Birthdays: Noel Tovey, Indigenous ballet dancer to Stonewall rioter

Noel Tovey, Indigenous ballet dancer to Stonewall rioter
Images: Facebook

Born on the 25th of December, 1934, Noel Tovey lived a life both illustrious and challenging. Noel Tovey was a trailblazer as the first Indigenous male ballet dancer, but also a Stonewall pioneering LGBTQIA+ activist.

Raised in Melbourne during the Great Depression, Noel and his siblings suffered neglect because of their parent’s struggles with unemployment and alcoholism.

“People used to say to me, ‘When did you come out of the closet’ and I’d say, “I didn’t – we were too poor to have a closet! My homosexuality has always been accepted,” he told Rosie Dennis.

As a young man, Noel Tovey left home to work the streets as a sex worker. Only then, he began to grapple with his sexuality and dream of bigger things.

“I was inured to the act of sex; my obvious good looks, exotically coloured body and total lack of morals were my entrée to some of the best addresses in Melbourne,” he writes, in his autobiography Little Black Bastard.

“Only by not thinking about what I was doing, could I possibly survive.”

Emerging through the queer scene

A lesbian friend took Noel under her wing, immediately recognising him for his true self.

“Chesca took me to a student performance of Les Sylphides and at the end of the male solo she dug me in the ribs and said, ‘You could do this’.

“It was like a light going on. I knew I could.”

However, in 1951, a police raid disrupted 17-year-old Noel Tovey’s dreams.

He attended a drag party hosted by Max du Barry, a well-known female impersonator (as they were then known), and a target for the police.

Homosexual sex was still criminal and Noel Tovey was charged with buggery.

The police promised he’d get off with a good behaviour bond if he pleaded guilty to sex with du Barry.

He refused and served several months in Melbourne’s notorious Pentridge prison.

From stardom to Stonewall

After escaping Australia in 1960, Noel Tovey went on to international fame. He worked as an actor, director and choreographer, in both London and New York.

In London, he was asked to choreograph and develop the new musical Oh! Calcutta. The bold new erotic play would see the cast, including Noel Tovey, strip naked.

“We were all nervous because we all thought we were going to be arrested,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1996.

“When the final scene came and everyone was nude on the stage, the audience all stood up and cheered and stamped their feet.

“And some of the women in the audience bared their breasts and some of the men dropped their trousers and the police didn’t know what to do.”

In New York, Noel formed a close circle of friends consisting of fellow activists. They would later make history.

“I was in New York the night of Judy Garland’s funeral,” he recalls.

“A group of us were out to dinner and one of the boys said, ‘Let’s go down to the Stonewall Inn, they’re having a wake for Judy.’

Expecting to mourn amongst fellow fans of Judy’s, instead, the group arrived to find “all hell had broken loose”.

“I felt empowered – we marched down the streets chanting ‘Gay power! Gay power!’ as the police beat us over the head with their truncheons.

“The next morning there were about 4,000 on the streets – gays, lesbians, Blacks, anyone who had a grievance against the police.

“It was totally inspirational”, Noel says. “It was a turning point, a very important part of my history too.”

Noel Tovey indigenous
Image: Facebook

Making a legend

After losing his long-term partner to HIV, Noel Tovey returned home to Australia in the 90s.

Back home, he directed an all-Indigenous cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then, in 2000, he was artistic director for the Indigenous welcoming at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.

Noel Tovey remains a fierce activist. His history of activism includes anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid rallies through to protests against Indigenous incarceration.

He has since established Indigenous performing arts courses, guest lectured, authored three books, and much, much more.

After losing his leg to cancer, Noel Tovey now lives quietly in Melbourne, amid a stunning art collection.

In an interview with SBS’s Alister McKeich, he revealed dance helped him escape abuse and prejudice.

“In my world of dance there were no drunks, no drugs, no abuse and no racism, it was just me and the music.

“Sometimes now, I sit in my wheelchair, put my favourite record on the turntable, close my eyes and I’m dancing again.”

Read also: Oodgeroo Noonuccal — National Treasure, poet, writer, activist, artist, environmentalist, educator,  veteran, and PROUD MUM.

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

Nate Woodall

QNews, Brisbane Gay, App, Gay App, LGBTI, LGBTI News, Gay Australia

1 Comment

  1. Julian
    27 December 2022

    Thank you Nate Woodall for this great Story.
    Great photos to show my mob.
    In 1951 the police acted like wild animals and did terrible things.
    Imagine being this man back then he should get a medal for Bravery.
    Noel Tovey LGBT Aboriginal Legend.
    Sadly in FNQ the QPS /DPP has serious issues with Sexism homophobia & Transphobic discrimination especially in the British colonial Christian Australian judicial system. In my opinion and belief. Remember the police work for KING CHARLES SAXE COBURG GOTHA.

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