Gay liberation

Suzanne Fairbanks and Graham Willett

In 1960s Australia, homosexual law reform was brought to the public arena in response to developments in Britain, initially by those who were concerned with civil liberties and wished to modernise Australian society. Unlike female homosexuality, which was judged sinful but remained legal, male homosexuality was a criminal offence vigorously prosecuted by police.1

In Britain in 1957, the Wolfenden Committee recommended decriminalisation of homosexual activity between consenting male adults in private. This idea was aired at the University of Melbourne when Rupert Cross of Magdalen College, Oxford, lectured at Wilson Hall in May 1962, in a scholarly consideration of the ‘unmaking’ of criminal laws on euthanasia, abortion, homosexuality and suicide.2

There were other early signs that the University of Melbourne was taking heed of the general push to support civil liberties. In 1964 the Debating Union held a gathering attended by 500 students in which an estimated 281 students voted for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and 98 against. A survey of students undertaken by Farrago in 1969 found that two-thirds of respondents were in favour of the legalisation of homosexuality between consenting male adults. The university was favourable territory for the activism of gay people themselves, which was about to take off.3

In 1969 a lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis, was formed in Melbourne and in 1971 a local branch of the national Campaign Against Moral Persecution, with both male and female gay members, was established. And then came gay liberation. Dennis Altman, author of Homosexual: Oppression and liberation (1971) sparked the idea at a dinner in Carlton with gay men and women, some of them students at Melbourne. The Melbourne University Gay Liberation Front formed almost immediately and affiliated with the Student Union in August 1972.4

There was a euphoria of gay activism in the university, as ideas current amongst students over the Vietnam War and women’s liberation also entered the discourse of gay students: participatory democracy, direct public action to change society and personal consciousness-raising.5 The Melbourne University Gay Liberation Front was driven, though, by the power of people coming out, speaking and protesting publicly as socially enforced, oppressive silence and shame gave way to their growing gay pride.

At the end of 1972, the Gay Liberation Front sought to broaden its membership beyond the University of Melbourne and moved its headquarters to Carlton, although it continued its presence on campus through the pages of Farrago.6 It participated in Gay Pride Week in September 1973 with a program of events culminating in a picnic in the Royal Botanic Gardens. This proved more successful than the Sex Liberation Dance it held in the university’s Union House, which ended in confrontation between gay and lesbian activists and science-education students.7 Gay Pride marches were held in the capital cities of all of the eastern states, but Sydney’s was marked by police clashes and arrests, events recurring in the first-ever Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978.

The year 1973 marked the beginning of a new type of gay activism: in Melbourne, gay student activism moved into the Australian Union of Students; there was greater willingness on the part of the Whitlam federal government and the state governments to consider homosexual issues for reform; commercial ventures such as clubs and bars opened up new social opportunities; and activism splintered into a multitude of single-issue action groups.8 Nevertheless, in the first decade of gay politics, the gay community had become more comfortable with openness and activism. The movement was able to draw on these strengths in the decades ahead, in its continuing campaigns for decriminalisation and legal equality and when confronting the devastating impact of HIV and AIDS.9


  1. Graham Willett, Living out loud: A history of gay and lesbian activism in Australia, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2000, pp. 3-18
  2. Graham Willett, From camp to gay: A homosexual history of the University of Melbourne, 1960–1976, History of the University Unit, University of Melbourne, 2002, p. 6.
  3. Willett, From camp to gay, pp. 6–7.
  4. Willett, From camp to gay, pp. 8–11.
  5. Willett, From camp to gay, p. 14.
  6. Willett, From camp to gay, pp. 26–7.
  7. Willett, Living out loud, p. 108; Willett, From camp to gay, pp. 26–7.
  8. Willett, Living out loud, pp. 108-127
  9. Willett, Living out loud, pp. 131-147