May Day, Melbourne, 1976 | John Ellis Collection, Melbourne University | 14265
Laura Soderlind reviewed Melbourne University’s gay history for The Age with historian Graham Willett.
“A history of the gay community on campus is always going to be partial and incomplete,” Dr Willett said. “In the 1960s and 70s, the role of the University as a pace-setter and critical interrogator of society became more and more central. In the Law School there were a number of academics who were significant players in the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in Australia).”
Until 1980 it was illegal for men to have sex with each other or even to proposition each other for sex in Victoria. “While homosexuality was illegal, it meant people had to be quiet about what they were doing. The culture of homosexuality wasn’t recorded publically, beyond criminal charges or in tabloid newspapers. The media loved the word “gay”. It was very short. It fit nicely into headlines. So it took off very, very fast (and) replaced the word “camp”.”
In the 1970’s Union House provided venues for rowdy and passionate debates about whether homosexuality should be illegal. Students and staff were often divided in stance, however the University provided a forum for conversation and challenge of the ideas that posed as orthodoxy in society at large. There were several buildings and locations on campus that housed, in various shades of subtlety, sex between men.
“Universities are essentially extended communities. They have shops and parks and places to hang out beyond just lecture theatres. Given the opportunity for men to meet each other and to have sex, inevitably beats emerged at the University. These were known through word of mouth.” Such hotspots could be found in the basement of Union House, the Baillieu Library and elsewhere on campus.
In the 1970’s the University held gay liberation dances, which provided a rare opportunity for gay individuals and same-sex couples to show affection and dance together without fear. “That’s not to say there weren’t issues. In the lead-up to one of the dances, a group of engineering students harassed the gay students, and the dance was called off.”