Queer life before CAMP | Gay History

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Dr David Gould's book explores the lives of Australian gay men during the 1940s and 50s.

QNews spoke to author Dr. David Gould about his groundbreaking gay history book Survivors And Thrivers: Male Homosexual Lives in Postwar Australia.

WORDS Andrew M Potts

How did this book come about? This is an area of Australia’s gay history that has not often been explored.

At the end of 2016, I’d just retired, and I decided I wanted to do a PhD. When I was looking around for a topic for that, I remembered my very close friend, Alan, who died at the age of 87 four years ago.

He told me many stories about his life as a younger man, particularly in the 1950s and early 60s. And he told me all these stories that were full of fun and sex and going out with friends, and I used to think, well, that’s not exactly the image of the postwar years that I’ve read about homosexuals!

So I decided that I wanted to delve into that. Eventually, I found 27 men in their late 70s, 80s and 90s to interview about their lives in that period from 1945 onwards.

How did you go about finding these men?

I put the word out through some ads in the gay media and waited for people to come to me. Once I started to get a few people contacting me, I’d interview them, and it started to snowball as they would say, ‘oh, you should interview so-and-so’ and then that person would put me in contact with their friends, and so on.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about these men’s lives through this project?

The most surprising thing was this substantial minority of men who were able to accept their homosexuality at the time when it was so publicly suppressed. The 1940s and 50s have always been seen as a very dark time for homosexuals but there was this other secret history that was going along under the surface, and I don’t think those stories have been told before.

There was a huge explosion in early homosexual activism in continental Europe between the World Wars which was stamped out by the Nazis and the rise of the USSR. Was there any awareness of that at the time?

I didn’t get the sense that those sorts of ideas had filtered down to homosexual men in Australia at all. There was very little awareness of even the few studies into homosexuality that were published during the 40s and 50s [such as the Kinsey Report].

If anything the opposite happened. Some of the men that I interviewed went to live in London for some of those years because they had heard that it was much easier and freer for homosexuals than what it was in Australia.

World War II must have loomed large in many of these men’s lives, so what form did that take?

Many of their fathers had fought in the war, and when they came back, they were often uncommunicative with their sons. They had fixed ideas about what masculinity was and what a man should be that they imposed on their sons so they had to struggle with that.

How common was it for homosexual men to fall foul of the law during this period? Was it a case of being discovered through bad luck, or was there an active effort to root them out?

From what I was told, it was pretty common for them to run into trouble with police, particularly in New South Wales, where the police commissioner Colin Delaney made the prosecution of gay men a top priority.

So the police were incentivised to go looking for homosexuals who were completely defenceless when it came to being bashed up by police or being taken to court.

It was certainly something that was always in the minds of those homosexuals who had active sex lives. Those who knew about beats.

But not all of them did. There was a much larger group who lived very secret lives and really didn’t come to terms with their sexualities or act on it much, if at all. So, it was a difficult time for a lot of these men.

What was gay social life back then? How did these men meet their partners?

My book is called Survivors And Thrivers for a reason. The survivors are those men I just mentioned who were homosexual and knew that they were but would do very little in terms of trying to find friends finding sex, or being homosexual in a cultural way.

But there was also a smaller but significant group of men, the thrivers, who did embrace their homosexuality, and those men were able to go out and find other men who were homosexual through word of mouth.

There were homosexual cafes and other known haunts where they would congregate. And the men that would meet there would gather for parties in private homes.

This was the “six o’clock swill” period of alcohol prohibition in Australia, where pubs had to close very early in the evening. What effect did that have on gay social life?

It meant that you had to plan ahead. So if you were going to a party, you needed to get your invite and buy your alcohol by 6 pm so you knew where you were going to go afterwards.

But despite all that, many of these men had an absolute ball!

Was it safer for these men to work in particular professions?

Yes, I think it probably was. It would have been similar in Sydney, particularly in the department stores in Melbourne.

You’d often find situations where homosexual men would get a job at one business and then hire others to work around them, particularly in the creative industries.

But some of the men I interviewed were also very high up in the business world and so had to be extremely careful about who they told and who they mixed with, and I heard a few stories about people who had let their guard down in front of the wrong people, and they paid for that in their careers.

Survivors And Thrivers: Male Homosexual Lives in Postwar Australia is a must-read for anyone interested in gay history, click here to find the book published by Queer Oz Folk

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Andrew M Potts

Andrew has been covering LGBTQIA+ issues for a range of publications in Australia over two decades and was the Asia-Pacific correspondent for global LGBTQIA+ news website Gay Star News.

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

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