Beyond the culture wars: LGBTIQ history now

Shirleene Robinson reviews the 16th Australia’s Homosexual Histories conference, La Trobe University, 25-26 November.

Over two days in the last week of November 2016, I was among the academics, enthusiastic members of the LGBTIQ community, and others who gathered together at La Trobe University in Melbourne for the 16th Annual Homosexual Histories Conference.

Same sex marriage rally, Melbourne, 2009. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Since its inception in 1998, this conference has served as the preeminent forum for the discussion of LGBTIQ history in Australia, weaving together the historical with contemporary political topics. I first attended back in 2008 and over the past eight years, I have witnessed firsthand the conference expand in numbers of attendees and audience reach and in the types of topics explored. Although the conference is now in its 16th year, it still provides a unique opportunity for the discussion of contested and emotionally charged histories. This year, with issues such as Safe Schools and the rights of transgender and gender diverse people being contested in mainstream media, it was fitting that national and international panellists explored the dynamics of the LGBTIQ experience in the context of culture wars.

The annual Homosexual Histories Conference was a major initiative of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, who continue to play a major role in staging and arranging this conference. La Trobe University also played a central role this year, providing important organisational and financial support.

There were over 70 presenters at this year’s conference and a range of well-attended and at times, passionate, keynote sessions and panels. The diversity of presenters is one of the strengths of this conference and this year was no exception, with LGBTIQ community members, independent scholars and researchers, early career researchers and established and senior academics all presenting.

Conference highlights were numerous and I frequently had the difficult condundrum of trying to choose between equally fascinating parallel sessions. On day one, Annamarie Jagose opened proceedings with a most fitting keynote entitled “Our Bodies, Our Archives”. This dynamic presentation, given to a room filled to capacity, considered the way queer bodies are and are not represented in archives.

Dennis Altman, Tim Jones, Crystal McKinnon and Carol D’Cruz at 16th Australia’s Homosexual Histories Conference. Image via Shirleene Robinson.

The plenary roundtable that closed the first day, entitled “Culture Wars then and now”, featured Dennis Altman, Carol D’Cruz and Crystal McKinnon and was most adeptly chaired by Tim Jones. This was a passionate session with panellists discussing the way forward for LGBTIQ people in light of the Trump Presidential victory in the USA and the continuing pushback from opponents of LGBTIQ rights in Australia.

The keynote on day two, presented by Melissa M. Wilcox and chaired by ALGA’s Nick Henderson, “Apocrypha and Sacred Stories: Queer Worldmaking, Historical ‘Truth’ and the Ethics of Research in Living Communities”, investigated dilemmas and opportunities faced by many researchers at the conference. I was struck by the questions as the heart of this keynote. How does one conduct research sensitively and ethically with marginalised individuals? How can we ensure these voices are heard and respected?

A number of papers touched on issues that have been the subject of major political debate in 2016. It was particularly illuminating to have activist perspectives on the agenda. Marriage equality was explored in a paper given by Ali Hogg, who provided an overview of Equal Love’s role in this campaign since 2004. A panel of three papers investigated various aspects of Safe Schools and the education of LGBTIQ children. Roz Ward, who has guided Safe Schools in Victoria, was able to provide an informative personal perspective on the program and her experiences, which have included personal attacks.

Shirleene Robinson at 16th Australia’s Homosexual Histories Conference. Image via William Brougham.

Oral history as a method was at the core of a number of presentations. Robert Reynolds artfully wove together oral history and psychoanalysis to explore gay shame in the life history interview in his paper. Noah Riseman and I both deployed oral history in papers that have emerged from our Australian Research Council project with Graham Willett on LGBTI people in the Australian military since 1945 in a session entitled “Homonationalism, Police and the Military.” Emma K. Russell made a fascinating contribution to this session by considering gay policing.

A session entitled “HIV Policy and Politics” provided an excellent example of a panel that was able to inform contemporary concerns with historical context.

Bernard Gardiner considered the Queensland’s government’s interaction with the Queensland AIDS Council in recent times. Paul Kidd and Tyler Gleason then presented a rich historical investigation of the ban on gay men donating blood in Australia. The session was rounded off with Anthony KJ Smith’s interesting paper on safe sex in the age of PrEP.

HIV/AIDS was also at the centre of Paul Sendziuk’s rich paper, which has emerged as part of broader Australian Research Council project with Robert Reynolds and myself on how Australia responded to this public health crisis. Sendziuk called for the inclusion and acknowledgement of LGBTI people in histories of Australian volunteering, noting the extensive contribution many made to HIV/AIDS organisations during the 1980s and early 1990s.

I found it inspiring to see a wide range of papers on aspects of lesbian history featured throughout the two days. Lesbian space in a variety of forms was investigated in a panel featuring Jean Taylor, Kathy Sport and Sophie Robinson. Taylor investigated tensions between Radical Lesbians and Transwomen in Australian lesbian spaces between 1994 and 2016, Sport explored the role of music in lesbian/women’s households in the 1970s and 1980s and Robinson suggested some new ways to trace a genealogy of the historical legacies of lesbian feminism from the 1970s into present.

Lesbian separatism – an ideology dating to the late 1960s that espouses rejection of the social institution of heterosexuality – was further considered in papers on the programme given by Hannah McCann, Katie Moore and Geraldine Fela. It is clear that Australia’s lesbian history is a thriving area of investigation with much emerging research filling in silences in the field.

Scott McKinnon, 16th Australia’s Homosexual Histories Conference. Image via Shirleene Robinson.

The experiences of trans and gender diverse people were explored by Rachel Chapman, Patrick Boo and Julie Peters, among other presenters. I have found the growth of research in this area particularly exciting. A roundtable on the role of queer and trans women of colour in the culture wars was included in the programme. This was adroitly chaired by Lana Woolf and featured Dani Sib, Amao Leota Lu and Sonya Hamma.

The role of cinema, popular culture and gay media was investigated in a number of presentations. Julie Peters explored “The Psychological and Social Health Impact of the Portrayal of Trans and Gender Non-Conformity in Popular Culture.” Scott McKinnon’s paper, “I used to Pretend I was Glinda the Good Witch”, critiqued the problematic representations of the sexuality of gay male children evident in many films.

The organisers of the 2016 conference are to be congratulated for a rich programme, exploring many facets of LGBTIQ experiences and giving voice to traditionally underrepresented individuals and groups. The Australian Homosexual Histories conference has become a highlight for researchers working in the field of LGBTIQ history and I always find I benefit from attending and hearing what work is being done in the field. This year’s conference shows that LGBTIQ history in Australia is maturing and expanding and that it has a bright future indeed.


screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-11-15-49-amShirleene Robinson is the Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Fellow in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University. She has written extensively on topics encompassing histories of sexuality, race, childhood, medicine, law and politics. Her most recent book was Gay and Lesbian, Then and Now: Scenes from an Australian Social Revolution with Robert Reynolds.

Follow Shirleene on Twitter at @shirleene.

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