Gay Sydney: A History By Garry Wotherspoon This Review is by John Cook


I confess to a personal interest in this book on two counts. I read a lot of history in my B.A degree but two courses stand out – the opportunity to explore the history of South Africa which opened my eyes to dysfunctional discrimination on a national scale and what I believe was one of the earliest courses on Australian history by (I think) Dr Joyce. (sorry, but my memory is failing after 50 years) This combination opened my eyes to the importance of history in journaling and understanding what we need to know about contemporary and urban political and social life.


The second count is that this book covers a lot of the developing history of the gay Australia which has been the experience of my adult life span. This is not just for reasons of nostalgia but the importance of understanding ourselves and present and coming generations to discover the riches of our homosexual history – there is precious little reference to lesbian experience much less BTI. Do not despair, however as Rebecca Jennings has published her history of lesbian Sydney from the 1930s to the 1970s ‘Unnamed Desires: A Sydney Lesbian History’.


As a Sydney queen Wotherspoon’s focus is rightly on that city though others do get a mention. It is true, nevertheless, that there were clear similarities in the pressures and some of the responses (not  always the same) generated around this continent. It would be very nice to read a similar comprehensive overview of Brisbane – even Queensland.


Wotherspoon has been busy from the 60s time living the gay Sydney life and  becoming a tenured academic in the eighties. He is probably best known for ‘Being Different’ (1986) and ‘City of the Plain History of Gay Sub-culture.’  (1991) This new offering constitutes some of the latter and a detailed update. He has not only observed the last 50 years, he participated in it, the personal, the social and the political. It is a testament to his abilities that he manages a text that retains an analytical overview to changes and developments but leavens this with items from his personal experience whether it be backroom and bar life, dance parties, drugs or political engagement.


Not being someone who was an habitué of club and dance life, I was interested in his coverage of early organizations, their publications and political activism. His later chapters such as ‘the noughties’ are particularly interesting to anyone observing linkages to more recent changes with the gradual acquisition of equalities in so many respects, the changes in lifestyle signalled by living patterns (movements within and away from Oxford St) and the current concern for marriage equality and all that surrounds that debate. In what direction will gay living patterns (It must surely always be diverse) go in the future? Has anything been lost? What will someone be reviewing in another 50 years? Sorry, but I won’t be around to satisfy my curiosity.


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