On page 66 of the December 1997 edition of the now de-funct Australian gay magazine Outrage, there’s a small, glowing biography of celebrated dance choreographer, Graham Murphy.
Murphy’s nut-shelled life appears amongst bios for Robin Archer, Christopher Pearson, Bob Brown, Robert Dessaix, Monique Brumby, yours truly and another 143 of Australia’s “power gays”.
Last year I was widely criticised for claiming Murphy as a gay Tasmanian cultural icon, Gay, Tasmanian and proud of both, particularly when he subsequently and emphatically stated that he’s not gay.
Many people believed I shouldn’t have mentioned it, even if he was.
Raising the Outrage article now, is not an attempt to vindicate my claim about Murphy. I’ve always been content to accept a person’s word about their sexual orientation, much more content than many of my more sceptical gay brothers.
I cite Outrage to demonstrate that my public references to other people’s same-sex attraction are not made flippantly.
Permission to publish
Before I put “Murphy” and “homosexual” in the same sentence, I tracked down the letter Outrage sent me seeking permission to publish my name on its power page.
I subsequently checked with the then editor of Outrage, Marcus O’Donnell. “Yes”, he confirmed, “everyone we cited was sent a letter seeking their permission.” He didn’t want the publication of his out-and-proud list marred by lawsuits from the in-and-scared.
In these circumstances my reference to Murphy as a gay man, if ultimately mistaken, was nonetheless fair and reasonable.
Neither is my reference to Outrage simply a dented-pride defence of my research techniques.
Who’s gay, who’s not, how we know, and whether we should we talk about it, are questions given new life by the recent publication of a Gay and Lesbian Visitor’s Guide to Tasmania, a guide which I wrote and which includes several more potentially controversial names: Here, on the DiscoverTasmania website
Raising the stakes is the fact that the guide has been published by Tourism Tasmania. It’s a taxpayer funded, government-endorsed document.
So who do I out as gay this time?
Before I answer that question it’s important to tackle two thorny semantic problems. The first is what outing means, the second is what gay means.
Different types of outing
If there was an outing textbook it would define the practice as any public reference to an individual’s unacknowledged sexual orientation or same-sex relationship.
But it’s not as simple as this. There are different types of outing and a lot of what is commonly called outing isn’t.
The most pointed outings are of those gay people who harm the gay community or deliberately block its aspirations to equality and justice. Good examples include former FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s side-kick, Roy Cohen. Quite a few more examples are currently emerging from within the ranks of the US Republican Party. The argument for outing gay-hating gays is that it stops them doing damage. Their hypocrisy, outers add, robs them of the defence of privacy. This type of outing has substantial support on the gay and lesbian community.
Much less widely favoured is the outing of those high profile gay people who might break down stereotypes and provide good role models if their sexuality was publicly acknowledged. Sportspeople, movie stars, pop idols and civic leaders figure prominently in this category. The fatal flaw with outing popular public figures for no other reason than they are popular public figures, is that people whose closet doors have been smashed in generally make unwilling advocates and poor role models.
Controversy about Cheney and McHugh
A third group, who are wrongly labelled the victims of outing and who are of relevance here and now, are those people whose same-sex attraction is known but only to some, or widely known but not talked about. One example is the daughter of US Vice President, Dick Cheney, Mary Cheney. Closer to home is Penguin murder victim, the late Tony McHugh.
Controversy about Cheney and McHugh broke at about the same time last year, the former because John Kerry mentioned her lesbianism in a Presidential election debate, the latter because the Burnie Advocate front-paged police suspicions that either gay-hate or a failed same-sex relationship was a motive for his murder.
The backlash was instant and caught both Senator Kerry and em>Advocate the Chief of Staff Sean Ford, by surprise. Surely, both pointed out in their defence, this is an example of where discussion of an individual’s known homosexuality is in the public interest?
Middle America and Main Street Penguin strongly disagreed. They didn’t want to know, or if they knew already, they didn’t want that knowledge confirmed by public discussion.
Knowing without knowing: it’s all-too familiar to gay and lesbian people. It’s how many of us fail to deal with our homosexuality during adolescence. It’s how many of our relatives and friends never stop failing to deal with us.
Which is why I have no qualms at all about discussing the sexuality of people like Mary Cheney or Tony McHugh, or for that matter the two definite homosexuals I mentioned in my controversial Tasmanian cultural icon article, Nigel Triffet and Peter Conrad.
If I gave in to the fears and prejudices which together demand we all carefully ignore their sexuality I would betray the ethic of honesty and openness that underpinned my personal coming out and my decision to advocate for gay rights.
It would also contradict what it means to me to be a Tasmanian.
Confronting Tasmania with the truth of its birth
For over a century Tasmanians ignored, forgot and knew without knowing that their ancestors were thieves, forgers and rabble-rousers, given quite frequently to “unnatural vice”. This amnesia was fertile soil for absurd myths like the one which said Tasmania had always been, and should always remain, homosexual-free.
My idea of what it means to be Tasmanian was moulded at a time when this “unknowing” was being challenged by those brave souls determined to confront Tasmania with the truth of its birth, and what it had grown into.
For me, being a gay Tasmanian is an ideal as well as an identity. That ideal is to be thoroughly honest in the face of a mountain of lies.
Fine. It’s permissible to talk about the sexuality of people who are already out. For some of us it’s a moral imperative. But where does that leave people whose sexuality is difficult to ascertain?
The Gay and Lesbian Visitor’s Guide I’ve written for Tourism Tasmania includes several historical figures. How do I know these people were gay, especially when some of them lived before the word homosexual was coined, and during periods when an admission to sex with someone of the same sex could incur the death penalty?
It might seem obvious but it’s worth re-stating that there are important distinctions between identity, attraction and behaviour. One may feel intense sexual and emotional attraction to someone of the same sex but not act on it, or act on it and not identify as “gay”.
This is why AIDS educators find the behaviour-specific term “men who have sex with men” more useful than “gay men”. It’s why adolescent sexuality researchers ditch both, preferring instead “same-sex attracted”.
In historical figures it is possible to detect same-sex attraction and/or sexual activity without direct references to either, and without the need for labels like “gay”.
In fact I don’t use the term “gay” or “homosexual” to describe any of the historical figures I include in the Guide. That would be a violence against history. No matter how these figures understood their sexuality they would not have understood it in these terms.
If there is evidence of same-sex attraction or sexual activity I refer to it either in the words of the historical figures themselves, or, if space precludes this, as a possibility.
If I don’t explain I’ll be vehemently attacked
In Tasmania it might be considered radical to explore the intimate lives of famous people in this way. But globally it is very conservative. When C.A. Tripp concludes in his recently released biography of Abraham Lincoln that the martyred President definitely had passionate affairs with other men that included sex he is making a far bolder claim than any of mine.
I’ll talk more about these claims and the evidence I have for them in a minute. But before I get to who’s in the Guide and why, there are two more questions to tackle: why deal with other people’s private lives in a visitor guide, indeed why put any energy at all into figuring out who did who? Secondly, why spend so much time justifying it?
To answer the second question first: if I don’t explain what I’ve done I’ll be vehemently attacked.
The conservative commentariat considers it sport to gun down every assertion of historical homosexuality.
Ben McIntyre’s review of “Alexander” in The Australian (Jan 10) includes the astounding statement that “there is little evidence about Alexander’s sexuality and it is unlikely he and Hephaistion were lovers”.
Contemporaries explicitly attested to the existence of a sexual relationship. As a subsequent correspondent to The Australian noted, “if this were a man and a woman, it would have been taken for granted that their mutual devotion, constant physical closeness and shared activities included sexual relations.”
But none of this matters to neo-cons determined to heterosexualise history, and discredit anyone who gets in their way.
Now let’s return to the first question, why talk about other people’s homosexuality in a visitor guide, or anywhere?
The easy response is that to do other wise perpetuates a dreadful double standard.
We talk incessantly about the partners and family life of heterosexual Tasmanians past and present.
Everyone knows that Launceston Mayor Janie Dickenson and former MHR Michelle O’Byrne have new-born babies, that Honey Bacon dearly loved her Jim, and that the wood-chopping Foster clan eats at the Ball and Chain. Confirming the dictum that the personal is political, Joe and Enid Lyon’s much mythologised family life inspired a powerful national institution – the Lyons Forum.
The lovers and the loathers of Tasmania
If Mrs X from Huonville’s 100th birthday celebration, complete with details of her spouse and many off-spring, is important enough to go on page 3 of The Mercury, it’s only fair that the life-long devotion of Miss Y to Miss Z gets a mention, somewhere.
But filling in the gaps and breaking the silences is about more than equality. It’s about giving gay and straight asmanians an opportunity to recognise the important contributions same-attracted people have made to this island society, despite, and sometimes because of their “unconventional” feelings and relationships.
For example, most of the historical figures in the Guide are mentioned in the context of how they viewed the Tasmanian environment. I did this to show that 1) many same-sex attracted people have an awareness of the environment that is heightened by their conflicted relationship with society, and 2) when it comes to their views on Tasmania many of the island’s sexual outsiders fall neatly into two very polarised and polarising camps – the lovers and the loathers.
Visitors to Tasmania often find it hard to get some perspective on the island’s unique landscape. I wrote of Tasmanian historical figures not only to give gay and lesbian visitors an insight into the island’s rich history of sexual non-conformity, and to give that history a face, but to provide them some conceptual blocks with which to build a more meaningful understanding of the land.
Now to the bit you’ve been waiting for: who and why?
Most evidence for Errol Flynn’s relationships with other men is summarised in Charles Higham’s 1980 biography, “Errol Flynn, the untold story”. Higham’s book was damned by Flynn fans, but his evidence is compelling. The same stories told by different people in Flynn’s life match closely. Anecdotes from different times in his life also fit well together. The overall picture is of a flawed, driven, sexual compulsive – one familiar to Flynn’s fans even if they recoil from the idea he was bisexual. “The Untold Story” was published before Rock Hudson and Gary Cooper’s homosexuality had been revealed. If it had been published after, its claims may not have proven so controversial.
The same could be said for painter Isobel Oldham
There’s no need to cross-check the same-sex love-bond of novelist Marie Bjelke-Petersen. She wrote about it herself, at great length in intimate detail. Not so intimate that we know for certain MBP and partner, Sylvia Mills, had sex. But they “caressed” and “kissed” enough to leave little doubt. There is no doubt whatsoever that they were deeply in love.
The same could be said for painter Isobel Oldham and the women with whom she shared her home and life. It’s true that women in the nineteenth century sometimes shared these things without a hint of romantic or sexual attachment. But in Oldham’s art, writing and life is there is more than a hint of both.
The rumours about Henry Hellyer
There is also more than just a hint of romantic attachment and sexual attraction in the correspondence of early explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass, and Francois Peron and Charles Lesueur. Again, it’s true that eighteenth and nineteenth century men sometimes expressed their affections floridly. But readers of these centuries’ intimacies quickly learn to pick which ones carry within them something more than friendship, respect and camaraderie.
Finally, to the most mysterious and difficult historical figure of all, the early nineteenth century Van Diemans Land Company surveyor, Henry Hellyer.
Hellyer himself provides us with no direct evidence that he was emotionally or sexually attached to other men. It is possible that malicious rumours prompted him to take his life in 1832, and that these rumours were about him engaging in a sexual act with a male convict. At least this is what was subsequently rumoured. These rumours were persistent enough to prompt local historians like Harold Trethewie to stoke them by stridently denying them.
They are also intriguing enough to send people searching for and finding hints of unconventionality, artistry, wistfulness, alienation, heightened sensitivity and a fear of failure and self revelation in Hellyer’s life, journal, sketches and Alexandrine treks through Tasmania’s West.
But they are still only rumours.
I decided to include Hellyer not because he may have been emotionally attached to, or sexually involved with, other men. I included him because in 1832 he was probably a martyr to that particular brand of intensely-focused, high-pressured and very nasty homophobia which Tasmania, like all islands, breeds in abundance.
He certainly has been since.