OPINION: Was Australia’s 20th Prime Minister William McMahon A Gay Man?

In 1970s Australia, it seemed inconceivable that a gay person could hold the office of Prime Minister. But Destiny Rogers asks, was Australia’s 20th Prime Minister William McMahon a gay man?

Sir William McMahon had a long climb up the ladder of success. Once at the top, he fell off. He was not a popular PM.

His wife seems to be the only person who liked him. Unlike Sir Billy, she was much loved. She is remembered for her style, beauty and – wearing a scandalous dress to the White House. Their son is the actor Julian McMahon.

William McMahon became the 20th Prime Minister of Australia in 1971, by default.

In just five years the Liberal Party had lost it’s main men. Party founder Menzies retired. His successor Holt disappeared while swimming. Prime Minister Gorton lost the confidence of his own party room.

The last man standing was the unpopular and distrusted McMahon.

His former Liberal Party rival Hasluck did his duty as Governor General and swore William McMahon in as PM, but later wrote, “I confess to a dislike of McMahon. The longer one is associated with him the deeper the contempt for him grows and I find it hard to allow him any merit.

“Disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty, cowardly – all these adjectives have been weighed by me and I could not in truth modify or reduce any one of them in its application to him.”

Until the age of 57 Billy remained unmarried, a “confirmed bachelor”. Rumours persisted throughout his life that he was homosexual. During his time as Navy Minister in the early fifties he was said to “co-opt handsome young sailors in tight-fitting bell-bottom trousers to caddy for him at golf.”

Being a “confirmed bachelor” was a hindrance to advancement in government. Even nearly 50 years later, Julia Gillard’s unmarried status provoked comment.

Sir Robert Menzies himself advised McMahon that if he ever wished to be Prime Minister he would need a wife and children.

McMahon’s secretary remembered that immediately Billy heard Menzies was retiring he looked up Sonia Hopkins, an unmarried Sydney socialite, 24 years his junior, and Liberal Party member. Six months later he proposed, another three, they were married, and in two more, she was pronounced pregnant.

McMahon talking with Corporal Colin King in Malaysia

The marriage did not help McMahon’s political progress in the short term. Holt was Menzies’ designated successor, and when he drowned, the leader of the Liberal’s Country Party coalition partner, Jack McEwen, refused to continue the coalition with McMahon as PM.

He told McMahon it was because he didn’t trust him, but told others it was because he believed McMahon was homosexual.

Sonya and Billy were a bizarre couple. He was much older. He was shorter. He had extremely prominent ears and a noticeably high pitched voice. The Australian mentioned a “rather effeminate manner”.

She was beautiful, tall, elegant and stylish. McMahon said people came to see him purely to have a “squizz” at Sonia. In later years she mentioned having felt like an “appendage”. Less kind people may have used the word “handbag” or even “beard”.

Neil Brown, later John Howard’s deputy leader – who would in the 90’s leave his own wife and acknowledge his homosexuality – said, “She towered over her diminutive husband and her elegance and good looks stood in sharp contrast to the decrepit gnome-like figure beside her and simply added to his comic appearance.”

McMahon used his beautiful wife to advantage. On a state visit to Washington Sonia wore a stunning white dress slit up to the thighs to dinner at the White House with Richard Nixon. The dress made headlines world wide.

The Washington Post said it was the most talked about garment ever seen in Washington and Sonia would later claim the dress put Australia on the map. (At the very least it put the map of Tassie on the map.)

Sonia McMahon at the White House in ‘that dress’

Gay rumours ‘silly’

The dress did not save McMahon’s Prime Ministership. The following year Gough Whitlam led the Australian Labor Party to a landslide win and McMahon became not only one of our shortest, but also shortest serving PMs. McMahon resigned as party leader but stayed in Parliament another decade.

I read in a gay magazine Campaign in the late seventies a blatant inference that McMahon was gay. It mentioned regular assignations at a suburban Canberra restaurant. I was shocked. I lived in Queensland under the puritanical and dictatorial Bjelke-Peterson regime.

The highest political office a gay could aspire to in Queensland was President of the Hairdresser’s Association – so long as they stayed closeted – there would have been mass panic if people realised homosexuals were cutting their hair.

It was inconceivable to a gay teenage Queenslander that a gay man could hold the high office of Prime Minister.

After Billy’s death his wife protested that the rumours and printed assertions about her late husbands sexuality were baseless. She claimed “the gay business,” was started by Gough Whitlam, who mocked Billy when he dared defy the strict footwear convention of the era to wear suede shoes into Parliament.

“Bill was a sophisticated, cultured and fashion-conscious man. I think sometimes if someone doesn’t conform to an ocker-macho stereotype, they get branded as being homosexual. That’s so silly,” she said.

Obviously Billy was a pioneer metrosexual, decades ahead of his time.

Whitlam focused on the suede shoes but his innuendo was informed by two decades of rumour and the not insubstantial fact that, by the time McMahon wed, he numbered amongst less than 5% of Australians his age who had never married.

Tony Wright wrote in The Bulletin “former senior public servants recall McMahon when PM in the early 1970s would rove the men’s dressing rooms at the old squash courts in Manuka.

Wearing not a stitch, he was in the habit of approaching other men and virtually demanding they engage in long, often meaningless conversations … The only newspaper report was a picture of McMahon with a black eye, which he said occurred in a game when he was hit by an opponent’s racquet.”

Sonia also mentioned when defending Billy that he had chosen that dress for her. Indeed he chose all her dresses. (As any self respecting metrosexual would!)

Gay law reform

Does it matter if our 20th Prime Minister was gay? Is it any of our business? I think it does matter, and it is most certainly our business.

William McMahon was in government from 1949. He held senior positions in that government from the early 50’s and ended up at its head. That government, like its predecessors, denied Aboriginals basic human rights for most of its time in power.

They continued the White Australia Policy. Despite Menzies having declined to fight in either of the World Wars and McMahon sitting out the second in an office job due to hearing problems, they happily conscripted young Australian men to fight and die in Vietnam.

Conscientious objectors languished in Australian prisons as McMahon swanned up the White House stairs with Sonia in her split dress. Homosexuals were subject to not only discrimination and prejudice but also criminal sanction and prison for private consensual adult sexual activity.

The Federal parliament actually did what it could about this situation while McMahon remained a member. In 1973 McMahon’s predecessor John Gorton and the Whitlam Minister, Moss Cass, co-sponsored legislation decriminalising adult homosexual activity.

While it only affected the Federal Territories – the ACT and the NT – it was the first tentative step to granting gay Australians equal citizenship.

McMahon was in Parliament House the day the legislation was voted on.

Even if he was not homosexual he had long personal experience of the discrimination homosexuals faced, with the decades of whispers about his sexuality culminating in McEwen’s refusal to see him elected Prime Minister.

How did he vote? He didn’t. Despite being in the House earlier, he scurried out and avoided that debate and the vote.