From hook-ups to ACT-UP, Ballroom to ball sports, fag hags to radical drag, and coalition to intersectionality, we shine the spotlight on lives, loves, industries and identities that have historically been overlooked and undervalued.
Curated from queer perspectives with input from community historians, activists and creatives, Pride (R)evolution centres LGBTQI+ experience.
Experience an immersive display of photographs, posters, letters, scrapbooks, clothing, film and sound — as well as newly commissioned works from queer and trans writers and artists.
A dynamic events program supports the exhibition, featuring local and international LGBTQI+ luminaries. Highlights during Sydney WorldPride include a star-studded celebration of the late Doris Fish. In May, acclaimed playwright Alana Valentine curates an evening of storytelling with music, exploring the legacy of crossdressing vaudevillian Nellie Small. Pride month in June will be celebrated with storytelling, screenings and performance associated with the exhibition.
When Ida Emily Leeson (1885–1964) became the first female Mitchell Librarian in 1932, she cut a distinctive figure. A small woman with short-cropped hair, steel-rimmed glasses, tailored suits and sensible shoes, she walked quickly and spoke in a deep voice. Although the best qualified for her position, her appointment was opposed because of her gender, working-class background and unorthodox choice of partner.
Ida was born on 11 February 1885 at Leichhardt, Sydney, the daughter of Thomas Leeson, a carpenter from Canada, and his Australian-born wife Mary Ann nee Emberson. Ida’s schooling began at Kegworth Public School and, after being awarded a bursary, she attended Sydney Girls’ High School from 1898 to 1902. She won a scholarship to the University of Sydney and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1906.
On 27 August 1906 she was appointed as a library assistant at the Public Library of New South Wales. In 1909, when the Library acquired David Scott Mitchell’s invaluable collection of Australian and Pacific material through his bequest, Ida was transferred to the new Mitchell Library and was one of the pioneers who sorted the collection.
It was also in 1909 that Ida met Florence Birch, a YWCA official. Opposites in appearance and personality, the two became inseparable. Through the rest of Ida’s life, Florence was her constant companion, accompanying her on official functions and overseas trips.
In December 1932 Ida Leeson was appointed the second Mitchell Librarian, the second most senior position in the organisation. The trustees had no qualms about her qualifications for the job but, reluctant to appoint a woman to a position in which she would be the obvious successor as principal librarian, they reorganised the Library’s senior management, reducing the status and salary of the Mitchell Librarian. The move was criticised, in vain, by feminists such as Jessie Street.
In April 1944 Leeson was seconded to the position of research officer in the Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs), as a captain, then major, in the Australian Military Forces. She was a key member of the director Alfred Conlon’s high-profile ‘think-tank’ and later referred to Conlon as a ‘life-changer’. She did not return to the Mitchell Library, although she did not officially resign until April 1946. In mid-1949 she went to Noumea to establish a library for the South Pacific Commission. She returned to Sydney in April 1950 where she continued to work for the commission’s social development section until 1956, compiling A Bibliography of Bibliographies of the South Pacific (1954).
Ida and Florence were still together when Florence died in 1957. Ida died on 22 January 1964.
While Ida Leeson’s public life is well documented, there are few records that help us tell the story of Ida the person. Her brother destroyed most of her papers after her death, and her Library personnel file is lost. One place where Ida’s memory is preserved is in the Mitchell Library catalogue cards, which you can find written in her elegant hand.
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Gays Counselling Service of New South Wales records
As part of the Sydney WorldPride 2023 celebrations, see Sydneyphiles Reimagined — a contemporary interpretation of photographer William Yang’s breakthrough 1977 exhibition. View over 200 images, including vintage prints, and become immersed in the heady days of Yang’s early career and the aftermath of the show’s success.
Also on show are rarely seen items from the collection documenting the stories and experiences of LGBTQI+ people.
Ronald (Gamilaroi) is originally from Moree in central north-western NSW. He has over 30 years of experience working at the State Library of NSW and has also worked with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Most recently Ronald has been part of the Library’s curatorial team, specialising in First Nations people and histories, curating exhibitions, and bringing new items and voices into the Library’s collections.
Catherine Freyne (She/Her)
Catherine is a historian and producer of multimedia history content. She has worked as Features Producer at ABC Radio National and Historian at the City of Sydney. For her work in radio, she has received two NSW Premier’s History Awards and the Oral History Australia Media Award. She is currently completing a PhD which combines history, sexuality studies and family memoir. She likes the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s notion that ‘the universe is made up of stories not atoms’ and has a particular penchant for the true ones. She loves birds, underdogs and primary sources.
Bruce Carter (he/him)
Bruce has worked with communities on history projects for over 20 years, for the last decade with researchers at the State Library of NSW. He became a founding member of Sydney’s Pride History Group in 2006 and was a co-curator on the Library’s ‘Coming Out in the 70s’ exhibition in 2020–21. His PhD (completed at UTS in 2019) looked at the concept of ‘memory activism’ and the potential in personal memory and storytelling to challenge social inequality and dominant historical narratives.
Damien Webb (he/him)
Damien is a queer Palawa man (from southeast Tasmania) who has worked in state libraries for the last 10 years, including roles in Western Australia and New South Wales. He previously coordinated the State Library of Western Australia’s ‘Storylines Project’ and has worked with Aboriginal artists, traditional owners and researchers all over Australia.
Throughout the development of PRIDE (R)EVOLUTION, a number of community elders and experts have contributed stories, ideas and feedback.
For this we say THANK YOU from the bottom of our big gay hearts.
We couldn’t have done it without you.
Brianna Lara Ranieri