Meet the queer history archivists


By Jeremy Gan

Front of the Victorian Pride Centre

Angela Bailey sits in front of ‘Courage’ (by Jeremy Gan)

Next to an unassuming Napier/Moor St roundabout in Fitzroy, a statue stands, chest bare and puffed proudly, with a lion head at its feet. At the base, a medal, with the word ‘Courage’ emblazoned in bright blue.

The statue is a homage to the film The Wizard of Oz, and its character the Cowardly Lion. A queer reading of the film over decades has solidified it as a queer icon.

“I do hope more people know the story behind the statue,” said Angela Bailey.

“It’s amazing how it’s still here, most of these public arts projects usually go down after a few months but this has been here since…” She looks at a date right under the name. “Since 2014!”

Angela Bailey points and talks about the placard at the bottom of ‘Courage’ (by Jeremy Gan)

Bailey is the president of the Australian Queer Archives (AQuA). The archive’s mission is to collect and preserve materials of Australia’s LGBTQ history, such as ‘Courage’.

According to AQuA’s vice president, Timothy Jones, the archive “fulfils a particular role in bringing visibility to queer history”.

In 1978, AFL umpire Graham Carbery proposed and helped establish the archive at the fourth National Homosexual Conference. At first, Carbery and the other founders focused on conserving the paraphernalia collected from protests, such as placards, badges, posters, and documentation.

4th National Homosexual Conference, Sydney, 26 August 1978 (supplied by AQuA)

“It was started by people who were quite active in the protest movement at the time in terms of gay liberation,” explained Bailey.

“One of [the archive’s] most important features is that it enables people today to see and learn about the effort that the community put into changing laws, handling discrimination, [and] protesting for the rights of the community.”

While AQuA may be the largest and best-known archive dedicated to the preservation of queer history, it is not the only one that exists.

In a small house in East Brunswick, cluttered with character, lives Jean Taylor, who runs the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archive (VWLLFA). Not far from where she’s living, the University of Melbourne’s archive storage facility stores VWLLFA’s collection.

Taylor has worked with the archives since 1984 (the archive was established in 1983), and she laughingly claims that the VWLLFA is her “longest relationship”. In that time she has seen the archive move from the Women’s Studies Centre on George Street, to the Women’s Liberation Building on Victoria Street, to Taylor’s house, and then finally, in 2000, the University of Melbourne Archives.

Compared to AQuA, it’s only a small collection, especially considering it prioritises queer women’s history (or ‘herstory’ as Taylor likes to call it). But for Taylor, the archive is nonetheless vital, and she continues to dedicate herself to its expansion.

“Even though I’ve done this for years, what has kept me going is that every time a box arrives, or some material arrives, there’s always something I’ve never seen before,” said Taylor.

Jean Taylor and Women’s Liberation Switchboard banner (Photo by Ardy Tibby, supplied by VWLLFA)

Taylor worries that without resources like the VWLLFA, and even AQuA, history is easily forgotten, especially when it belongs to a minority like the LGBTQ community, which has had its existence and identity violently erased in the past.

“It’s amazing how quickly things are lost now, or forgotten about,” said Taylor. “Now you talk to young, radical feminists and young lesbians who have no idea of the work we did in the 70s and 80s.”

“[It] didn’t take very long for all our work that we did to be forgotten or not remembered properly, or remembered in a way that wasn’t accurate.”

Jean Taylor in her living room (by Jeremy Gan)
VWLLFA member Ardy Tibby up a ladder (Photo by Jean Taylor, supplied by VWLLFA)

Within the VWLLFA and AQuA, the queer community’s long political history is a constant undercurrent, intertwined with its broader identity. But for Scott McKinnon, the vice president of Pride History Group in Sydney, queer history is not only about the bitter battles for recognition, but also moments of joy.

“People weren’t just living lives of fear or sadness or anger in those days. They were also having a really good time a lot of the time,” said McKinnon.

Pride History Group boasts an oral history collection of over 100 LGBTQ voices based in Sydney. The histories range from personal accounts of HIV and AIDs, to popular gay bars and other queer haunts, to the first Mardi Gras held in 1978.

The Group was established 15 years ago over a concern that queer history was not being properly recorded. McKinnon talked about an incident at a Mardi Gras event, in which the man who first came up with the idea for the festival was sitting in the corner of a room, unrecognised by everyone. It was this, he said, that inspired the creation of the Group.

Since then, the Group’s focus has been to record oral histories, not only of Sydney’s prominent queer icons, but also the everyday people who “were just living lives”.

Scott McKinnon in his Canberra home (by Jeremy Gan)
Graham Carbery excavating a basement under his house (supplied by AQuA)

“A lot of our interviews are with people who were coming out in the 1950s or the 1960s, and were trying very hard to hide who they were at the time, and so didn’t have an opportunity to record their stories.”

With the collection of oral histories, Pride History Group doesn’t need to worry as much about the issue of storage. The VWLLFA and AQuA are not so lucky.

When AQuA first started out, members used their own houses as storage for materials. Graham Carbery even went the extra step by digging a basement under his house. But this form of storage led to troubles with public access.

Now it’s based in the newly opened Victorian Pride Centre, which has provided AQuA with better resources to help maintain its physical collection. Many of the materials must be kept in optimal temperatures and humidity for them to last another lifetime.

The material includes what Jones considers to be one of AQuA’s “most treasured possessions” – the scrapbooks of Ethel May “Monte” Punshon, once dubbed the ‘world’s oldest lesbian’. According to Jones, the materials in the scrapbooks date back as far as the 1920s, with various articles about ‘masculine women’ pasted in the pages.

“They’re [a] pretty extraordinary collection.”

“There’s something quite exciting about actually getting into the archive and touching the documents. You feel closer to the past when you’re touching the same thing that the people you’re writing about have been involved in,” said Jones.

With the recent move to the centre, AQuA has published a 250-page report in collaboration with Heritage Victoria, documenting some of the state’s most important LGBTQ landmarks and objects. Everything from queer-friendly pubs, clubs, and churches, to commemorative sites and important photographs. Even the VWLLFA gets a mention. With the publication of the report, Melbourne’s queer history becomes even more accessible to the public.

The lobby of the Victorian Pride Centre (by Jeremy Gan)

But as important as the various archives are to preserving Australian queer history, they are not without their shortcomings. Bailey and McKinnon have acknowledged that even with their extensive collections, their archives still lack diversity, particularly in terms of racial and trans representation.

“The collection leans very heavily towards gay men, and particularly white, gay men, so we need to be doing more work on the diversity of the collection,” said McKinnon. “We’re working on changing that now.”

“We don’t represent the whole diversity of our communities yet, and we still have to keep working on collecting all aspects of our community,” said Bailey.

Nonetheless, the archives are a valuable resource for academics and nonacademics alike. According to Taylor, a few PhDs have already been written from the material that she’s collected. She recounted a story in which a woman who wanted to write a book on the Women’s Liberation Movement came to look over relevant material. There were so many resources stored in the spare bedroom of Taylor’s house that the woman had to report back to her supervisor and narrow down the scope of her research.

“That was a bit of an amusing thing that she thought, ‘Would there be enough material?’,” said Taylor.

Jones, who is also a historian at LaTrobe University, said he encourages his students to use AQuA for research and to donate new interviews they’ve conducted on queer topics.

“There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship in thinking about expanding the collection and getting my students to be involved in the archives as well,” said Jones.

Timothy Jones in his Melbourne home (by Jeremy Gan)

He also plans to incorporate some of the archive’s materials into his history of sexuality course next year.

Though these various archives and historical groups may not be well known, they are no less important. The people who run them are dedicated to preserving a history that for so long has gone unacknowledged and silenced. For them, the archives are not only about the past but the future.

When asked what her hopes for the future of the VWLLFA were, Taylor said that she wanted to see the archives used as a resource forever.

“That’s my hope, and that’s the idea of the archive, that it will be there in perpetuity.”