Jamie grew up gay in 1960s Australia, when following his heart made him a criminal. That’s no longer the case, but he says anxiety is only an introduction away.
What does it mean to finally see marriage equality become law?
It’s very important because it’s been a significant snag on the long march to equality. It’s not the original or even the main goal, but it’s been made a really important goal because it hasn’t happened in the organic way it should have 10-20 years ago.
Getting the ‘yes’ vote was extremely important. Because of the way it was attacked and the ‘no’ vote was promoted (in the media) this was actually an opinion on whether we gay men, lesbians and transgender people were human. And that’s why it was so important.
Equally it’s appalling, but important, that 38 per cent of the population voted no. That is a continuing worry. The best I can say about that is it’s significantly lower than it used to be. On the one hand, it’s a famous victory, on the other hand it shows we still have a long way to go.
If marriage equality isn’t the main goal, what is?
Equality in general. The main goal is recognising LGBTI people as equal human beings, with the dignity and human rights that accrue to everyone. For many, many years – and still – that is not the case.
A lot of things that were said in this recent debate show that, for many people, we are not accepted as human beings. So marriage equality was initially an important milestone, but the march I’ve been on for 45 years is a march towards total equality and acceptance.
We’ve gone through certain phases. Originally we (the LGBTI community) weren’t just discriminated against, we were criminalised. The first goal in my mind was to remove outlaw status, but that in itself wasn’t nearly enough. We got the criminal law changed eventually, but, while we knew it was the most egregious crime against us, discrimination was widespread.
Marriage became a milestone because it was wrongfully resisted. Whether (LGBTI) people wanted marriage was an open question because for many people, particularly people of my generation, marriage bore heavy patriarchal overtones and many thought ‘why would we want to do that’? The younger generation are much keener, I think. But having marriage available as an option is vital.
You said you are on a march towards equality and acceptance. How far away from the finish line are you/we?
Oh, a generation or so. It’s very hard to get a metric on these things, but we’ll be 100 per cent there when school students doing history express the same astonishment that we were discriminated against as they do about slavery. We will have arrived when queer identity is seen simply as being one thread of the rich tapestry of life.
We’re at least a generation away, but we’ve come two generations in the past 50 years. I acknowledge that coming from being criminal outlaws to arguing the details of a marriage equality law is an enormous distance.
About 45 years ago, there was a Gallup Poll that showed 64 per cent of Australians agreed that homosexuals should be put in prison.
In the past couple of weeks there was an international poll on a range of issues, including our views about homosexuality, and it found there was still 16 per cent of Australians – one in six – that thought we should be criminals punished by jail.
So that 64 per cent has dropped to 16, which is a huge change.
If this legislation had been passed when you were a young man, do you think your life would have been different?
Well I wouldn’t have had to have been a gay activist!
True. What does this legislation mean for seniors? You have lived a life in very different circumstances to someone who is, say, in their 20s today.
Growing up in a society where you had to hide yourself, even if you didn’t have to but you still feel the anxiety, is damaging. I’m a very public gay man, but I still sometimes find that moment of anxiety when I come out to someone who doesn’t know. Those things never go away.
Clearly for people in their 70s and over, life was harder than it should have been. All things being equal they probably would have had better jobs, better relationships and less stress in all manner of ways.
The wounds of that period still have scars.
Do you mind if we ask you a few personal questions?
Not at all.
How old are you?
When did you first know you were gay?
It came into my conscious knowledge around about the time I was 21. I say it that way because after the moment of revelation had occurred I found there were a whole lot of things I had stored in my memory waiting to be explained. In a healthier climate I would have known when I was 12. It was so suppressed.
Did you come out right away?
When did I discover there were other gay people? This was my revelation day. I’d say a couple of years later. I was about 22-23 when I discovered half my friends were gay. It’s important to understand that coming out is not an event, it’s a process. So one level is coming out to myself when I was about 21, another is coming out to a circle of friends a couple of years later, and then there’s the public coming out.
Most people don’t come out publicly the way I did. I was at uni in London (University College London) and set up the University College gay students society, known as GaySoc. I got involved in the general student politics and ended up being the lead speaker in a motion at a national conference to establish a gay rights campaign in the student movement. This was in 1973.
Because I knew that was going to be on the front page of the newspapers and my father or his friends back home in Melbourne were likely to see it I had to take the step of writing to my mother and father to tell them (I was gay). I think I had forewarned my brother and sister so they could monitor my parents’ reaction.
And what was the reaction?
My mother was very upset, thinking ‘oh the damage this will do to my son’s career and life’. Fortunately that wasn’t true, but I can understand her reaction and my father’s reaction was much more stoic and accepting.
Did that surprise you?
Not really. They were both doctors, they both had scientific minds.
Why did it take you that long to come out to everyone?
Every coming out, especially in those days, was very anxiety-provoking because there was always the very real possibility of adverse consequences. Because the topic was never talked about and the prejudice was widely held how could you know what was going to happen? How was your lecturer, your work colleagues, your supervisor or old friends – how were they going to take it?
Obviously one of the big things that has changed is you are much more likely, even if you’re a worried 14-year-old, that there’s a good chance everything is going to be OK or that there are people you can contact. But for me there was always an awkwardness, if not a serious fear.
I always used to joke to people that the easiest way to come out is on national television because by the time you talk to anyone they will have calmed down and you can have the conversation and, if they can’t, then they don’t matter to you anymore.
Did you experience any problems once you came out?
My usual answer is no, because I don’t remember bad things, but if I’m honest and stop and try to remember there was a time when some louts threw some stones through my window calling me a (expletive expletive). That was in Bendigo in about 1976-77.
How do incidents like that make you feel?
That depends on you. It can be very distressing – and is to many people – but I look back at that and remember feeling annoyed, which is a weak word for ‘angry’, isn’t it. I was angry, but I don’t remember feeling hurt, which probably speaks to my then-closed emotions where I wouldn’t allow myself to feel that way. I suspect the reality is I was hurt and I didn’t deal with it.
In this period we are talking about (mid 1970s) consensual sex between men was illegal (it was decriminalised in Victoria in March 1981). What was that like for a gay man?
You think ‘how dare they do that’. The question of being an outlaw was an ever-present danger.
Did you know of anyone who was arrested?
When did you finally feel you could look the world in the eye and say ‘I am gay, get over it’.
I don’t know ...
Could it have been before March 1981?
Oh no. It was beginning to be true by 2000 …
That’s not very long ago.
No it’s not. It’s so different for different age groups, different occupations. I think it’s probably true that most gay couples and lesbian couples and bisexual couples still don’t hold hands in public. In some areas like Brunswick St I see maybe one in 10 (same sex) couples holding hands – and that’s only recently. I’d say apart from Brunswick St and parts of Northcote and St Kilda you don’t see any gay couples holding hands.
You have a partner, do you hold hands in public?
Vary rarely. I would more often, but my partner is very anxious about it.
How long have you been together?
More than 30 years.
Do you plan to get married?
Yes, but we haven’t talked about dates or anything like that.
Last question: If we gave you a blank t-shirt and asked you to write something on it to say to the world, what would you say?
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