1947: Lady Phyllis Cilento ‘crime against nature’


lady phyllis cilento crime against Nature

In 1947, Lady Phyllis Cilento banged on in the Courier-Mail about homosexuality being “racially suicidal, and a Crime against Nature.”

Another snippet of queercentric news from Australian media history.

A horrible, horrible person

Lady Phyllis Cilento scribed columns for various Queensland papers for over half a century. As a doctor and someone with a title, she wielded enormous influence over public opinion. Sadly, she was a horrible, horrible person — an unashamedly homophobic white supremacist.

Yet, decades after her death, she enjoys a reputation as a sweet little old lady. That’s mainly the result of her own unrelenting self-promotion. But she also benefitted in recent times from the co-opting of her name for partisan political purposes. A short-lived LNP Queensland state government named a hospital after the conservative icon and friend of Joh Bjelke-Petersen to spite Labor.

The mainstream media — always in search of a simple narrative – happily went with the Saint Phyllis bullshit. When evidence emerged to the contrary, they refused to budge from the established narrative or admit to sloppy reporting.

Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis Cilento

Lady Phyllis Cilento and her husband, Sir Raphael, advocated in the thirties for the compulsory sterilisation of people they regarded as physically, mentally or morally degenerate social misfits. The couple fretted that the ‘less fortunate’ bred in greater numbers than the ‘better class of families’. That, they warned, threatened the future of the white race and Western civilisation.

They fretted that ‘the coloured people’ would overrun the white race. According to Phyllis, Britishers had a duty to breed.

“We cannot afford biologically to waste our adult men and women in their fertile period of life in the physical sterility of perversions.”

Most public figures disowned so-called scientific racism following the horrors of WWII. But the Cilentos remained disciples decades later. While Sir Raphael struggled to find employment later in life because of his racism, Lady Phyllis somehow got a pass.

She makes an interesting study in bigotry. Mainly because there’s so much material available to peruse.

And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious what triggered her malevolence. The inner demons that drove Lady Phyllis Cilento were always hiding in plain sight.

Lady Phyllis Cilento

Phyllis Cilento’s autobiography reveals the terrible shame she felt about her father leaving her mother for another woman. Her parents never divorced. It wasn’t the done thing in the nineteen-twenties. Later, her own marriage proved equally disastrous. The Cilentos maintained a public charade as a happily married couple for over six decades despite Raphael’s many affairs. On at least two occasions, he lived with other women for years at a time.

In fact, when Lady Phyllis Cilento penned her 1947 column about the dastardly Crime against Nature, her husband was living with another woman in New York. Indeed, in 1947, as well as columns barracking for the continuation of the White Australia Policy, Phyllis wrote a series of six articles on making a success of marriage. Who wouldn’t want advice on marriage from someone whose own spouse was half a world away fcking someone else?  

Lady Phyllis Cilento crime against nature

Crime against Nature

There was something else on her mind as well when she wrote that 1947 column — her eldest son, 26-year-old Dr Raff Cilento’s involvement in a court case over an alleged police bashing at The Pink Elephant Cafe, a gay hangout.

As a regular at the cafe, he had been called to attend to the bashing victim in the middle of the night. In court, the prosecution made much of allegations that a male waiter sometimes waited on tables in female attire and men called Lana Turner and Pearl of the Pacific were regular customers. Called to give medical evidence, Raff Cilento found himself grilled about his regular attendance at the cafe and other venues.

In the midst of the scandal, Raff Cilento suddenly announced his engagement to a young Brisbane society woman. Despite his marriage, in 1953, he secretly fathered a child by his mother’s housekeeper, Kath Walker, later Oodgeroo Noonuccal, legendary Australian poet.

During the fifties, Raff was also prominent on the Brisbane gay scene as a transvestite boasting of a better wardrobe than his society wife.

Lesbians

Lady Phyllis Cilento usually focussed her ire on gay male men, not writing specifically about lesbians until 1980. By that time, it was common knowledge that her daughter Ruth, a prominent Brisbane doctor, was a lesbian.

Was that going to stop Phyllis talking shit?

Never!

She did note that she thought girls far less prone to lesbian practices than boys to ‘the Crime aganist Nature’.

“Their opportunities are less, their inhibitions greater. Fortunately, women are more readily changed by the wooing of an insistent lover.”

Such a lovely turn of phrase — the wooing of an insistent lover! Infinitely superior to the vulgar but more common at the time: “all they need is a good fck!”

Even in 1984 when Phyllis wrote those words, courts of law referred to the unwanted ‘wooing of an insistent lover’, depending on the degree of ‘insistent wooing’, as harassment, sexual assault, or rape.

Phyllis Dorothy Cilento, Lady Cilento, a horrible, horrible person.

Read More:

The Pink Elephant Cafe.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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