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


Ruth Callander is a New Zealander living and writing in Melbourne. She hopes to cover stories from both sides of the ditch. Send her tips about the things you want to hear about at [email protected] or tweet her @RuthCallander.

Whenever I’ve been overseas and have told people that I live in Australia, it’s as if I’ve told them I come from Disneyland. “What are you even doing here?” ask the Brits, their little faces all aglow as they imagine a country where the sun shines every day and bronzed Australians nationwide have no bigger worries than whether to BBQ their breakfasts or just head straight on down to the beach without. “I love Osstralia!” exclaim the Americans, “Everyone is so friendly and laid back, and once you’ve wrestled your morning crocodile you get to cuddle koala bears all day long!” But most of all it’s the queers I meet, heaving sighs of heartfelt envy, because in Australia rainbows unfurl from the heavens in the shape of love hearts, and it’s Sydney Mardi Gras all year round.

This is not Mardi Gras. I took this leaning out my window just now as an example.

These guys are probably on their way to work.

This means that people who aren’t Australians are often taken by surprise when I tell them about how there’s still no marriage equality here, nor any form of federally recognised civil partnerships. That our rights as citizens are still a political hot potato, on both the left and the right, and that our gay teens are still bullied and at a higher risk of depression and suicide than our straight teens.

And yeah, we have a gigantically gay Mardi Gras — once a year in inner-city Sydney — but there are still great swathes of the country where even our right to exist is questioned. “I would walk to Bourke backward,” claimed the MP for Kennedy during a televised election debate last year, “if the poof population of Northern Queensland is any more than 0.001 percent.”

The thing about Australia is that it’s big — really big. Not like America is big, more like how Canada is big. There are stretches of road here so long and so remote that you have to pack your own petrol and enough water to feed fifty camels, just in case. But it’s not only its size that makes it feel like ten countries in one, it’s the incredible, stunning variety and extremes of the place.

I love my adopted home town of Melbourne, with its hidden laneway secrets and ridiculously “Stuff White People Like” suburbs of the inner north, yet as my girlfriend and I plan a holiday in the Northern Territory, I find myself gazing at pictures of rust-red deserts, lush wetlands, man-eating crocodiles and impossibly ancient Aboriginal rock paintings; to my eyes it looks like a whole other world. Most of all though, it’s the people who populate this big dusty continent who create the biggest contrasts. From the outback to the inner cities, from Arnhem Land to Hobart, and from Bob Katter to Bob Brown, Australia is the very definition of diverse.

All of which is a prelude to explaining why the television here astounds me so much. Turn on Neighbours or Home and Away and you’d think that the entire country was middle-class, suburban, heterosexual and above all white. So white in fact, that in 2008 Neighbour’s executive producer Susan Bower tried to defend accusations of casting racism by describing the actors as being “…from diverse ethnic backgrounds including French, Italian, South African, Maltese, Danish, Portuguese and Swedish,” or in other words, various shades of white.

Despite being filmed and set in Melbourne, one of Australia’s most culturally diverse cities, Neighbours has had exactly two Asian characters in its entire 26 year run, while Home and Away (on our screens since 1987) has had one. Two of these actors were Australian born, and yet both were cast to play “foreign” characters, with one of the actors made to put on a fake Korean accent. Have I mentioned how there have never been any indigenous Australians on either of the shows, not even once? If you’re an indigenous viewer, what would this tell you about your place in Australia? You know, Pauline Hanson suddenly seems like less of an aberration when you consider the White Australia policy of our national soaps.

Check out the diverse cast of Neighbours, you guys!