LGBT Activism and the 1974 Royal Commission

Continuing our marriage equality series, Michelle Arrow investigates the Australian Royal Commission on Human Relationships as a forum for LGBT experience in the 1970s.

At the heart of the campaign for same-sex marriage is a plea for national inclusion, for ‘the full rights of equal citizenship.’ Given the crucial role that heterosexual marriage has played in organising citizenship’s benefits throughout Australia’s history, such claims should not surprise us. Neither should we be surprised that the campaign seeks to find common ground with non-LGBTIQ Australians: Australian Marriage Equality’s website features an image gallery entitled ‘just like you’, full of photos of same-sex couples in wedding dresses and tuxedos.

Campaigns for same sex marriage have long been accused of ‘homonormativity’, with critics like Lisa Duggan and Michael Warner suggesting the push to marriage represents a capitulation to heteronormative institutions and assumptions, and such strategies might seem to warrant this criticism. Gay and lesbian activism has a long history of challenging social norms, including critiques of marriage and monogamy. Yet it also has an equally long history of campaigns for recognition of relationships, including the right to marry, and the right to live as openly gay without fear of violence or discrimination. The records of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships (1974-77) provide a snapshot of these campaigns.

Taking cues from the women’s movement and engaging with a newly receptive state to secure rights and protections, gay men and lesbians used the Royal Commission to tell stories of exclusion, trauma and citizenship. By presenting themselves as unequal citizens, gays and lesbians worked to legitimize the figure of the homosexual citizen and his or her claims on the state. This was a strategic choice before the widespread decriminalisation of homosexuality. Today, facing a postal survey on same sex marriage, claims to being ‘just like you’ by the ‘yes’ case make similar strategic sense.

The Royal Commission on Human Relationships was an initiative of the Whitlam Labor government, instituted in 1974 to investigate “the family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships.” To do this, commissioners Justice Elizabeth Evatt, journalist Anne Deveson and Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane Felix Arnott sought the opinions of a wide variety of Australians, asking ‘what do you think?’ on radio, in newspapers and in a range of public spaces. The Commission’s final report was released in late 1977. It contained over 500 recommendations on a huge array of topics, including sex education, parenting, gender roles, domestic violence, contraception and adoption. It also made thirteen recommendations on homosexuality.

The Commission received 39 written submissions about homosexuality, out of a total of almost 1300. They offer glimpses of the ways that Australians understood their experiences – and their rights – as gay and lesbian in the 1970s, and how they sought to convey this to others. They reveal the ways that gays and lesbians were beginning to imagine gay, in the words of Robert Reynolds, “as a distinct, coherent and encompassing subjectivity,” where homosexuality, no longer covert, underpinned both private and public identity. Speaking in a public forum meant that the activists needed to deploy languages with public purchase, important when homosexuality remained criminalised in most parts of the country.

The Canberra Times reports the decision of the Commission to include homosexual experiences, 11 November 1974. Image via the National Library of Australia.

Three distinct narratives can be noted from the experiences LGBT people shared in the Royal Commission. The first set of stories gays and lesbians told the Commission were of exclusion, invisibility and fear. Witnesses felt unable to express their sexual identities in public (or to their families) for fear of prejudice, which was enforced by oppressive laws. They claimed that state’s failure to recognise homosexuality in the public sphere erased their existence. Gay man Brian Lindberg said “I cannot talk openly about my lover and our wonderful relationship to my colleagues, parents, and heterosexual friends – I get tired of being referred to as ‘single’. The fear of public exposure was expressed in several submissions. A Western Australian man stated that when he joined the public service at sixteen ‘my biggest fear was instant dismissal ‘if anybody ever found out’ about my homosexuality.’ These stories of exclusion had as their corollary a plea for inclusion: the state, it was imagined, could change the public meaning of homosexuality with reform.

The second group of narratives gay men and lesbians told were those of citizenship and difference. They argued that their citizenship was riven with contradictions: the state withheld their full citizenship rights, but unlike other minority groups such as Indigenous people, women, and migrants, neither were they given “special” entitlements to rectify inequalities. CAMP activist Lex Watson complained that “the migrants have ministers, they have special affairs people such as Grassby, […] the Aboriginals obviously have a department; women at least got International Women’s Year […] We have got absolutely nothing.”

The third set of narratives gay and lesbian people communicated to the Commission challenged the underpinning of dominant citizenship identities: namely, the heteronormative nuclear family. A member of CAMP NSW argued that the “denigration of homosexuals by society is most immediately done by the family.” Several groups called for state recognition of gay relationships as a step towards same-sex marriage.

The Royal Commission on Human Relationships fell victim to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975. The incoming Liberal government cut the Commission’s funding and time. When the final report was released in 1977 its approach to sexual behaviour- which rested on recognition of social and cultural difference rather than an imposition of absolute moral standards- made it a lightning rod for controversy.

The Commission made a range of recommendations on homosexuality including nationwide decriminalisation, the inclusion of homosexuality in sex education programs and a plea for social acceptance of homosexual people. While the Commission recommended a new definition of family to “cover not only the conventional nuclear family grouping of mother, father and children but also one-parent families, families where there is no legal marriage, extended families and communes,” it also stated that “recognition should not be given to homosexual unions as legal marriages, or to allowing homosexual couples to adopt children.”

In 1977, the Royal Commission on Human relationships decided that same-sex marriage was beyond the limits of possibility. In 2017, we are publicly debating whether Australia should join the twenty-three other countries around the world who have legalised same-sex marriage. The LGBT strategy of presenting themselves as citizens who were victims of discrimination in the 1970s acted to normalise homosexuality, and to legitimise some of their claims on the state. Given that the first Mardi Gras protest happened in 1978, it is also clear that these ‘normalising’ strategies did not prevent the flourishing of other, more radical queer identities.

Gay and lesbian people took advantage of the opportunity the Royal Commission presented in the mid-1970s to find a public voice. The postal survey has forced many LGBTIQ people to perform and articulate their identities in ways that some might be uncomfortable with. But we should remember that social movements usually speak with more than one voice, to multiple audiences, in order to achieve their goals.


Associate Professor Michelle Arrow is an Associate Professor in Modern History at Macquarie University. In 2014, together with Catherine Freyne and Timothy Nicastri, Michelle won the NSW Premier’s Multimedia History Prize for the radio feature “Public Intimacies: the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, 1974-1977.” Michelle researched in Elizabeth Reid’s papers as part of her 2016 Fellowship at the National Library of Australia.

Follow Michelle on Twitter @MichelleArrow1.

Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at

This entry was posted in Marriage equality. Bookmark the permalink.