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A lifelong activist’s early diaries and photographs are a compelling record of grassroots activism in Sydney in the 1970s.
‘Monday 10th September, 1973: This is GAY PRIDE WEEK, I have come out.’
Today this might seem a simple declaration, but when 17-year-old John Englart pencilled these words into his diary 47 years ago in Sydney’s north-west suburbs, life for young people in Australia who were realising their same-sex attraction was astoundingly different.
Homosexual acts between adult males were illegal in every state and territory. In New South Wales the penalty for the ‘abominable crime of buggery’ was 14 years and a whipping, twice the penalty for rape.
Fear and shame were commonplace. Aversion therapy and psychosurgery to ‘cure’ homosexuality were not unusual. Lesbians and gay men were almost invisible in the media and in public life. Support services for young gays and lesbians were non-existent.
Englart’s four ringbound A5 diaries covering the years 1970 to 1974 were recently acquired by the State Library. As well as the extraordinary statement of coming out as a teenager, they record the growing political awareness of someone who would become a lifelong activist.
Before moving to Sydney from Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales in his mid-teens, one of Englart’s first acts of political dissent was submitting a poem that questioned Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War to his high school magazine. After it was rejected as ‘too political’ — his first experience of being censored by a higher authority — the poem was selected for a window display in the local branch of the Commonwealth Bank.
Englart’s parents had taken him to his first protests — against the Vietnam War — in 1970 soon after the move to Sydney. The family’s opposition to the war was partly due to his older brother’s inclusion in the ballot for active service in Vietnam.
Although he began to keep a diary in Tweed Heads, it became more important to him after he moved away and left solid friendships behind. ‘I was feeling quite outside’, he remembers, ‘it provided a place where I could put my feelings down, it offered a place for reflection, it was a memory aid also and it developed’.
The diary documents his involvement in a range of protest actions in Sydney — including demonstrations supporting the Builders Labourers Federation’s Green Bans to protect green open-space and halt the destruction of inner-Sydney’s heritage for freeways. He also supported gay/lesbian and women’s liberation and actions by the NSW Secondary Students Union, which questioned aspects of the education system such as uniforms, exams and corporal punishment.
It was during the first national Gay Pride Week in 1973 — which he took part in alongside lesbians and other gay men from his school — that he began to see the need to keep a photographic record of the political events he was participating in, as well as writing about them in his diary.
‘I was going to school that week so I guess I must have taken time off to attend’, says Englart, ‘so while I was documenting in my diary what was happening, I was also taking photographs. I had an interest in photography without having any great cameras, I’d had an old Box Brownie inherited from my parents, then in the early 1970s I bought a little Instamatic camera and of course then I had the costs of getting the photographs printed from my pocket money. I started very basic’.
The diaries are accompanied by 89 black-and-white photographs showing the grassroots activism that swept across Australia in the 1970s. Having remained intact as a set of images for 50 years, they stand in contrast to the often fluid and ephemeral social media apps that teenagers use today.
As well as a compelling firsthand account of community activism driven by printed leaflets and street demonstrations, the diaries chart the development of a young man raised in country New South Wales as he finds his place in a new city, socialises, and explores his sexual and political identity.
In recent years, John Englart’s activism has seen him take a role as an official observer to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and attend UN climate talks in Paris, Marrakech, Bonn and Madrid. ‘It’s great to see the recent upsurge in climate activism,’ he says, ‘and my message to young activists is “Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, be prepared to take risks”’.
John Englart’s diaries and photographs are currently on display in the Library's exhibition, Coming out in the 70s.
Bruce Carter, Librarian, Information & Access