Gay Old Time
A new exhibition illustrates the evolution of
Melbourne’s gay community
Age, January 23, 2005
By Luke Benedictus.
An asio report from the 1950s, Homosexuals as Security
Risks, includes information from an anonymous man about Melbourne’s secret
gay subculture. As well as educating the authorities about queer terminology,
the source expresses his hope “to find an affectionate, stable and confiding
relationship with another homosexual”. The prospect, he acknowledges, is
“a probably unattainable dream-wish”.
His account appears in Camp as . . . Melbourne in the
1950s, a Midsumma Festival exhibition. Through photographs, interviews and
historical documents, Camp as provides an insight into what homosexual life
was like during a grimly repressive era in which gay men and women had reason
to cower in the closet.
Homosexuality was not only socially unacceptable in the
1950s, it was also a criminal offence. By 1957 the state vice squad had
dedicated a third of its resources to cracking down on what it perceived as a
growing problem in Victoria. Throughout the decade, the number of those
arrested and jailed continued to grow as officers raided parties or entrapped
gay men in public toilets and other popular beats.
Meanwhile, the Truth newspaper attempted to whip up moral
outrage by running lurid scare stories about “prowling pests” and “park
menaces”. But Graham Willett, a Melbourne University lecturer and curator of
the exhibition, suggests that, despite the fear of discrimination and arrest,
a tight-knit gay community still evolved during the 1950s. “We’ve
constructed this image of Melbourne back then as this terrible place,” he
says, “But what’s quite amazing is that people managed, through courage or
circumstances, to find ways of meeting other people like themselves and
constructing reasonably nice lives.”
Certainly the exhibition challenges the assumption that
gay people of the period led lonely, desperate lives. In one photo, for
example, a drag queen flounces defiantly about the stage wearing a pink dress
and a flower in his hair. “In the ‘50s there was no gay scene in a public
way,” Willett says, “but there were still places you could go to in the
city that accepted the presence of gay men.”
One of the most surprising gay sanctuaries was the Myer
department store, thanks to the director of the store’s display unit,
Freddie Asmussen, whose sexuality was an open secret. Bald and bespectacled,
Asmussen was renowned for the extravagant decor of his South Yarra home, which
boasted 13 chandeliers, a black-and-silver dining room and a colour-coded
garden in which he would tolerate only white flowers. His willingness to
employ young men of a similar sexual orientation turned Myer into an unlikely
haven for the gay community.
Hotel Australia on Collins Street was the closest that
Melbourne had to a gay bar. The upstairs area catered to a smart, discreet
crowd while the downstairs bar, known as “the snake pit”, was aimed at
rough trade. An alternative was Val’s, a bohemian coffee lounge on Swanston
Street, with a royal-blue carpet and mauve furniture. Val was a flamboyant
lesbian who walked the streets dressed in a homburg hat and tailored suit
while brandishing a silver-topped cane.
Willett says that during this era there was more pressure
on lesbians to conform to these stereotypes. “Lots of women talk about
living as butches or femmes in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he says. “But
women’s liberation challenged a lot of that. It said, ‘You can be what you
want to be. You don’t have to conform to these roles.’ “
Other fragments of queer culture featured in the
exhibition are similarly blatant. In the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives,
Willett discovered a stash of magazines promoting body building as a form of
homoerotic stimulation. The cartoons in Physique Pictorial devise utterly
ridiculous situations to justify the inevitable displays of male nudity. One
features a muscle-bound builder, who falls off a roof and lands on a pile of
nails, thereby requiring his workmate to extract them from his buttocks. “It
just gets more and more camp,” Willett admits.
The brazen nature of such material would seem to suggest
a growing confidence within the community. And yet during the 1950s there was
just a single attempt to challenge the legal status quo that failed to gain
sufficient support. “For most of these people, the idea of changing the law
would have seemed impossible,” Willett says. “It would have just seemed
inconceivable that you would do that.”
The gay-rights movement only began to emerge in Australia
in the 1960s, developing as part of a broader liberal trend that also sought
reform on social issues such as abortion, censorship and Aboriginal rights.
Victoria didn’t decriminalise homosexuality until 1980, while Tasmania
didn’t suit until 1997. Over the past 50 years, gay culture has undergone a
makeover as radical as anything on Queer Eye For A Straight Guy. By exploring
the formative days of the community, Willett’s exhibition reinforces how
much has changed, while presenting an intriguing social history of
Melbourne’s secret past.
Camp as . . . Melbourne in the 1950s is on display at the
City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall.
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