Although a national icon, Ned Kelly remains something of an enigma. The most famous bushranger of them all stares out at the world through a slit in his armour plate helmet and everyone makes of him what they will. Despite Red and Ellen Kelly not registering Ned’s birth, documentation indicates a December 1854 birthdate.
In 1966, author Sidney J. Baker outraged disciples of the Kelly Gang when he described the national folk heroes as ‘a group of homosexuals’.
The Times of London blushed on Australia’s behalf.
“Now we know that nothing is sacred.”
Further controversy erupted in 1990 when Brisbane’s Sunday-Mail published an article on ‘Our Gay Bushrangers’. The article asked, “Who would have thought that his gang of desperadoes was really a nest of gays?”
That article also mentioned Captain Moonlite ‘who might have been better known as Captain Twinkles in more enlightened times’.
Thanks to the discovery of Moonlite’s death-cell letters by historian Garry Wotherspoon, we possess primary source evidence of that bushranger’s sexuality. In fact, consequent to Garry Wotherspoon’s research, authorities granted Moonlite’s dying wish. They exhumed his remains from Sydney and reinterred the bushranger next to the grave of his lover James Nesbitt in Gundagai.
But the Kelly Gang?
Sidney J. Baker was famous for his 1945 masterpiece The Australian Language which posited the way we talk as the key to our national identity. In 1966, he updated the book. He added a rant against the gang to his analysis of expressions like ‘Game as Ned Kelly’. He also listed his evidence for calling the gang homosexual.
Baker noted Ned’s fondness for perfume, the gang’s predilection for cross-dressing as well as Dan Kelly and Steve Hart dying in each other’s arms.
Not to mention the same-sex dancing.
Before the Kelly Gang’s last stand at the siege of Glenrowan, they rounded up the locals and held them hostage at the Glenrowan Inn. The event turned into something of a party with music, drinking and dancing. A drunk Dan Kelly emerged from the hotel and asked local school teacher Tom Curnow for a dance.
“I said I could not dance with the boots I had on,” Curnow later testified.
“Ned Kelly then came out of the hotel and, hearing me object, said: ‘Come on. Never mind your boots!’ I went into the hotel and danced with Dan Kelly.”
Ian Jones, an author who specialised on the Kellys and wrote the screenplay of the Mick Jagger Ned Kelly biopic, was outraged.
“I can’t believe that Mr Baker, student of Australiana, has never heard of ‘buck sets’ and shearers dancing together in woolshed dances.”
Out in the bush at Jerilderie, the locals threatened to riot.
In 1879, the Kelly Gang robbed the Jerilderie bank and then held thirty people hostage overnight in a hotel. By the 1960s, the town made a tidy income from Kelly tourism.
Chicka Cully, the publican of a local hotel, wanted the book banned.
“Certainly the Kelly Gang stuck together. But if they danced together, it’s only because there weren’t enough girls to go around.”
“Ned Kelly was a real man.”
Chicka promised a mass protest, an unlikely prospect in a town of a few hundred people.
Neither Ian Jones nor Chicka Culley seemed to comprehend that if shearers and the Kelly Gang danced together because of a lack of female partners, they might similarly partake of other same-sex activities.
A particular Aussie expression comes to mind but Sydney J. Baker never included ‘horizontal folk-dancing’ in his compendium.
The Jerilderie Shire Clerk said the next council meeting would discuss Ned’s sexuality. It was a pressing matter. The council only recently commissioned artwork to incorporate Ned’s head in the town coat-of-arms.
Down at the RSL, secretary Harry Doyle described the idea as nonsense.
“He had Irish blood in him, so I reckon he would have gone the other way.”
Apparently, Mr Doyle never met an Irish homosexual.
The best-known cross-dresser of the Kelly cohort was Steve Hart. Young, pretty and celebrated for his skill as a horse-rider, rumour had it Hart ran errands for the gang during their time as outlaws by dressing as a woman. He rode straight by police search parties, dressed in drag and riding side-saddle like a perfect young gentlewoman.
Hart met 16-year-old Dan Kelly in prison in 1877 and they remained life-long friends, which in their case meant three years.
In 1947, Sir Sidney Nolan painted Hart in drag as part of his Ned Kelly series of paintings.
The 1881 Royal Commission into the Victorian Police Force and the hunt for the gang said of Hart, “He appears to have been possessed of a considerable courage and resource, and during the period of his outlawry frequently rode about in feminine attire.”
Sir Sydney Nolan noted, “All the Kellys may have dressed like this at times to deceive people for fun. The picture is as posed as the rider. The story is that Steve Hart, dressed as a girl, won a race at the Greta Races, riding side-saddle.”
In fact, the Royal Commission heard evidence of Ned Kelly himself sneaking into Melbourne disguised as a woman. Another story told of Ned and Joe Byrnes, the fourth gang member, squiring Dan and Steve, both in drag, to a circus in Beechworth.
Never associated with women
Sidney J. Baker also mentioned as evidence Kelly’s teenage bushranging apprenticeship with Harry Power. Power once gave as a reason for his life as an outlaw, the fact that he ‘never associated with women’.
As for Dan Kelly and Steve Hart dying in each other’s arms, how do we analyse the thinking of the two young men when they died? After seeing Ned brought down in a hail of bullets and taken away, the pair apparently shot each other in a suicide pact rather than be taken alive.
Whatever the sexuality of Ned Kelly and the other members of his gang, a liking for perfume, same-sex dancing and cross-dressing are not indicators of homosexuality, even taken together. They do nothing more than arouse suspicion. The gang’s apparent lack of interest in women is better evidence than any of those. Although, in a time when conventions mattered a great deal, a defiant refusal to conform did usually indicate something.
But what is most interesting is the efforts by various citizens to defend the Kelly gang’s defiance of heteronormative convention. Although those gentlemen obviously saw such behaviour as indications of homosexuality they were determined to make excuses for their heroes.
George Farwell who published a book on Kelly in 1971 quickly dismissed any suggestion of homosexuality. Farwell explained that Ned never mixed with girls because he had a mother fixation.
Farwell also criticised Mick Jagger’s portrayal of Kelly in a recently released film.
“Mick Jagger killed Ned Kelly,” he sniffed.
Perhaps Jagger’s response when asked about Ned’s sexuality pissed of Mr Farwell.
“I think we’re all latently homosexual, seriously.”
The Kelly Legacy
This writer has known normally rational former police offers to turn apoplectic with rage at the mere mention of the cop-killing Kelly Gang. That ignores the corruption and abject cruelty of the police that members of the gang dealt with. But, we should not ignore either, that the gang both killed in cold blood and caused the deaths of other people by intentionally putting them in harm’s way.
Maybe we should simply leave the last word to Harry Doyle back at the RSL in Jerilderie in 1966.
“Ned is tops in this town.” Perhaps Harry meant ‘a top’ but either way, we don’t really need that much detail.