State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 87 May 2011

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Editorial

Melbourne May Not always have been as marvellous as it likes to think – but it has always been multifarious. When I was invited to edit this special issue of the La Trobe Journal I saw it as a way not merely to showcase the work that gay and lesbian historians have been doing over recent years, but also as a way of encouraging people – all of us – to look at our city's history differently.
The queer history of Melbourne is, in part, the history of a minority. But is also the history of the city itself, examined from an unexpected angle. Iconic places look very different when seen through the eyes of queer folk. Take the cover image of this volume. The Queen Victoria Hospital was a well-known example of Melbourne's proud civic architecture, of feminist activism, of a society that strove to take care of its weaker members. But for some of us, the public toilet sitting inconspicuously on the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale will have its own story to tell – for many decades it was one of the city's most active pickup places for camp/gay/queer men.
Archives, remembrance, experience, reflection bring new insights to our knowledge and understanding of Melbourne's history. And in most cases, it is through combinations of these ways of doing history that we get such striking stories and deep insights.
The articles in this volume bring to light a history that will be new to many readers. And they do so in a variety of ways. We have memoir (Michael Hurley reflects upon his arrival in Melbourne in the mid-1970s) and an interview with Haddon Storey, the state Attorney-General who in the late seventies introduced legislation into the Victorian Parliament that decriminalised homosexual acts between men.
Barrett Reid, a long-time senior staff member of the State Library of Victoria, is shown in a new light in an article that shows evidence of both research and personal knowledge. Grand edifices like the old Hotel Australia in Collins Street and the statue of St George on the forecourt of the Library, and a small photo album held by the Library's Pictures Collection, offer very different ways of exploring the city's past. Rennie Ellis' photos are worth many thousands of words. There are articles that reveal the fruits of longterm detailed research. Wayne Murdoch's article is drawn from many hours immersed in the court records of the 1920s and thirties. The left, and youth – both aspects of gay and lesbian life that have tended to be overlooked in the past – here get some much needed attention. There are reflections, too, on how to do this new and emerging history – what sources exist and how do we make sense of them? The bibliography gives some idea of how much has been done already – and this is only the short version.
For a long time, researching and writing gay history was confined very largely to the painstaking accumulation of basic source materials. This remains a major task and also a richly rewarding one. But we have reached a point now where debates about the past have become possible. The rather different views that Kate Davison and Bev Roberts have on Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcomb involve questions of identity, but also involve
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quite different attitudes to who or what this history is all about. 'Were they or weren't they?' by no means exhausts the scope of debates and discussions about our past.
And finally, a note on terminology. Gay and lesbian history has long been bedevilled by the problem of 'what to call them?' Over the years same-sex desire has been labelled in a variety of ways – from the religiously-inflected sodomite, to the medically-inspired Greco-Latin homosexual, and the vernacular poofter and lezzo . . . Beginning in the 1970s we began to speak for ourselves, but, far from simplifying matters, this made the situation even more confusing – camp, gay, lesbian, queer all competed. Other groups started to speak up and demand inclusion – bisexuals, transsexuals, transgender and intersex people . . . Same-sex attracted was applied to young people; men who have sex with men to another group entirely. There is no right answer and in this volume we have left the authors to use their own preferred terms.
Graham Willett, Guest Editor