Homophobia as Party Politics: The Construction of the 'Homosexual Deviant' in Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland

Article excerpt


In 1987, years of frustration with Queensland's sexually repressive culture compelled a homosexual man named Cliff Williams to write to the national gay magazine OutRage. Williams outlined a number of the difficulties he faced being gay in Queensland and ended his letter with the exclamation, 'To hell with homophobic Queensland!' (1) This exclamation captures many of the tensions in Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s. While these decades were a time of immense political change for gay and lesbian Australians, Queensland's political culture was particularly resistant to the gay and lesbian rights movement.

The Australian gay and lesbian liberation movement emerged as a political force in the 1970s and 1980s during an era when Queensland was governed by the extreme right-wing premier Johannes 'Joh' Bjelke-Petersen, and a climate of censorship and repression prevailed. This article explores the ways in which Bjelke-Petersen and his Country Party/National Party government defined homosexuality as morally deviant in order to gain electoral advantage, thereby incorporating the politics of homophobia into governance. First, the Bjelke-Petersen government made efforts to prevent homosexual teachers from being employed and homosexual students from forming support groups. Second, it used the HIV/AIDS epidemic to demonise homosexual individuals. Third, it attempted to introduce anti-homosexual licensing laws and to criminalise lesbianism. Finally, the 1986 Sturgess Inquiry into Sexual Offences Involving Children and Related Matters also contributed to public anti-gay sentiment. Paedophilia was consistently linked to homosexuality throughout this era.

As Adrian Cherney suggests, the most effective means of gauging homophobia in society is to undertake qualitative research that best discovers social experience. (2) Accordingly, this article first analyses anti-homosexual rhetoric expressed by political figures. As Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller argue, 'an analysis of political discourse helps us to elucidate not only the systems of thought through which authorities have posed and specified the problems for government, but also the system of action through which they have sought to give effect to government'. (3)

This article considers the ways in which anti-homosexual rhetoric impacted upon Queensland's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (GLBTIQ) community. Information about the response from this community is largely drawn from the gay media and focuses on language, signs and meanings. (4)

The terms 'homosexual' and 'homophobia' are both comparatively modern linguistic creations. As Gary Simes has explained, the language used to describe homosexual acts and developing homosexual identities has changed considerably over the past 150 years. (5) The term 'homosexual' was coined in 1869 by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, and was subsequently popularised by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his Psychopathia Sexualis. (6) Broadly speaking, though, the idea of a fixed homosexual identity appears to be a twentieth century concept. During the period under consideration in this article, a mainstream homosexual subculture in Queensland was still emerging and many gay men described themselves as 'camp' rather than homosexual or gay. However, by 1971 the term 'homosexual' had gained sufficient currency amongst Brisbane's gay and lesbian population to be used in a survey of this community undertaken by the Humanist Society. (7) Furthermore, politicians and the media were also beginning to use the term 'homosexual' to describe same sex-attracted individuals. As a result, the term 'homosexual' is used throughout this article.

The term 'homophobia' was first used in an academic sense by the American psychologist George Weinberg in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual (8) It is often used to describe all forms of negative behaviours towards members of the GLBTIQ community, but more precisely should be supplemented by the use of the term 'heterosexism', which more specifically describes the structural forms of compulsory heterosexuality that impact on the lives of GLTBIQ individuals. …