Tasmanian Times

History

A queer view of Tasmania’s past

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.

Go to
http://www.rodneycroome.id.au
for more…

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19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. gore@mail.com

    July 10, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Sponsor Results are sites that pay for placement in search results on terms that are relevant to their business.

  2. Over The Hills

    May 17, 2005 at 2:27 am

    Certainly reeled you in though, Bonham. Hook, line, and sinker. Thanks and goodbye.

  3. Dr Kevin Bonham

    May 16, 2005 at 10:21 am

    Move along here folks. Nothing to see. It’s only a troll, and a very small and feeble one at that.

  4. Over The Hills

    May 16, 2005 at 7:08 am

    Poor Bonham. You may laugh, but in the words of Hills, your desperate ingestion of bait “doubtlessly elicited a few giggles from readers of this website”.

  5. Dr Kevin Bonham

    May 15, 2005 at 10:13 am

    Much as I’d love to take the bait and administer the ritual factual disabuse, I’m far too busy laughing at this ineffectual tryhard frothing about people having too much time on their hands while himself trying to bump a thread that has been dead for more than two months! Three posts plus a quick thwack of an idiotic troll hardly counts as “intense interest” by my standards.

  6. Geoff Rollins

    May 6, 2005 at 8:25 am

    “Over The Hills”, whilst you are in full flight analysing everyone else, how about you analyse yourself – put your bloody name to your bloody post you gutless dickhead.

  7. Over The Hills

    May 6, 2005 at 4:53 am

    Thank goodness for Tasmanian Times: it occupies the time of boring, self-important wannabes like Bonham and Hills whose social views would never be published in a non-blog environment (excepting The Mercury and Togatus, which don’t really count outside of Hobart).

    Boys, do you really have nothing better to do than prowl the web looking for a fight? Rodney Croome’s argument is flawed, but why the intense interest in this topic? Seems like you doth protest too much.

  8. Rodney Croome

    February 26, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    I’ve heard of people trying to change history after a few years, even a few months. But in his attempt to re-image his comments on “outing” Geoffrey Hills is shooting for five days.

    I perfectly understand that Hills was attempting to launch a discussion about defamation law. But within this discussion he made it clear he thinks other people’s homosexuality is not a fit topic for public discussion. It was on this basis that I accused him of anti-homosexual prejudice.

    Take these statements, made in the course of a discussion of whether it is right to discuss the homosexuality of historical figures…

    “One may defame the dead with impunity…”, and “I don’t have time for gossip”.

    Hills may well have supported the decriminalisation of homosexual sex in Tasmania. That’s great. But as he rightly points out, decriminalisation and “outing” are separate issues (which makes me wonder why he keeps raising the former. I didn’t introduce it to the debate so I can only assume he’s trying to establish a gay cred. I’m afraid it doesn’t work. Even John Howard supported decriminalisation in Tasmania).

    In Hill’s view, to refer to a person’s sexuality is to “defame” them and “gossip” about them. No amount of faux disinterestedness can hide the prejudice these terms drip with.

    I am glad that Hills has at least engaged with my original argument and stated that “as a social scientist” he does not “attribute to sexuality a significant causal role in politics” (I wonder what Karl Rove and Dr Mahathir would think of that astounding statement?).

    This explains why he can only understand my views on the relative public visibility of homosexual and heterosexual relationships in terms of the law. He is blind to the broader social, cultural and political forces that profoundly shape our lives (how he can justify being thus blind “as a social scientist” is an issue for his conscience).

    It also explains why he refuses to take seriously my central point about recognising the way the sexuality of historical figures influences their contribution to history. He says, “I do not share Rodney’s interest in the causal link between a person’s sexuality and their political/social contributions to society”; not “belief” but “interest” – a disturbing position for a “social scientist” given the wealth of material on this issue.

    The last point to make regards “sloppiness”.

    Hills thinks it sloppy of me to write that he “maintains” an argument which he has quoted from someone else. This is a semantic issue. To me quoting an authority with whom one agrees is to maintain the authority’s argument. I’m sorry if this isn’t usage with which Hills is familiar.

    More importantly, Hills thinks it sloppy of me to claim he alleged “an endless preoccupation with the homosexuality of Tasmanians past”.

    When Hills quotes another author’s criticism of “an endless preoccupation with ourselves as subsumed under social categories (like)…heterosexual and homosexual” within his own critique of what he believes is my preoccupation with other homosexuality of other Tasmanians, what other conclusion was I to make?

    Perhaps I should have put Hills’ argument and his cited authority side-by-side to show how I arrived at my conclusion. But I expected anyone reading my response to have already read what I was responding to.

    Hills’ ponderous and legalistic approach to a discussion of public discourses on sexuality might be appropriate for a black letter law journal. But the last time I looked Tasmanian Times was no such thing.

    Rather, it is a forum for political debate. It is not sloppy, and certainly not a sign of intellectual mediocrity, to adopt an abbreviated, journalistic style when making contributions to such a forum.

    That said, I do have a correction to make. In an above comment I claimed that

    “For many years two paragraphs in Peter Thompson’s 200 page “Bob Brown of the Franklin” was the only public reference to Bob Brown’s homosexuality.”

    My reference should have been to the interview Bob Brown did in 1975 with the Launceston Examiner. Until the Thompson biography this interview was the only reference.

    That aside, I can’t see the distinction Kevin Bonham makes between the Thompson biography and the Outrage article on Murphy. Both claimed to be authorized and sympathetic.

    I apologise if anything I’ve written suggests that Kevin is homophobic. His public statements against prejudice have always been intelligent, compelling and well-timed.

    But there is a commonly held misconception that all gay publications have low journalistic standards. Because I can’t see why Outrage is any less compelling an authority on Murphy than Thompson was on Brown, this misconception naturally presents itself as an explanation for why people may not take the Murphy citation as seriously as its counterparts in other publications.

  9. Rick pilkington

    February 26, 2005 at 6:21 am

    Sorry for wasting your time Dr. Bonham. Have a nice day!

  10. Dr Kevin Bonham

    February 25, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Rick, the answer to your question is so bleeding obvious that had you even read your own post carefully you might just be able to figure it out for yourself, but I will give you a hint so large that even you may be able to see it: it lies in your use of the word “some”. A comment applied selectively (in my case I referred to “many”) is not a generalisation. Rodney’s comment could have been read as a universal statement, he has since backed away from it, there is nothing to see here, move on.

    Your entire contribution is typical of the worthless cheap rubbish I continually attract from people who want to have a go at me but are incapable of making a coherent criticism, and while there are so many of you in that sad condition I will indeed be unable to resist stirring you up at any opportunity that arises. Clean up your act and I won’t have anything to target.

    As for my supposed “inconsistency”, I do not think I have never said that a person in public life should not be selective in which errors they call into account, or if I have this is certainly not my current view, so your claim is rubbish.

    Stop wasting time with this zero-quality opposition-for-the-sake of it drivel. It’s not even half-decent trolling, it is simply totally pointless.

  11. Rick pilkington

    February 25, 2005 at 11:26 am

    Mr. Bonham why is it a “negative generalisation” when Rodney Croome describes the nature of comments sections on wepages, but when you Mr. Bonham, describe some contributions to this comments section as “overexcitable green diatribe”, it is just a “general comment”.

    And you are right, it is not relevant to this case. But once again you can’t resist a liitle green bashing can you Kevin. You are unbelievable mate. You have no axes to grind or prejudices to dignify do you?

    One only has to look at your body of writing on these pages to see how selective you are in whose errors you call to account. But hey, most of us are guilty of this at times. You just refuse to acknowledge that you are as inconsistent as those you rail against!

  12. Dr Kevin Bonham

    February 25, 2005 at 9:53 am

    I’m surprised that Rodney writes “I’d hate to think Outrage is considered a less worthwhile source simply because it was a gay magazine.” Of course I wouldn’t think that – my opposition to any kind of homophobia, which I regard as one of the few political tendencies that is utterly devoid of any intellectual or any other redeeming merit, has been on the public record often enough and recently enough that there is no need for anybody to confirm it(!) before commenting on my views.

    However, despite my previously expressed distrust of single sources in general, the sources mentioned for Brown and Kirby (a sympathetic and presumably authorised biography and a Who’s Who entry respectively) are the sorts of single sources where an error regarding sexual orientation or material relevant to it would be particularly unlikely (although not completely impossible) to arise. If we take both Rodney’s apparent assumptions on face value (that an individual’s public statements about their sexual identity are to be accepted, and that there was no change in sexual orientation over time in the case concerned) then all we are really left with as a likely hypothesis is an error in the decision to publish the original article.

    Furthermore, the length of the respective entries is irrelevant when from Rodney’s original account the Outrage material was a bio and the individual’s contribution was simply to authorise the inclusion of their name. This is what I meant when I referred to “the Murphy case being one of consent to be listed rather than any specific public comment.”, a point which seems to have been overlooked.

  13. Geoffrey Hills

    February 24, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    9. The other point with which I was taking issue is Croome’s vain assumption that his article constitutes “informed discussion” of Tasmania’s gay past. I disagree. I think Croome is methodologically and intellectually sloppy. Here is an example of methodological sloppiness: Croome claims that my article alleged “an endless preoccupation with the homosexuality of Tasmanians past”. No, it didn’t. An article that I cited, written by Professor Kenneth Minogue, of the London School of Economics, argued that there is “an endless preoccupation with ourselves as subsumed under social categories”. Croome is wrong on two counts: 1. The quote is Minogue’s, not mine; 2. Minogue is most certainly not referring to the “homosexuality of Tasmanians past”.

    10. Scholarly and intellectual discussion demands attention to detail and methodological rigour. Rodney Croome prefers using discursive strategies (in the Foucauldian sense) to brand me a bigot, rather than engaging me in serious debate. The same discursive strategies that are commonly employed by true bigots to discriminate against gay people.

    11. In summary, I reiterate my admiration for Rodney Croome and his achievements in Tasmanian gay law reform. He is living proof of a key element of my own political philosophy – that all people (no matter how intellectually mediocre they may be) can still make extraordinary contributions to society.

    Geoffrey Hills
    Canberra

  14. Geoffrey Hills

    February 24, 2005 at 2:51 pm

    Kevin Bonham suggests, rightly, that Rodney Croome is guilty of the same rhetorical technique of which he accuses me – setting up a straw opponent – rather than giving my comment the honour of a careful reading, followed by rebuttal.

    Croome adopts a rhetorical strategy that is familiar to those who have debated Israeli policy. Like the critic of Israeli policy who is falsely made to bear the ignominious epithet of an anti-Semite, Croome assumes that because I have criticised his article, I am “prejudiced” (presumably against gay people), that I am “one of the people” who “perpetuate and re-inforce the silence that it is time to break” (presumably, inferring [incorrectly] that I was one of those who opposed gay law reform in Tasmania).

    Finally, “people like Hills” are people upon whom Croome expects “not to have much influence” (presumably, because Hills, who is assumed to be a bigot, is not susceptible to rational argument).

    Croome’s evidence for this is that I used the term “defamation”, which he has put in the quotation marks of suspicion. As Bonham hinted, Croome has confused the fact that I was using a technical, legal term in the (forlorn) hope of initiating an scholarly discussion about what defamation law is (and should be); instead, Croome assumed (and conveniently preferred) to suggest that because I used the term “defamation”, my view is that homosexuality is something to be “ashamed of rather than celebrated”.

    So, let’s get a few points clear –

    1. I believe that, prior to the reforms which were in part due to Rodney Croome’s activism, Tasmania’s gay laws were unacceptably discriminatory, a violation of basic human rights and a national embarrassment.

    2. I admire Rodney Croome for the role that he played in gay law reform; but I disagree with this particular article. They are separate issues.

    3. I do not believe that homosexuality is something of which to be “ashamed”. Nor do I believe that homosexuality is something to be “celebrated”. I do not believe heterosexuality is something to be “celebrated”. Nor do I believe heterosexuality is something of which to be “ashamed”. I believe that sexuality simply exists, in its manifold variations, as something conducive neither to public celebration nor public shame. In other words, as a social scientist, I do not share Rodney’s interest in the causal link between a person’s sexuality and their political/social contributions to society, nor, as an empirical matter, do I attribute to sexuality a significant causal role in politics.

    4. Why did I use the term “defamation”? Because I am presently writing a thesis on tort jurisprudence and “defamation” is the name that our law gives to actions for “injury” to reputation.

    5. The legal test for whether a comment is defamatory is whether it is “of a kind to lead ordinary folk to think less of the person about whom it is made”: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR(NSW) 86 at 88 per Jordan CJ.

    6. I think that, in legal circles, the debates about whether it is any longer defamatory to suggest that someone is “gay” and to suggest that they have engaged in pre-marital sex are interesting.

    7. In Random House Australia v Abbott, the Federal Court held that it was defamatory of a person to suggest that they had engaged in pre-marital sex. I think that was a bad decision. I regret that that is the law. What I was trying to initiate a discussion about, if Rodney had possessed the patience (and intellect) to understand, was whether, since the decision in that case, it is defamatory to say that someone is gay. If that is the law, then, I think it is inconsistent with prevailing social mores.

    8. The main point of my initial criticism of Croome’s article was to indicate that it was a logical flaw to equate “Mrs X from Huonville” with figures being outed by Croome. The reason that it is logically flawed is because of the presence of consent in the case of Mrs X and the absence of consent in the case of Croome’s figures. In relation to those who are now dead – I noted (had Rodney the patience or intellect to notice) – that the demands of historical research require that speculation about a deceased person’s sexuality is justified.

    Continued next post –

  15. Rodney Croome

    February 24, 2005 at 9:00 am

    At the risk of becoming the bore I’m accused of being already, there are two points to make in response to Kevin Bonhman’s latest comment.

    The first is that there is not “a world of difference” between Bob Brown, Michael Kirby and Graham Murphy when it comes to public revelations about their sexuality. For many years two paragraphs in Peter Thompson’s 200 page “Bob Brown of the Franklin” was the only public reference to Bob Brown’s homosexuality. For some time Michael Kirby’s only reference to his homosexuality was one line in his “Who’s Who” entry. Both written references were briefer than Murphy’s entry in Outrage, but that didn’t stop the nation using them as a basis for incessant discussion. I’d hate to think Outrage is considered a less worthwhile source simply because it was a gay magazine.

    Secondly, in his criticism of my article Geoffrey Hills uses the word “defame” in a moral as well as a legal sense. He clearly thinks any reference to another person’s homosexuality is necessarily defamation. As explained, this jaundiced view of homosexuality is part of the problem I’m addressing.

    As for e-forum comments, Kevin’s right that it’s healthy for people to connect with public debate which ever way they can. I guess I’m just disappointed that everyone gets stuck on who said who was gay when and how often, rather than addressing the broader issue of how we can broaden our understanding of Tasmania by examining the contribution gay people have made to it.

  16. Dr Kevin Bonham

    February 23, 2005 at 9:02 pm

    I’m not sure that negative generalisations about the nature of comments sections on webpages really do too many favours – sure, comments sections attract their fair share of nutters, obsessives and whingers, but on tasmaniantimes it is frequently the comments section where the errors in many overexcitable green diatribes mistakenly passed off as “articles” get exposed. That’s not relevant to this case, just a general comment on the value of comments sections, especially on this website. “An axe to grind or a prejudice to dignify rather than an informed opinion to offer on the material about which they are ostensibly commenting”? Sounds like quite a few of the headline rants round here to me!

    Furthermore, when something is on public display, people should be encouraged to comment on any part of it they wish, not to feel that they have to stick to debating whatever the author believes to be the central point.

    Rodney’s not convinced my point about sexual orientation change is relevant. My point was that that theoretical possibility alone is reason enough why old claims shouldn’t necessarily be relied upon. That point is unaffected by whether it occurred in this particular case or (as Rodney, presumably correctly, asserts) not. An alternative possibility, simple error in the original publication process, is also a good reason why a single source from several years ago shouldn’t be relied upon without checking.

    I certainly agree that no-one should be expected to go chasing after figures who have repeatedly and publicly commented on their sexuality within the mainstream media just in case they have suddenly changed their minds. However there is a world of difference between this case and those of Lang, Navratilova, Brown, Kirby et al in terms of the frequency and prominence of the relative statements, and also in the Murphy case being one of consent to be listed rather than any specific public comment.

    I agree with Rodney that for the purposes he is interested in, an individual having at some time identified as gay is far more relevant than whether they currently are. I just think the difference between “is gay” and “has identified as gay” is a very important one when talking about living figures – and not for gay sexuality in particular but for any sexuality whatsoever. So yes, I seized on an excuse to make that point.

    The issue of “defamation” in the case of a person whose sexuality is incorrectly identified in a public report is a very interesting one. I thought Geoffrey Hills was simply commenting on how a court might view a case of public sexuality misidentification (or even simply on the concept of “the public interest” as it appears in defamation law), and not necessarily on his own view of homosexuality (whatever that may be, I am unaware of it). I would really hope that any modern court worth its salt would dismiss any defamation case based around such an error, and insist that a mistake about a person’s sexual orientation is simply a mistake, and not something which should cause a right-thinking person to think any the worse of them.

    Despite this, incorrect public statements about a person’s sexuality can certainly harm that person, whether it’s a case of a gay person falsely said to be straight, vice versa, or something else similar. There is a real debate to be had about whether such statements should still, in some way, be illegal – and if the approach followed in defamation law was applied, it would again be the publisher’s responsibility to always check their facts.

  17. Rodney Croome

    February 23, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    I’ve rapidly come to believe that comment sections on web journals are for people with an axe to grind or a prejudice to dignify rather than an informed opinion to offer on the material about which they are ostensibly commenting.

    Some of the above comments cement this view.

    Geoffrey Hills was so ready to jump on any informed discussion of Tassie’s gay past that he almost completely avoids my actual views in favour of a straw Rodney easily demolished by his logical flourishes.

    For the record, nowhere have I “intruded” into, or “speculated” or “gossiped” about other people’s attractions or orientation. I have simply gathered together what they said themselves, or what has been authoritatively said about them.

    It’s true that I justified my discussion of Tasmania’s sexual non-conformists on the basis that heterosexual relationships are much more discussed. But, again, nowhere have I revealed something not already known. There has not been, as Hills maintains “an endless pre-occupation” with the homosexuality of Tasmanians past. In fact there has been a deafening silence it is time to rectify.

    I also make it clear that I have a broader, more important reason for raising this subject, one which Hills conveniently ignores.

    Many of Tasmania’s sexual non-conformists have a fascinating and influential take on the island, a take informed by their sexuality. To the extent that their views on Tasmania have shaped ours, we have a duty to understand how their views were shaped in turn by their sexuality.

    Two of the best examples are Marie Bjelke Petersen and Bob Brown. Regardless of whether you’ve read the former, or agree with the latter, the Tasmania of their dreams has become the Tasmania of hundreds of thousands of other people.

    In both cases, their same-sex relationships and status as sexual outsiders deeply influenced how they related to the land and other people. It helped forge their dreams.

    I don’t expect to have much influence on the views of people like Hills. When he uses words like “defamation” he makes it clear that he believes homosexuality is something to be ashamed of rather than celebrated. If my Tassie icons have been “hidden”, and if I have “revealed” them, it was generally in and from a closet not of their making but one crafted by people like Hills. He is one of the people who perpetuates and re-inforces the silence it is time to break.

    But, from other readers of Tasmanian Times I would expect at least some interest in what has shaped perceptions of Tasmania.

    I welcome informed criticism of my argument that the homosexuality of some of Tasmania’s icons matters in assessing their contribution to the island’s culture, and that culture’s growth. But if you’re not even willing to engage in the debate then you indict yourself as allowing your prejudices to block the search for truth.

    PS: It’s commendable that Kevin Bonham urges accuracy in journalism. He’s also right that sexual identity shifts over time. But I’m not convinced these points are relevant to the case of Graham Murphy. My point in citing this man in my original article on Tassie’s cultural icons was to celebrate Tasmania’s gay cultural achievers. What matters in this regard was that he had at some point identified as gay, not that he continues to. His subsequent denial of homosexuality suggested to me that he never has identified as gay. Fine. Someone made a mistake somewhere. My mistake was to repeat that mistake. I still think it was a fair and reasonable mistake for me to make given how comprehensively my source said it checked its facts.

    Perhaps the more important question raised by Bonham is exactly how often do those wishing to discuss the sexual orientation of public figures have to check with these figures about their current identity. Should I call KD Lang, Martina Navratilova, Bob Brown or Michael Kirby before I discuss their stated sexual identity? Apart from the fact that I either couldn’t reach them or would be asked why I’m wasting my time, there comes a point where public figures must take some responsibility for how they are seen. If they are cited as gay in a publication that claims to have checked, they have a responsibility to let us know if that claim is wrong, or if something drastically changes.

    Rodney Croome

  18. Dr Kevin Bonham

    February 22, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    Rodney Croome’s explanation of his mistake suggests an unstated and false assumption: that if a person identifies publicly as gay at a certain point in their life, it is acceptable to claim that person as currently gay, without further checking, several years later.

    Human sexual orientations can change, and I am not just talking about the tiny number of supposed gay-to-straight conversions of born-again Christians trumpeted irrelevantly and tiresomely by apologists for homophobia. Rather I am talking about a whole range of shifts that different individuals can experience between a range of different sexualities for all kinds of reasons. I have personally known several people whose sexualities have changed markedly over time – whether this has involved gaining an attraction to a given biological gender, losing a former attraction to one particular gender, swapping from one gender to the other (and in one case, back again several years later), or even gaining or losing interest in sex and sexuality altogether.

    I have no idea whether any of these things could have happened in the case in question, nor does it matter, but that possibility alone is reason enough why Rodney could have checked before making the claim he did. Sure, said article ameliorates the error somewhat by providing evidence that a person has been gay in the past, and evidence that that person has in the past been content to have their sexuality at the time on the public record. But in terms of responsible reporting on a living person’s private life, it’s really still too sloppy. Fair and reasonable? Or just plain careless?

    Instructive mistakes like this should be object lessons to all media workers (or at least the ones not inclined to be sued) – don’t rely on old information about anything to do with an individual’s private existence or views; make sure your “facts” are reasonably current before making public claims worded in the present tense. Had Rodney contacted Graham Murphy before going to print (or in this case screen) he would have spared himself, and a cause he has done much otherwise outstanding work for, a small amount of embarrassment.

  19. Geoffrey Hills

    February 20, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Let’s take a look at the logic in this article. We can phrase this in terms of a type of question that is familiar to grad students who have sat the GRE or LSAT: First, a proposition will be stated. Read the proposition, then identify which of the following arguments best supports it.

    Proposition: It is justified to speculate about a person’s sexual orientation in the media, without their consent and based on anecdotal evidence.

    Choose the best argument:

    (a) Because the public/private dichotomy is a liberal hoax to perpetuate hetero-patriachal hegemony;
    (b) Because “Mrs X from Huonville’s 100th birthday celebration, complete with details of her spouse and many off-spring” receives media coverage as well;
    (c) Because contemporary views on sexual orientation are such that it is no invasion of privacy to speculate that a person is gay;
    (d) Because gay activists should use any means necessary to advance their agenda.

    If you chose (b), as did Rodney, it might be worth investing in one of those LSAT self-study books or taking an introductory logic course at uni.

    (b) is not a convincing answer because Mrs X of Huonville consented to having her personal life discussed in the media, whereas the figures being “outed” by Mr Croome did not. Of course, one may defame the dead with impunity because the study of history demands such freedom of criticism.

    But in this attempt at self-justification, Croome misses the more salient and interesting debates – about whether there is a right to privacy, its limits, what is in the public interest, etc.

    And he also misses the point when he writes: “Now to the bit you’ve been waiting for: who and why?” That was the point when I scrolled to the bottom and wrote this comment. Because I don’t care. Rodney, I’m not at all offended by your article, I’m just bored. I don’t have time for gossip given a gloss of respectability by masquerading as journalistic opinion.

    As Prof Ken Minogue writes in the latest volume of the New Criterion, the explosion of mass media during the twentieth century had an unfortunate consequence:

    “There is another side to this richness of information available to us about the world we live in. It is that an endless pre-occupation with ourselves as subsumed under social categories – as pensioners or teenagers, married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, and so on – dilutes our consciousness, and our identity spills out in all directions. We lose the focus that belongs to real individuality. We meld into others, becoming part of a strange kind of informational collectivity.” (‘Journalism: power without responsibility’, New Criterion, 23(6), Feb 2005.)

    As I suggested above, Croome’s article raises some interesting questions about the right to privacy.

    How many realise, I wonder, that unlike other Australian jurisdictions, NSW and ACT defamation law requires that for a defence of justification to be successful, not only must the substantial truth of the defamatory matter be proved (as in Tasmania) but also that publication was in the public interest?

    Is that a good idea? Should other states adopt such an approach? What does public interest mean and what should it mean? Is speculation about Graham Murphy’s sexual orientation in the public interest or is Rodney Croome just a bore these days?

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