lesbian perspectives V, Sydney and Melbourne: Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research and the Australian Lesbian Gay Archives, 2001; Yorick Smaal and Graham Willett, eds, Out Here: gay and lesbian perspectives VI, Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2011.


For example, Smaal and Willett, eds, Out Here.


Andrew Murray-Gorman, 'So, Where is Queer? A critical geography of Queer exhibitions in Australia', Museums and Social Issues, vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 2008, pp. 67-80.


'Queen City of the South: Melbourne Queer history radio series',, accessed 30 July 2010.


Mary Beard, The Parthenon, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 43.


The statue is discussed in Shane Carmody's article in this issue.


Kate Davison, Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Material Survey, Project Report, Melbourne: Museum Victoria, 2006.


Letter to George Bass from Matthew Flinders, 15 February 1800, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 7046;


Michael Reid, 'Flinders Could've Ranged Further had Bass been not so Straight', Australian, 16 April 1998; Jonathan King, 'The Passionate Circumnavigator', Australian, 21 September 1998; 'Dr Keith Bowden', Australian, 16 October 1998.


Bev Roberts, 'Miss Newcomb's Teapot', in this volume.


Arthur Groves, unpublished book of verse, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.


A newspaper search has revealed an article from Paraguay written by Arthur Groves in 1912 which fits the dating of the poems, 'Where Revolutions Rage: Sydney Man in Paraguay', Hobart Mercury, 9 October 1912, p. 3.


Ruth Ford, 'Speculating on Scrapbooks, Sex and Desire', Australian Historical Studies, no. 106, 1996, p. 113.




Ibid, p. 113.


Ethel May Punshon, Monte-San: The Times Between: life lies hidden, Kobe: Kobe Japan-Australia Society, 1987.


'Monte: In Love With a Memory', City Rhythm, no. 30, April/May 1985.