Wilma’s story: The Queensland court case that helped to change anti-gay laws


akubra hat outback regional Queensland stock photo

In a fond remembrance of the lead player, QN Magazine’s regional correspondent Pearl of the Outback shares a personal perspective of a once notorious Queensland incident, a story reminiscent of the acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, but one which contributed to profound change in Queensland laws.

What follows is the first article of several I hope to share about men I knew whose almost unremarkable lives unintentionally contributed to the betterment of our community.

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Our collective and individual freedoms evolved consequent to traumatic events in their lives, subsequently the fulcrums around which significant social and legal change occurred.

I have not sought any permissions to recount these stories as they are nothing more than my own memories.

Time has elapsed and I may have misremembered some dates or omitted some actors. But the basic facts of the matter are accurate.

I employ a pseudonym for my subject because, although the information is in the public domain, he chose to live a private life until that preference was invalidated by the society and institutions of the time.

He lived the latter part of his unassuming life in the Big Smoke, but remained at heart an engaging, down to earth country lad. The story covers a timeframe of a little over thirty years.
I shall call our hero Wilma, admittedly more appropriate if he had grown up twenty years earlier.

In those days, senior members of community bestowed female names on new members of the gay tribe. The practice added to the sense of family and, in an era of criminal sanction, avoided incriminating the subject by way of overheard gossip.

The names of movie stars were much favoured although various individual quirks informed the final choice.

A male name might be swapped for its female equivalent. Kevin became Clara. Alternatively, personal traits might be highlighted, an outgoing thick-waisted type of chap inevitably dubbed Bubbles.

I conjecture Wilma would have come by that name thanks to a common predilection for alliteration. Wilma rolls smoothly from the tongue in combination with his surname.

Wilma should have come to the attention of human rights campaigners earlier than he did. He was fifteen or sixteen when first convicted of sodomy.

His co-convicted was the local shopkeeper, married and father to a largish brood. Because of his youth, Wilma wasn’t jailed. He continued to survive, even prosper, in the little bush community (pub and sawmill) where he lived with his grandmother thirty miles from a small town (two pubs, newsagent, IGA, hospital and school).

He’d never been out of the bush — he’d never seen the sea.

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In the couple of years following his conviction, he continued to indulge his passions — cooking, tinkering with clocks, radios, televisions — and sodomy.

Burdened from a young age with a reputation for sexual availability in a community with few people and even fewer secrets, Wilma hung around the local pub.

Although not inclined to drink, he didn’t mind drinkers and amenable drinkers quietly recognised that.

He quite happily allowed his suitors to pick him up, throw him in the back of their ute, and root him in secluded bushland. On occasion he entertained multiple paramours at the one time.

In the main, his partners considered themselves heterosexual. Those who felt guilt over the dalliance blamed Wilma. They were straight. The boy was a notorious deviant.

His obvious availability advanced an unfair temptation. Sometimes they felt the need to punish him for that.

He maintained he tolerated low level violence from them for that reason. In truth, although short and slightly built, after a lifetime of bullying, he was more than capable of defending himself if the violence escalated.

Shortly before his twentieth birthday, he returned to public notice when again charged with sodomy and concomitant ‘grossly indecent’ acts, along with several other teenage boys.
A relative with access to his grandmother’s house had found Wilma’s diary.

Before blogs and social media, people documented their lives privately through regular hand-written entries in discreet journals.

The diarists recorded daily happenings, often along with their innermost private thoughts; their hopes, their fears and their aspirations.

Wilma chronicled his youthful sexual exploits. He was unmindful that eyes other than his own might one day examine that record, though that indeed occurred. The relative passed the stolen diary to the police.

The charges made the national papers. Awaiting trial, the court permitted Wilma to reside in the nearby town with an elderly (secretly homosexual) distant relative.

He was required to report each morning at the local police station. I was informed he received a thorough beating from the local constable at the time of his arrest — accepted 1980’s Queensland police practice for obtaining confessions from pooftas, especially remote rural shirt-lifters.

Sometime later, that officer received a promotion and transfer to a larger town where his police career ended after a conviction for running an illegal brothel.

But for now, the processes of the state demanded Wilma check in with his assailant on a daily basis.

During those few short weeks living in that town, Wilma became a recluse, rarely speaking and only exposing himself to public gaze when he ran to and from the police station each morning.
He lived in fear both of the cop and of the many local men who worried he might expose their own sexual histories.

My first contact with Wilma occurred courtesy of the Anglican priest who ministered in the small town. The minister worried the lad was not only at risk of violence, but also traumatised to the point of being highly likely to self-harm.

I arranged accommodation in the city and the priest drove him into town, dropping him off near the Buranda Anglican Church.

Wilma stayed with me a week before moving into the accommodation but returned in a very short time. His trial resulted in a sentence of some month’s imprisonment.

He was sent to a prison farm and fitted in very easily. Unusually, he was soon allocated his own hut, a situation which allowed him to easily arrange a schedule for prisoners or guards who wished to visit after lights out.

Eventually Wilma was allowed weekend release. One of the prison guards, besotted with our hero, purchased a nearby farm, dreaming that he and Wilma could live out their lives in semi-rural quasi-matrimonial bliss.

He was bitterly disappointed. Wilma was not yet prepared for monogamy.

On one weekend release, Wilma made his first and only foray into a gay nightclub. A large, grand and much feared matron of the scene, renowned for forthright and brutal rhetoric, remarked loudly in earshot that the “country bumpkin poofta” probably deserved to be jailed.

Wilma politely introduced himself and without further ado administered a short sharp jab. Onlookers gasped to see the bully finally subjected to the same treatment she so often dished out herself.

The 1980s were a more brutal time. Wilma departed and never again darkened the door of such an establishment.

Wilma was released and moved back to our near city home. The elderly relative who put him up during those first weeks after his arrest also came to live with us.

Someone burned his house to the ground while he was at church on Sunday. Scant investigation, if any, was made into the crime.

Despite generous support offered by the gay community, Wilma kept his distance. Apart from being deeply private, I suspect the carry-on embarrassed him.

He came from a very small community where matters of sexuality were not the topic of polite conversation.

Nevertheless, a lengthy line-up of admirers visited our hero at regular intervals, including one nice gentleman who eventually moved in. But Wilma never accepted the concept of monogamy.
Among his gentlemen callers were a pair of motorcycle constables who resided together.

Also, he met separately, a pair of identical twins and took pride in introducing them to one another, as it were, for the very first and probably last time.

About two years later, one of his co-accused from the trial that saw him jailed, came to visit. He had escaped jail himself after a hastily arranged engagement to the nearest available sweetheart.

This was a time honoured and much-travelled path for men threatened with conviction for homosexual activity — admit to a foolish indiscretion and find a bride, quickly, before the trial.
Apparently, the engagement fizzled about the same time the good behaviour bond expired.

He was a charming and quietly spoken young man, and more importantly, would prove to be the love of Wilma’s life.

After years of promiscuity and legal jeopardy, Wilma’s one true love turned out to be a childhood friend.

After the experience of fearing for his life and then losing his liberty, Wilma had organised a ‘safe’ existence for himself.

He re-organised all that to accommodate his one true love. A new government had decriminalised homosexuality. At least some dangers were now consigned to history.

After the rediscovered love interest moved in, his family back in the bush and Wilma’s new in-laws, so to speak, were informed the forbidden relationship had reignited.

Their first visit was somewhat tense, but after a time they grew to accept the inevitable. Wilma also eventually reconciled with the relative who turned over his diary to the police.

He always loved to cook. His grandmother taught him as a child, and he turned out the most wonderful spreads of honest country fare. Great pots of meat and veges served with oodles of steaming white sauce. Amazing cakes and caramel tarts.

He continued to collect radios, TV’s, clocks and an almost museum-sized collection of crocheted doilies and souvenir tea towels.

His grandmother’s influence on his life loomed large. Dining at his table in the 1990s took me back to family meals in the country decades before and I felt at any minute I may be photographed for a 1960s issue of the Women’s Weekly. Any CWA branch would have been proud to have Wilma as a member.

After 25 years of contented domesticity, Wilma had a severe stroke and was admitted to care. His devoted partner visited every day until his peaceful departure from this life.

Wilma was gay — nothing more, nothing less. Nevertheless, the gay scene — the LGBTIQ community — our culture and common causes — never engaged his attention. He carried no disregard for it.

It simply wasn’t his cup of tea. (His cup of tea, by the way, served from a china pot, into a cup, on a saucer, and the tea made with leaves; never, God forbid, anything so crass as a teabag.)

From a young age, he understood that many men who partook of the same sexual pleasures as himself, would never see themselves as gay and because of his remote community heritage he related more to those men. He was, in a way, their ‘camp’ follower.

Political and philosophical discussions held no appeal for him. He knew who and what he was and made the accommodations necessary to live his own truth.

Ideas like same-sex marriage never engaged him, but I believe in my heart, if any two men should have married, it was those two childhood sweethearts from the outback.

They endured so much to be together. And, unlike the characters of Brokeback Mountain they achieved happiness. They were happy. Very happy.

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