GAY AND LESBIAN MEDIA
Any minority group living among an unsympathetic majority, and hoping to change attitudes, needs an articulate voice. Australia’s gay and lesbian communities have been well served by their media since 1970 in attempting to win over the hearts and minds of Australians to accept new ways of perceiving homosexuality; however, other ‘dissident sexualities’, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer communities still face major challenges.
Even in the early 1970s, the main determinants of Australian attitudes to homosexuality were still the church, the law and the views of the medical profession. The various churches saw homosexuality as a sin, while the emotional and sexual lives of male homosexuals remained illegal in all states and territories. The medical profession was agonising over whether homosexuality was an abnormality, a sickness or a ‘perversion’ (innate or acquired); it still regarded ‘aversion therapy’—electric shocks delivered to the genitals of gay men—and psycho-surgery as acceptable practices for ‘curing’ homosexuals.
For a ‘political’ movement built around sexual orientation, how homosexuality was handled by the media would be critical. As Dennis Altman pointed out, Australian mainstream media reporting of homosexuality or gay liberation was not particularly sympathetic, with misrepresentation, distortion or just sheer omission common. Ironically, given its conservative views today, it was only the Australian, in its early ‘liberal’ phase, that gave a reasonably objective coverage to the emerging gay movement.
The first ‘gay’ publication in Australia appeared in Melbourne in 1969, when a chapter of the American lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis produced a newsletter, which continued until 1972; however, it was available only to members. In November 1970, CAMP Ink, the newsletter of the recently formed Sydney-based gay group Campaign Against Moral Persecution Inc (CAMP), came out—a very public declaration of what lesbian and gay activists saw was wrong with legal and medical impositions on their lives.
With the appearance of CAMP Ink (which ran until 1977), homosexuals in Sydney and other cities in Australia had access to a magazine that provided news and relevant information from their own perspective. In 1971, Gay Times, a free bar paper, appeared in Sydney, and within another six months the first gay commercial magazine, William and John, appeared there. This pattern, of activist publications followed by free bar papers and then commercial ventures, was similar in all Australian states. In those early days, as new activist gay groups emerged with their own agendas, new publications also appeared; university groups were a major source of many gay and lesbian newsletters. Within less than a decade, a ‘gay’ media had emerged in Australia, and there were many more publications in the following decade, so that by the late 1980s there were gay and lesbian newspapers, magazines and newsletters of various groups—everything from political groups to religious groups and everything in between—available in all Australian states and territories.
The emerging gay press fulfilled several critical functions in the early decades. It ensured that ‘anything, no matter how obscure, that was in any way involved with anyone or anything “homosexual” was eventually reported’. In this, it was probably no different from the newspapers and publications serving various ethnic communities, giving out information of interest only to that minority group. Second, it allowed a gay perspective to be presented. This had been a significant purpose behind the creation of the various community-based newspapers that emerged during the 1970s. But it is important to note that, over time, various gay perspectives have been presented, and the gay press has served as the major purveyor of these differing views.
Another major role of the gay press was to help promote a sense of gay identity, and thus of a gay ‘community’. The gay press directed attention to the gay and lesbian subcultures emerging in the major cities and the increasing number of homosexual men and women who were now participating in these subcultures. Indeed, several parts of this gay press even acted quite explicitly to both foster the idea of a gay identity and help to generate a sense of community, with advertisements like ‘Think Gay, Buy Gay’. In late 1981, one article in Campaign—the first gay monthly in Australia (est. 1975)—was even entitled ‘What “Identity” Offers You’.
The various arms of the emerging media also played an important role in keeping suburban and rural gays in touch with news and information of relevance to homosexuals. Today, their role is often to create a broader sense of community and culture by presenting codes of non-heterosexual behaviour to a queer audience. One recurring issue from the early days was the provision of an appropriate media for lesbians. An ongoing early criticism was that the ‘gay’ press increasingly targeted a gay male audience, as opposed to a lesbian, bisexual, transgender or broader ‘queer’ audience.
Even though the various community newspapers initially might have tried to deal with issues of concern to lesbians, little was done for the other ‘dissident sexuality’ communities. Indeed, much lesbian material often appeared in publications by and for the women’s movement, where issues and relevant information were likely to be treated far more sympathetically than in the mainstream ‘gay’ press. Lesbians on the Loose, a monthly magazine that aimed to be ‘a regular source of information about what activities and resources are available’ for lesbians, first appeared in 1990.
A continuing issue for the gay press is that its implicit or explicit ‘charter’ of being a ‘community voice’ is often constrained by its dependence on advertising revenue. This revenue is necessary for its survival, but can limit the extent to which it can provide ‘independent’ advocacy for or representation of the GLBTIQ community. Thus various commercial publications often had a fairly ambivalent attitude to gay politics.
However, there have been several periods in which the role of the gay media has been crucial. One was in 1978, when there were major confrontations between police and gays in the streets of Sydney at the first Mardi Gras parade. These events received enormous coverage in the mainstream Australian media—not all of it favourable—so reporting on the events from a ‘gay’ perspective was critical. It is also perhaps not insignificant that it was soon after this that a rash of new papers appeared, among them the Star (est. 1979), which became the Star Observer, still publishing today.
Another period during which the gay press could not remain uninvolved was during the onset of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. Its appearance at a time when gay men’s sexual and emotional lives were still illegal in most states meant that those most affected—gay men and their communities—were sure to be targeted. The mainstream media were decidedly unsympathetic. In this situation, the need for gay media that were able to deal objectively with the AIDS crisis was critical.
Radio was another important medium in the pre-electronic era, before Twitter and Facebook and emails. It allowed those in distant places to not only access information, but also feel part of the growing community—a community not confined by contiguity or needing propinquity. Gay Waves had a weekly program on 2SER FM from 1979; today, the country’s only full-time gay radio station is JOY 94.9FM, set up in Melbourne in 1993.
The trend towards privatisation that was a feature of the business world and stockmarkets in the 1980s and 1990s was mirrored in the gay and lesbian media. From early 1999, the Satellite Media Group began acquiring various gay publications around Australia, and the company was floated on the Australian Stock Exchange in November 1999. However, its spectacular collapse in 2000 severely damaged the reputation of the Australian gay and lesbian communities as places in which to invest and do business, as well as taking down much of Australia’s gay and lesbian media. Over time, some of them reappeared, often started up again by former employees of the various publications, but under different names. New players, such as Evolution Media (now Evo Media), have also entered the field. Much of the gay and lesbian print media circulated—and still circulates—interstate, with a number of free periodicals being distributed throughout the whole of Australia.
Today, while print still flourishes, the growth area is the electronic media. All the major print media have their electronic versions, and there are separate purely web-based groups such as SameSame.com.au and Pinkboard.com.au. There are also gay dating services and gay sex-contact websites. In Victoria in 2013, Queer Young Thing—a first-of-its-kind Australian television show for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex youth—went to air on community station Channel 31, giving a voice and visual representation to people who are rarely seen on television.
A healthy society needs a free and independent media, and while publications including Gay Rays and Sydney Fart were one-offs, and publications such as Gay Community News, Labrys, Green Park Observer, Lesbian News, Gay Changes, Cruiser, Sydney Advocate, OutRage, Playguy, Canary, Libertine, 9PM, Melbourne Star Observer, Oxford Weekender News, Lesbiana, Bliss, Now, Westside Observer, Village Voice, Gay Information, Harbour City Times and Wicked Women are now defunct, the media of Australia’s various gay and lesbian communities over the last four decades have provided support, information and a sense of community, and have played an ongoing and important role in helping GLBTIQ people become an accepted part of Australian society.
REFs: S. Robinson, ‘Queensland’s Queer Press’, Queensland Review, 14(2) (2007); G. Wotherspoon, City of the Plain (1991) and 'Telling It Like It Is: The Emergence of Australia’s Gay and Lesbian Media’, in L. Featherstone, R. Jennings and R. Reynolds (eds), Acts of Love and Lust (2014).