Homophobia: An Australian History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Lincoln, Robyn
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Australian Journal of Social Issues Publisher: Australian Council of Social Service Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Australian Council of Social Service ISSN: 0157-6321
Issue: Date: Autumn, 2009 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Homophobia: An Australian History (Collection)
Persons: Reviewee: Robinson, Shirleene
Accession Number: 203535850
Full Text: Homophobia: An Australian History

Shirleene Robinson (ed), The Federation Press, Sydney, 2008, pb, x + 262 pp., $35.00

This important volume traces the origins of homophobia (or heterosexism) in Australia from the mid-1800s to the present. While it fundamentally takes an historical perspective, as its subtitle suggests, it has a far broader scope and therefore appeal. The contributors come from a spectrum of disciplines including Australian, gender and legal studies, political science, philosophy and sociology. The chapters similarly cover a wide range of areas from the medical, legal and educational to the social, cultural and media aspects.

There are several themes or unique features of this collection that weave throughout the chapters and these are underscored as well in the comprehensive introduction by the editor. The first main theme is that of the importance of understanding the past if we hope to know the present. For example, Yorick Smaal and Clive Moore visit the homophobia of Queensland one hundred years ago around the time of the introduction of the criminal code where they draw on data of '116 homosexual charges from the Queensland criminal justice system between 1890 and 1914' (p. 64). These comprised 17 percent of all the immorality charges for that period and the authors present some empirical evidence to argue that the police 'using the new arsenal of laws...began to choose their charges carefully, targeting certain groups of men, and putting into practice a clear expression of homophobia and organised repression' (p. 75). Another legally-oriented chapter is that by Graham Willett about the policing of sexuality in the 1950s. He reminds us of the dominant discourses of 'homosexuality as crime, sin or bio-medical disorder' in the last century and how these inform homophobic views today.

A second thread deals with the consequences or repercussions of prejudice. That is the violence, both physical and psychological, that flows when discriminatory interpersonal attitudes are not held in check. Here the chapter by Peter Robinson which reports his interviews with twenty-two older gay males is revealing in the personal experiences of repression and violence encountered.

There are many expressions around fear and shame, as well as the recounting of clandestine, secretive and double-lives that resulted from the 'social opprobrium' for men entering their adulthood in the mid-20th century. Then there are stories of verbal assaults in public, being the subject of law enforcement crackdowns and the insidious threat of police entrapment.

A third excellent feature of this book, at least for me, was its exploration of same-sex attractions for women and to that end there are two chapters which focus specifically on lesbians. Chapter 2 by Lucy Chesser examines the situation for women in same-sex relationships in the mid to late 1800s. She says it is hard to ascribe the label 'homophobia' because that 'implies fear or hatred or repulsion' whereas for female same-sex relations of previous centuries it was more a case that they 'were not normally taken seriously enough to warrant those kinds of powerful feelings' (p. 39). They were treated as curiosities or merely absent from any documentary records. That is not to say that there was not violence against them, especially by intimate males, but in general both from the historic record and in terms of public perceptions lesbians in those times were rendered 'invisible'.

The other contribution which addresses homophobia against lesbians is by Ruth Ford which presents case studies centred around women's experiences in the mid-20th century. Importantly, Ford shows how 'discrimination on the grounds of sexuality was not limited to verbal abuse and/or violent physical attacks by individuals but was also sanctioned by institutions including the police force, the medical profession, judicial system, educational authorities and the press' (p. 87). She also shows how there is no singular homophobic consequence for it ranges from verbal abuse to the loss of employment or removal of children. Such reactions are also not solely based on perceptions of sexuality because class, age, marital status and other socio-demographics clearly have an impact on how women in same-sex relationships were treated in the 1940s to 1960s in Australia.

Overall, this is an instructive work because it does force us to take that longer-term view of homophobia tracing its origins in a distinctly Australian way. In addition, the collection touches on the notion of prejudice and how multi-faceted it is and that homophobia is not isolated from other forms of discrimination and prejudices and certainly not from the historical, social and cultural roots from which they emerge. This volume, it also should be said, is highly readable and it is refreshing that most contributors have taken a personal approach to their writing making this a surprisingly accessible book, notwithstanding the quality and depth of the scholarship and the gravity of subject matter.

Reviewed by Robyn Lincoln, Assistant Professor, Criminology, Bond University
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