Down Under: A history of lesbian/bi visibility in Australia

Now let’s talk about gay ladies. In August of 2004 — the same year I moved from New Zealand to Australia — the Howard government passed the Marriage Amendment Act (“Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”) and were immediately rewarded by winning the federal election for the fourth consecutive term. However, it was in September that the real controversy of the year unfolded, when Neighbours aired Erinsborough’s very first lesbian kiss.

It was a serious blink-and-you’ll-miss-it peck on the lips between schoolgirls but the response was swift and aggressive. Talkback radio — that bastion of intelligent debate — went nuts, parents wrote angry letters and right-wing conservatives blamed the show for how the entire country would surely burn to the ground in the coming days. Bridget Neval the 19-year old actress playing the lesbian spoke out against the impact of the rampantly homophobic reaction, saying

… if you are a gay teenager already feeling insecure about how your sexuality will be accepted, that would be incredibly devastating.

Like all Kiwis my age, I’d grown up alongside New Zealand’s soap opera Shortland Street, meaning my own gay teen years happily included the chance to view passionate kissing between women on my TV screen, during weeknights at prime time, since 1994. The same soap showed cosily post-coital lesbians cuddling in bed together, engaging in relationships and having long, drawn-out, ridiculous story lines of their very own, right after the six o’clock news. So I got cocky in my patriotism: Australian television: so backward and embarrassing, am I right?

Self-portrait of Ruth Callander in Australia

It pains me — as it does any New Zealander — to admit when Australia does something awesome, but the thing I’ve come to tell you is that I was wrong. As I discovered while researching for this article, the truth is that when Australia gets it right, it kicks some serious arse. Here are five reasons why:

1. World’s First Television Kiss Between Women

In 1974, a show called The Box arrived on Australian TV screens. Based around the story of a fictional television station and the lives of all who worked there, it also starred Judy Nunn or as you may know her, Ailsa, owner of Summer Bay’s diner and wife of Alf Stewart for two decades of Home & Away.

No Alf, your face is a flamin’ galah.

She looks a little different in this particular show, but whether that’s because she’s a few decades younger or more to do with her full frontal nudity or the happily meaningless sex her character’s just had with a very hirsute young man, I couldn’t tell you. The only thing I know for sure is that this is adamantly not Home and Away, ladies. In the final scene of the very first episode, she smiles flirtatiously at a young female starlet (who later in the show is revealed to be 15-years-old) and tells her she’s done a good job. As if in reward, she leans in and gives her a lingering kiss on the lips.

Guys, can I just ask you to take a minute? 1974! Dr. Rebecca Beirne of the University of Newcastle (author of Screening the Dykes of Oz: Lesbian Representation on Australian Television, 2009 ) tells me there may have been a film played on German television featuring a lesbian kiss around about the same time, but Australia was most certainly the first country in the world to screen a kiss between two women as part of a television series. And we’re talking first by a long shot; in comparison, the first kiss between women in the US screened in 1991, while in both the UK and New Zealand it was 1994. Australia, I would like to formally apologise for every time Tony Abbott’s face has made me high pitched in sudden assertion that this nation is backward. It’s not backward. Sometimes it comes out way ahead.

2. Continued Early Representation

The representation of queer female sexuality in The Box wasn’t just a one-off event either. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, female gay and bisexual characters appeared and took starring roles in popular television series such as Number 96 (1972-1977) and Prisoner (1979-1986), although neither portrayal could exactly be described as positive. Prisoner being based in a women’s prison set the scene for a full range of queer and psychopathic female characters while Number 96 featured a lesbian witch who attempts to sacrifice her housemate for a Black Mass — but, really, who amongst us has not been there on occasion?

Prisoner however, as well as introducing an early television representation of a butch lesbian character in Franky Doyle, went on to inspire various international spin-offs over the years including one little British show a few years later, known as Bad Girls. Whilst the lesbians of Prisoner (Cell Block H in its American incarnation) may not have been quite so sympathetic to the viewers, we have Australian television ultimately to thank for Nikki and Helen. This fact on its own is almost enough to have me singing “Advance Australia Fair” around the house each morning.

Franky Doyle

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