State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 87 May 2011

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Jo Ritale and Graham Willett
Rennie Ellis at Gay Pride Week, September 1973

Rennie Ellis was a renowned Melbourne photographer and his collection is a major document of Australian social history covering the last decades of the 20th century. Comprising over half a million original negatives and transparencies, it is unique in providing a view of the post-war generation from a photographer immersed in the culture he was recording.
Rennie studied at Melbourne University before dropping out to work in advertising. He bought his first camera to document a round-the-world trip, and began working as a freelance photojournalist in the 1970s. He photographed all aspects of Australian life, recording the hedonistic society of his times in a deeply humanist way. He died suddenly in 2003.
In 2009 the Directors of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive, Kerry Oldfield Ellis and Manuela Furci, approached the State Library with a proposal that a significant component of the Archive be acquired by the Library. They were honouring Rennie's wishes that his collection be held at the State Library of Victoria and accessible to the people of Victoria.
The Library is in the process of purchasing the collection. Last year a successful fundraising campaign by the State Library of Victoria Foundation raised over $50,000 to assist with its acquisition. Purchase of the collection has also received assistance from the Australian Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account.
Rennie's collection provides a unique visual record of the dynamic cultures and sub-cultures of Melbourne, spanning four decades from the late 1960s and reflecting the photographer's passion for his hometown. The collection records Melbourne's diverse street life, evocative images of Toorak Road and graffiti sites. There are images documenting the city's twin sporting obsessions: AFL and the Melbourne Cup as well as events such as Anzac Day and local street festivals. There are photographs of well known Melbourne identities, such as racehorse trainer Bart Cummings and socialite Lillian Frank, as well as portraits of ordinary people, from suburban families to the Senior Citizens Club of the Fitzroy Council in the 1970s. Melbourne's rise as a fashion capital is also captured, with images of mainstream and alternative fashion, on the catwalk and behind the scenes, and other images record the nightclub scene of the 1970s and '80s.
The collection is being transferred to the State Library in stages with images of the Melbourne Cup, AFL, fashion and personalities already received. Digitised images are being made available on the State Library's website.
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Drag Queens and Security Guard, 1973. Taken by Rennie Ellis outside the Gender Confusion Dance held at the Melburnian Receptions Basement during Gay Pride Week, and it appeared on the cover of Nation Review, vol. 3, no. 48, 14-20 September, 1973.
Ellis explained the circumstances of how he came to take the photo (and the ones on pages 90-93):
Nation Review asked me to document Gay Pride Week in 1973. It was a time when the Gay Liberation movement was picking up momentum and many homosexuals were going public (coming out) for the first time. I ran foul of the Radical Lesbians with an untimely arrival at the Women's Centre, danced ring-a-ring-a-rosy at a picnic in the Botanical Gardens, was embraced warmly by one or two anonymous men and took this picture outside a gay dance in Elizabeth Street in the city.

II

Gay Pride Week was held in Melbourne in September 1973. The gay liberation movement had exploded onto the scene in Australia in 1970, but by 1973 many activists were gripped by a sense that the best days were behind them. Gay Pride Week was organised at the suggestion of Sydney Gay Liberation, as a way of shaking off this mood. Liberationists in Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide took up the proposal enthusiastically. The intention was to draw upon the full repertoire of activism – celebratory demonstrations, militant zaps, educational activities, coming out, flaunting it. Targeted were:
all the institutions of our oppression: the police courts, job discrimination, the bigoted churchmen and politicians, the media, the psychiatrists, the aversion
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therapists, the military, the schools, the universities, the work-places ... It will also seek to change the mind of the prejudiced, the fearful, the conditioned, the sexually repressed, all those who in oppressing us, oppress themselves.1
It was also intended that it:
will say to gay and straight alike: gay is good, gay is proud, gay is aggressively fighting for liberation. It will say to gays: come out and stand up. Only you can win your own liberation. Come out of the ghettos, the bars and beats, from your closets in suburbia and in your own minds and join the struggle for your own liberation.2
Melbourne organised graffiti paint-ups,3 a demo of some 250 people, a dance and a Schoolday (to talk to high school students) and a parents of gays evening. Members appeared on television programs twice and on a radio talkback show.4
The centrepiece of the week was a picnic in the Botanical Gardens, attended by a hundred and fifty lesbians and gay men. Rennie Ellis reported in the Nation Review that the public response to the picnic was one of 'good humour at least and an easy going acceptance at best'.5 The 'infectious charm' of the picnickers, their very gay songs, hand-in-hand promenading, games of Drop the Hanky and Spin the Bottle amused the passers-by. Until a policeman appeared and announced that games were not permitted in the park. Faced with the obvious riposte – that children all over were playing games – he announced that he would decide what was a game and what was not. ('I'm game if you're game' a voice from somewhere in the crowd murmured). Feisty Radicalesbians continued to argue, threats of arrest were uttered ('I'm not playing around anymore' he declared, straight-faced) and the crowd duly settled down to polish off their turkey.6 One spectator was heard to remark that he had no idea that there were so many homosexuals in Melbourne. And which was after all, the point of the week's events.
But the moment that most people remember, even decades later, was the arrival of Gordon Doak at the demo in the City Square.7 Gordon was 42 (ancient by Gay Lib's standards), a building contractor who lived in the Western suburbs. A big man [6'1', 14 stone], comfortable with his homosexuality but not very out, he decided, on hearing about the demo, that he wanted to be there. But not for him anything as mundane as catching a train. Rather he decided to run in to the city, and to carry a banner that he made for himself – 2 foot square, black letters on green canvas that read 'I am proud of my homosexuality. Please change the repression against homosexuals and let us live in peace'. As he ran the eight miles through the streets of Sunshine, Tottenham and Footscray, he was cheered on and waved at by pedestrians and jeered at only twice! As one of those at the demo pointed out 'Everyone hoped that there would be a Gordon Doak, of course, because one of Gay Pride Week's objectives was to get members of the community to "come out"'. But no-one, not even the Gay Liberation organisers, expected it to happen with such a dramatic flourish. The fact that it did illustrated with startling clarity the success of the week'. And, we might add, prefigured the success of the movement.
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Rennie Ellis with his camera 1974 © Bob Bourne

III

The following photos from the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive represent a remarkably important record of Gay Pride Week in Melbourne in 1973. In the first place, the pictures are unique – not even the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives has any significant images of that memorable week. And, equally important, Ellis has captured in a few shots a sense of the variety of politics at work. From a protest march through the streets, to Gordon Doak and his one-man banner, to the picnic in the park which so unsettled the police. And he captures, too, the playful use of graffiti and the playful-serious use of radical drag to challenge gender norms. Here we really do see how pictures may indeed tell thousands of words.
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1

'Gay Pride Week', Melbourne Gay Liberation Newsletter.

2

Ibid.

3

Two of these survived into the 1990s before disappearing. One was opposite St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral; another was on the side of a house in Fitzroy. Both read: Gay Pride Week September 7-14.

4

'Melbourne Gay Pride Week Reviewed', Melbourne Gay Liberation Newsletter, October 1973. A leaflet was produced for this evening in the form of a letter addressed 'Dear Mum/Dad – Melbourne Gay Liberation Front', 'Parents Night 11th September', leaflet, n.d. [September 1973].

5

Rennie Ellis, 'A Gay Picnic in the Park', Nation Review, 14-20 September 1973, p. 1516.

6

'MGLF' [sic], Gay Rays, December 1972.

7

'Come on Victoria, your time is up', Stallion, vol. 1, no. 5-9, September 1973, p. 2.