Sense of wonder

A high school student found surprising and poetic insights in interviews with gay men recorded in the 1980s.

It was the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017 that piqued high school student Will’s interest in how the lives of gay men and lesbians in Australia had been transformed since the 1970s when his parents were growing up.

His overwhelming sense of wonder about such dramatic social change brought him into the Mitchell Library Reading Room recently as a Year 12 student to research his HSC English major work on that topic. He would find himself captivated by oral history interviews with gay men recorded in the 1980s.

Listening to the recordings, conducted by historian Garry Wotherspoon, he expected to hear about the difficult and violent aspects of life that many gay men experienced in the past — bashings, abuse, and closets locked tightly shut to those who couldn’t be trusted.

But he didn’t just find sad stories. He heard of great fun in recollections of private parties and dinners in the 1940s and 50s. So he shifted his understanding of gay life as some men had lived it more than half a century ago.

He was also struck by the energy of the spoken voice. ‘I read transcripts before I listened,’ he says, ‘and you don’t get a sense of the pacing or the vulnerability when you read a transcript.’

Working with Wotherspoon’s 15 hours of interviews, Will created what he describes as ‘performance poetry, a soundscape, a pastiche of oral history’ for his major work. In creating a spoken word performance piece, he found the recordings gave him access to poetic elements he wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

When Garry Wotherspoon began his interview project, he was new to the practice of oral history. Even though it was the 1980s and oppressive laws and discrimination had been largely overcome, many gay men were still reticent to speak openly about their lives. There was no space for gay studies at Australian universities in those days, and Wotherspoon’s work was pioneering — it’s some of the first recorded history of the twentieth century Australian gay experience.

‘We started the interviews in the early 1980s for a book project,’ recalls Wotherspoon, ‘we didn’t have anything from what we might call the participant’s view — you could get court cases, you could get newspaper reports but they tended to concentrate on scandals and illegality. We wanted information from the people themselves.’

These voices of ‘the people themselves’ might not otherwise have made it onto the historical record, and Will is one of many researchers who’s glad they did.

Bruce Carter 
Librarian,  Information & Access

Learn more about Garry Wotherspoon and the Library's collections in Coming Out in the 70s — a free exhibition in the State Library’s galleries until 16 May 2021.

This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.