A Colourful and Comprehensive Timeline of Australia’s Pride Movement

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Where to even begin. There is so much history that comes into play when talking about the pride movement in Australia, and it certainly hasn’t been a smooth or timely journey.

But we’ve come a long way from when the British colonised Australia, bringing with them all of their homophobic laws and ideals.

From the ideas that sex is only sex when a penis is involved, to the unethical ‘gay panic defence’, to media messaging around HIV/AIDS to the clear differing opinions of Liberal and Labor parties… here is a full comprehensive timeline of Australia’s pride movement.

1533 — Britain passes The Buggery Act outlawing anal sex, oral sex and bestiality (sexual intercourse between a person and an animal). Early laws in Australia were based on then-current laws in Britian, inherited upon colonisation. It’s interesting to note that lesbianism was never illegal in Britian or its colonies, including Australia. Lesbianism was never thought of as threatening because, during the Middle Ages, the general ideas around sexuality were that a man’s penis was required to have fulfilling sexual activity. Therefore, lesbianism wasn’t paid much attention. I can’t help but roll my eyes at the ignorance; if only they knew.

1788 — The British officially colonise Australia in 1788, therefore, importing their entire legal system; including anti-homosexual laws, which were predominantly centred around men.

1822 — 30 female prisoners were moved to the male prison farm at Emu Plains, to prevent unnatural crimes on the part of the men.

1901 — Australia federates, meaning that state and territory governments take on the UK’s anti-homosexual laws; where homosexual acts between men are punishable by death.

1949 — The state of Victoria changes anal sex from a crime punishable by death to a crime that gets you 20 years in prison. It’s wild to think that this decrease in punishment was seen as controversial, at the time.

1968 — Homosexual Law Reform Society forms in Canberra, and was Australia’s first organisation for homosexual rights.

1970 — Another organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis, formed in Melbourne in 1970. Inspired by the American Daughters of Bilitis movement, they were the first lesbian civil and political rights group in Australia. Sydney-based Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) followed shortly after, which galvanised the movement. Branches were soon set up in Australia’s other capital cities and on university campuses.

1972South Australian police murder homosexual academic, Dr George Duncan, by throwing him in the Torrens River. This violent gay-hate crime raised public awareness of the widespread harassment of homosexuals, as well as police violence, and saw a push for law reform by some members of parliament, gay rights organisation CAMP and The Advertiser newspaper.

Here, between the late ’60s and early ’70s, we are starting to see some pretty radical societal change, with social groups, organisations and individuals finding their voice and speaking out about gay rights.

Also in 1972, South Australia legislated that it would be a defence to the crime of anal sex, if it is committed in private between persons above 21 years of age. This basically means that if you have anal sex in private and you’re over 21, you’ll be able to defend yourself in court against the crime, and most likely not receive the 20 years of imprisonment.

1975 — South Australia decriminalised male acts of homosexuality. Meanwhile, in Victoria, police raided the home of a gay couple and interrogated them. They’re charged with committing homosexual acts and deported to South Australia, now the only state in Australia where being gay isn’t illegal.

1976 — ACT decriminalises male acts of homosexuality.

1976/77 — The Victorian police arrest more than 100 men for homosexuality during a summer law enforcement campaign, which sees police officers posing as homosexuals undercover to to entrap offenders.

1978 — Police in Sydney arrest 53 people at the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

Sydney Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo: Getty

Some history behind the Mardi Gras…

It all started with the Stonewall riots, which began in the early hours of 28 June 1969 in New York City. They famously resulted in a police raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. The riots are historically considered to mark the start of the international gay rights movement, sparking a universal conversation on what it means to identify as gay.

In March 1978, the San Francisco-based Gay Freedom Day Committee contacted Australian activists, calling for solidarity activities to support a march planned on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

The Stonewall Inn at night in NYC, 2020. Photo: Getty

The march was aimed to protest in opposition to the controversial Briggs Initiative, which, if passed, would’ve mandated the firing of gay and lesbian staff in Californian public schools.

In response to the call for support and allyship, The Gay Solidarity Group formed in Sydney to mark International Gay Solidarity Day on 24 June 1978, and they marched in Australia’s first ever Mardi Gras parade. It was undoubtedly met with police violence and then-lawful punishment.

1980/81 — Victoria decriminalises male acts of homosexuality, setting the common age of consent to 18.

1982 — NSW becomes the first state in Australia to pass laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals, which although a really poignant moment for gay rights, male acts of homosexuality remained illegal in NSW for another two years.

In 1982, Australia also saw its first reported case of HIV/AIDS. During this time, HIV was referred to as “gay-related immune deficiency”, which many thought was a punishment for making “sinful choices”. A successful cure for HIV didn’t arrive until 1997, meaning that gay men living their truth throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s were living each day with guilt, fear and shame they didn’t deserve.

In Australia, the decriminalisation of homosexuality took on a public health focus due to HIV, which was actually pretty successful. The government began to pilot or support programs involving needle exchange for intravenous drug users, which were reportedly crucial in keeping the incidence of the disease low, as well as being affordable. However, the messaging surrounding AIDS in Australia was just as problematic as the rest of the world, framing it as a source of evil, like in this famous ad campaign; which portrays the disease as the grim reaper.

1983 — NT decriminalised male acts of homosexuality. The homosexual age of consent is set at 18 while the heterosexual age remained at 16. This in itself is interesting. Does this age of consent allude to the notion that you need to be an adult to be gay? It suggests that being gay is a choice.

1984 — NSW decriminalised male acts of homosexuality. The homosexual age of consent is set at 18 while the heterosexual age remained at 16.

1985 — Queensland passed legislation banning bars from serving alcohol to “perverts, deviants, child molesters and drug users,” which was intended to include homosexuals, without saying it outright. This goes to show that despite a huge societal shift, Australia was still an extremely homophobic place in the mid-’80s.

1985 — ACT equalised ages of homosexual and heterosexual ages of consent, meaning that both ages of legal sex were the same by law.

1990 — WA decriminalised male acts of homosexuality, however, the age of consent was 21 for homosexuals and 16 for heterosexuals. It also becomes a legal offence to “promote or encourage” homosexual behaviour at any primary or secondary school, public or private.

1992 — The gay panic defence succeeded in downgrading a murder charge to a manslaughter charge, and is believed to be the first case of its kind in Australia. There are more than 10 similar cases in NSW alone in the following years.

The “gay panic defence” is a legal argument used by defence lawyers internationally to defend the murder of a homosexual by stating that the defendant was ‘provoked’ into homicide by a homosexual advance from the victim. It is still legally used in some areas of the world today.

1994  The Keating Labor government passes the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act to override all state and territory legislation pertaining to sexual conduct for consenting adults above the age of 18. Basically, everyone over 18 is allowed to have sex with whoever they want. Finally.

1997  Tasmania formally decriminalises homosexuality. Ages of consent are equal at 17 years of age, and some defences remain available for intercourse at a younger age, but not anal sex.

2003  NSW formally equalises the age of consent at 16 years of age, for both homosexual and heterosexual intercourse.

2003  Tasmania abolishes the gay panic defence.

2004  2004 was a big year. The Northern Territory equalised the ages of consent to 16, the ACT legislates to allow same-sex couples to adopt and also abolish the gay panic defence. 

However, in 2004, the Howard Liberal government amends the Marriage Act to explicitly exclude same-sex couples from marriage. Marriage at that time, in law, was defined as the “union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” Ugh.

2005  Victoria abolishes the gay panic defence, and the Australian Defence Force extends equal benefits to same-sex families.

2006  The Northern Territory abolishes the gay panic defence.

2007  The Howard Liberal government announces plans to ban same-sex adoption nationwide. This never eventuates due to Labor’s election win, and thank god for that.

2008  Western Australia abolishes the gay panic defence. 

2009   The Rudd Labor government passes legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 federal laws in areas such as tax, veterans affairs, social security and health. Go K-Rudd!

2010  NSW legislates to allow same-sex couples to adopt.

2011  The Gillard Labor government passes passport legislation allowing for an ‘x’ gender option, as well as the option for transgender people to select their gender without medical intervention.

2012  The Gillard Labor government announces it will begin providing ‘Certificates of No Impediment to Marriage’ to same-sex couples. These certificates are sometimes required by other governments to confirm that individuals wanting to marry in their country, were not already married in another country. The certificates basically help same-sex couples to apply for dual citizenship with foreign partners. They were previously refused by the Liberal government in Australia.

2013  Another big year. Tasmania legislated to allow same-sex couples to adopt. This was the same year I graduated high school. It’s wild to reflect on just how recent this was, and how much has evolved since then.

Also in 2013, the Gillard Labor government legislated an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act, which made it unlawful to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

The ACT is the first state to pass same-sex marriage legislation in 2013, which is quashed by the High Court, stating that Federal legislation prevents states from passing their own laws. Poo poo.

Transgender children no longer require Family Court approval to access puberty blockers, as of 2013.

2014  ACT allows transgender individuals to change the sex on their birth certificate without medical intervention.

2016 — It’s 2016 and things are really starting to happen now. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews issues a formal apology for the state’s history of anti-gay laws. NSW Police and the state government apologise for the arrests and beatings at the 1978 Mardi Gras Parade. Victoria legislates to provide for same-sex adoption, to come into effect in September.

Queensland also legalises same-sex adoption and equalises age of consent laws for anal sex to 16.

South Australia allows for birth certificates to be altered without gender re-assignment surgery, as well as passing legislation to allow same-sex couples to adopt.

However, coalition legislation for a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage is blocked in the senate following opposition from Labor and minor parties. It’s like one step forward, strides backwards.

2017 — Coalition government goes ahead with a non-compulsory postal survey through the Australian Bureau of Statistics on same-sex marriage. On November 15th 2017, results were announced: 61.6 per cent of respondents said ‘Yes’ to legalising same-sex marriage, while 38.4 per cent said ‘No’. 

79.5 per cent of Australian voters participated in the survey. Malcolm Turnbull says same-sex marriage could be legalised before Christmas of 2017, but couldn’t guarantee this.

On December 7th, 2017, Dean Smith’s same-sex marriage bill passed the House of Representatives, clearing the way for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. 

2018 — January 9th, 2018, is the first day that same-sex couples could be legally married across Australia. It was a big day for the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia.

Craig Burns and Luke Sullivan sign the certificate of marriage during their wedding ceremony at Summergrove Estate on January 9, 2018 in Gold Coast, Australia. Photo: Getty

Also in 2018, the Northern Territory passed laws allowing same-sex couples to adopt.

2019 — Tasmania passed legislation that removes a requirement forcing transgender people to divorce their partners in order to transition on official documents. This marks the end of forced divorce requirements in all Australian states and territories. 

2020 — South Australia passes legislation scrapping the gay panic defence on December 1st, 2020, the last Australian state to do so. It’s wild that it took them this long to abolish such an unethical defence tactic.

2021 — The 12-month celibacy requirement for gay, bisexual and transgender women who want to donate blood is reduced to 3 months.

2022 – The Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill that passed the House of Representatives in February (before being pulled from debate shortly after) is one of the most devastating political blows the LGBTQIA+ community has seen in years.

In short, the bill was designed to “prevent a person from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion”. However, given some of the strong religious views against LGBTQIA+ people, the Religious Discrimination Bill has the ability to cause LGBTQIA+ employees, students and customers to be denied work opportunities, education, services or care by those who disagree with the very existence of LGBTQIA+ people, based on their religious views.

Although this bill was ultimately pulled, this kind of messaging around LGBTQIA+ rights is truly horrifying in 2022 and feels more suited to our uneducated views circa 1978 and prior.

However, it’s a comfort to know that we live in an era where people are not afraid to speak up and stand up, and represent their own experiences in an open and vulnerable way. Not only does it help others to feel less alone, but it actually helps to prevent Bills like this Religious Discrimination Bill from going anywhere. In this case, an ex-Citipointe student, Jared Mifsud, spoke out against the Bill at a rally on February 9th, while influencers like Abbie Chatfield, Kathleen Ebbs and Deni Todorovič have used their platforms to further the conversation.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re living in a different world than we were back when homosexuality was illegal in Australia, but it’s important to remember that real change, such as the same-sex marriage bill passing Australian legislation, only happened four years ago.

While a lot can happen in four years, grassroots organisations had been working on making small changes for literal decades before us, paving the way to a more accepting world. And we’re not there yet. The attitudes and beliefs of those in power, still often go against the equality of LGBTQIA+ people, and therefore, we have still got so much work to do.

So be loud. And take a moment to appreciate where we’ve come from.

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