A Queer Continent? On Masculinity & Australia's Queer Origin Stories
, June 14th, 2016 11:25
The popular image of the Australian male might be a somewhat macho and brawny one but, as Alan Weedon argues here, there's always been an at times rather erotic queer current lurking below the surface
By and large, the stereotypes of Australia at home and abroad are inherently masculine. Whether it's archaic posters romanticising a craggy (all-white) settler in Australia's interior, or valorising the alpha male in Australia's cinema classic, Crocodile Dundee, these origin stories have never really accommodated perspectives which subvert our heteronormative stories. But here's our paradox: they also serve to articulate how our cultural narratives can also be read as queer.
"The glorification of men in Australia has all of this erotic potential, where our definition of 'mateship' is about the union of men against the world. That piques on my homoerotic radar" says Marcus Whale, a Sydney-based musician.
Whale has recently released his debut album Inland Sea–produced by none other than HTRK's Nigel Yang. This album taps into one of Australia's most famous queer origin stories, that of Australia's 'queer' bushranger, Andrew George Scott (commonly referred to as Captain Moonlite).
"The reason why Captain Moonlite becomes emblematic – is because we're looking back at him using our ideas of identity politics to label him" Whale says.
Marcus explains his debut is using "myths of Australia's origin as maps of its present”. When you look beneath the surface, our colonial origin myths aren't quite what they seem.
"The further back you get, the odder Australia becomes. Early convict sodomy stories very much echo what was happening in Britain's big cities, but the debate in Australia at the time was that they were debauching the country" explains Graham Willett, a Melbourne-based queer historian.
Willett, an elder of Australian queer history, is better placed than most to take a punt on the joyful queer strains of Australian origin stories. As co-author of the Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne, he's readily aware that the masculine mystique of early colonial Australia wasn't exactly a static archetype of the straight, cis "brute”.
"We have evidence of same-sex desire and activity between men and women at least to the 1830s-40s" he says.
Essentially, if you're sent to a penal colony, chances are your everyday movements, general temperament and, ahem, after-hours proclivities were going to be documented, or at least surveyed. Prisons, after all, are for keeping an eye on the perversely behaved. As such, this meant that homosexual activity – particularly sodomy – was documented in Australia far beyond comparable crimes committed in Great Britain at the time.
"Although you're being monitored and being watched all the time, there's still a degree of freedom" he says.
Some of the earliest colonial Australian queer origin stories stem from the discovery of 'marriage-like' relationships. Particularly among men, the disproportionate gender ratio led people to surmise that sodomy thrived because that's all that was available. The prevailing philosophy among colonial officials and other observers at the time was that penal society bred the conditions that made convicts susceptible to sodomy.
Through a contemporary lens, however, this becomes a problematic assumption: enter Captain Moonlite.
Scott was one of many Britons who found themselves in the antipodes by the latter half of the 19th century. Throughout the 1870s Scott was incarcerated in Sydney and Melbourne, where he met James Nesbitt at HM Pentridge Prison in Melbourne (now the site of upscale apartments). Upon their release, the duo shared a house. Both failed to get employment in what was then one of the world's richest cities, and instead, hatched a plan to walk to New South Wales (about a cool 64 hours) to find work with a motley crew of other social "degenerates” from Melbourne's slums.
By the time they crossed the border they'd lost most of their money and clothes as payment for life essentials. Understandably, Scott had become desperate, and held up a cattle station that denied them lodgings for a night. A gunfight with local authorities ensued, Nesbitt died, and Scott was caught.
But this is where the story gets interesting.
Local newspapers reported that Scott "wept over him [Nesbitt] like a child, laid his head upon his breast and kissed him passionately.” Scott was eventually sentenced with execution, and, in the meantime, he wore a lock of Nesbitt's hair as a ring.
For decades, this curious little story was transcoded into an inherently masculine story of 'mateship'. But of course, not every "mate” makes it their wish to be buried alongside their former inmate, roommate, or walking companion.
The story of Moonlite has been waved around for years as one of Australia's most famous queer origin stories. There's even a queer party night named after him in Melbourne. For queer-identifying Australians, this could be seen as a positive: here's a story allowing a different idea of Australia we can put out. But, as with every colonial story, you're also never a few degrees away from the horrors of colonial brutality.
"Emancipated convicts generally led Australia's frontier wars. They were granted land and expanded the colony inwards, pushing indigenous nations inland, or were massacred. So there's a lot to not be proud of in Moonlite" says Marcus Whale.
The walk to Whales' house in Sydney's inner suburb of Paddington is a lesson in a type of radical queer identity holding on tight. Here, there are patches of unabashed queerness: an independent queer bookshop and, a few minutes walk away, a variety of both dodgy and decent saunas, not to mention that Paddington's streets remain the stage for Sydney's annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
"I want to reference my queerness in a way which wouldn't reference the 'gaystream' I suppose" Whale tells me. "In the lead up to the album I was feeling really existential about my whole place here, I suppose because I was thinking about colonisation a lot, but then also in some way feeling not very close to gay culture in Australia, but feeling queer.”
Much of this stems from Australia's continuing refusal to allow gay marriage, itself a rather complex issue that seems to have been trumpeted above other, more pressing queer issues across the country. To some, marching to marriage's drum seems like the final cog in queerness' contemporary assimilation into mainstream culture.
"Especially in a capitalist society, the ideal status of a gay person is to be a man, be white, and married, so that they have a good job and make lots of money and are 'productive'" explains Whale. "I feel that's an erasure of alternative sexual identities when they were considered actual alternatives.”
In a world where getting two gay men onto a Tiffany & Co ad is seen as a coup, and having people admire rappers like Macklemore speaking for queer politics, you can't help but feel things have come full circle again: in that mainstream representations of queer culture have become very queer indeed.
"I feel like the thread of queerness in Australia has the possibility to be more radical" he says. "There's a really deep ethnic hurt through it, and as such, a need to create identities that are against orthodox ideas of identity.”
Throughout Inland Sea, Whale weaves a binary between authority and a mythical 'inland sea' cast as a site of rebellion. Here, one could say Whale marks his first 'ghostly' connection to Australia's past, as many emancipated and convict escapees fled inland, away from authorities. This is alluded to on tracks like 'Vapour': "escape inland / where I sweated you out / sweetly dissolve / like vapours into a sea”.
On the one hand, Moonlite is a perfect case study to subvert Australia's masculine origin stories. But as Marcus explains, this gets problematic:
"Moonlite's about failure, and not being able to find another place" says Marcus. "Really it's about desperation, because there was nothing glorious about his story and it was largely emblematic of the hierarchical way that a colony works.”
So then what are we to make of Moonlite?
In some ways he can be read as an iconoclast of early Australian queer history, or, at least, that's what we tell ourselves when we look back at his story. Then there's the notion of Moonlite as the failure, a sorry stab at anti-establishment zeal that could only backfire, as Whale explains, "Captain Moonlite was a figure who is rejected by society with people who were also rejected by society, and then the run in with the law. That still carries a weight which rallies against the establishment, or what's traditionally received.”
The parable of Moonlite also begs a question, one which goes far beyond queering our story. That question is, what are we ultimately to make of an Australian 'origin' story in the first place?
"The reason why it's so messy is that there is no single 'Australia' in any real sense. We have no national story" says Graham Willet.
The Moonlite story, along with most other Australian queer origin stories, negates queer experience prior to 1788. While historians of all stripes acknowledge this, trying to find any kind of Australian queer 'origin' story is underwritten by the fact that there's scarce data on queer indigeneity, or, at the least, it's clouded by the fact that it was recorded through the eyes of white anthropologists.
So Whales' debut, and its reclamation of one alternative history isn't going to change Australia's long-standing tradition of exporting an incredibly masculine versions of itself. And just as most of Australia's largely broken with the naïve belief that Australia was founded on friendly terms, so too do we break with the prevailing opinions that bind this big queer island continent to heteronormative stories.