Fifty years ago, on Saturday 19 September 1970, people around the country opened their newspapers to see something they hadn’t seen in print before. Two Sydneysiders, John Ware and Christabel Poll, proudly faced the camera and stated their names, becoming the first people in Australia to openly self-identify as gay or lesbian and announcing the foundation of CAMP Inc (the Campaign Against Moral Persecution), Australia’s first political organisation for same-sex oriented men and women.
Gay liberation gripped the imagination of women and men around the world in the 70s. It was a radical period in global and Australian politics and the gay and lesbian movement emerged as part of the fight for social change brought on by the civil rights movement. Protesters took to the streets for the first time to agitate against the Vietnam War and for the rights of Aborigines, women and gays.
The birth date of this new militant gay rights revolution was 28 June 1969 — the night gay people fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. In one act of defiance, public perception of gay people as social outcasts and passive victims was challenged forever. The gay rights movement spread rapidly across America, through Western Europe and the UK to the countries of the British world including Australia.
John Ware, a psychology student, and his neighbour Christabel Poll, a public servant, set up CAMP Inc with their partners, Michael Cass and Jill Roe. The aims of the group were to promote the visibility of gay men and lesbians in the community, advocating for their rights, and to raise public awareness about the issues faced by homosexual people in Australia at the time. The extensive media coverage generated by the founders’ sensational public announcement of their sexual persuasion gave the group a promotional boost that no amount of money could have bought. The Australian article included contact details for the newly formed organisation and a flood of letters followed. Within a year CAMP had over 1800 members and branches on university campuses and in every major capital city, it published a monthly magazine, CAMP Ink, and had its own clubrooms in Balmain.
On 6 October 1971, CAMP staged the first gay rights demonstration in Australia. The first mass ‘coming out’ of gay people on Sydney streets, this action took great took courage. Occurring at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in Australian, gay men and lesbians lived in fear of public exposure and risked being physically attacked and abused. Further demonstrations promoting law reform and tackling discrimination against homosexuals by psychiatrists, the church and others soon followed.
On 13 April 1973, CAMP established a much-needed community telephone counselling service — Phone-A-Friend — which by the early 1980s had become the group’s core activity. Later renamed the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service of NSW, the work of CAMP continues today as part of Twenty10.
Many of the rights taken for granted now, such as lesbian mother custody rights, adoption, fostering, teacher rights in public schools, taking homosexuality off the psychiatric illnesses list, and bringing partners to Australia from overseas, were only achieved through the dedication of female and male CAMP activists.
Today, although the struggle for equality is not over, sexual diversity in Australian culture is widely acknowledged and celebrated through annual pride parades like the Sydney Mardi Gras. Half a century on, the LGBTQI community we know is a direct result of the personal sacrifices and hard-fought activism of pioneers for lesbian and gay rights in Australia in the 1970s, led by organisations like CAMP.
Curator, Research & Discovery
The State Library's new exhibition, Coming Out in the 70s, opens on Saturday 28 November. The exhibition draws on the Library's collection to provide rare insights and first-hand accounts of this pivotal time in gay rights history.