Stories from Our Past
Melbourne’s queer history is the subject of an upcoming event at Midsumma Festival. Nine writers and historians will present ten-minute talks and readings that uncover different stories of our past. Queer 3000: Melbourne Queer History is presented in association with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA) and one of the featured writers is Noel Tovey, a leading Indigenous arts figure in this country. Crusader Hillis takes us through Tovey’s story and what we can expect at Queer 3000.
Noel Tovey wrote Little Black Bastard in order to deal with the years of sexual abuse he suffered as a child. It is, however, at its heart a story of redemption through art, travel and friendship.
First presented as a highly successful play, which he continues to perform around the world, Tovey went on to adapt the story into a bestselling memoir. Tovey’s many fans will be pleased to know he’s written a second memoir, one that goes much more deeply into his life’s story, and carries us through to the recent past. It is called And Then I Found Me.
Covering some of the same ground as Little Black Bastard, the second instalment is more forthcoming about his early life in Melbourne. He also introduces us to his life as a dancer in London, his time in New York during the Stonewall Riots and a life-changing tour of South Africa, where he felt the full effects of the Apartheid regime.
Most recently Tovey has been in the news for his campaign to quash past convictions against gay men for what would now be lawful sexual activity. At just 17, in 1952 Tovey, then known as Noel Morton, was arrested and accused of having sex with the well known social figure Max du Barrie. Though innocent of the charge, both men were found guilty of the “abominable crime of buggery”, and both were sent to prison. Convictions were recorded against each of them. His depiction of being in Pentridge Prison at this age are chillingly rendered in the play and book.
Tovey says, “I've never forgotten my time in Pentridge. If you saw my play or read my book you know that I wanted to commit suicide in there… I recently broke into my old exercise yard for some photographs for the new book and all the fear came rushing back.”
Tovey’s escape from a lifetime of persecution due to his conviction came from the unlikely happenstance that though sentenced in the surname Morton, his birth certificate recorded him as Noel Tovey. He says of this, “Had it been known that Noel Tovey was previously known as Noel Morton I would not have been able to get a passport, would have had no international career and probably would have wound up back in gaol.”
Tovey’s co-accused, Max du Barrie, was the subject of a chapter in the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives publication, Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne. Du Barrie was continuously subjected to harassment by the police, but refused to hide his sexuality. In 1970, he was the only openly homosexual man prepared to speak on the groundbreaking Australian documentary The Naked Bunyip. By this stage du Barrie had been sent to prison twice for consensual gay sex, and in the documentary he refuted arguments that homosexual prison romances were necessarily fleeting; he spoke of a culture where prison officers turned a blind eye to prison couplings for the sake of an easier life, while others sexually preyed on prisoners themselves.
Two years later, in the midst of another police persecution, du Barrie committed suicide in his St Kilda flat.
Tovey hopes that the recent media attention will hit home politically, recognising that many gay and bisexual men have had their lives destroyed needlessly. He has the support of Prahran MP Clem Newton Brown, who has requested attorney general Robert Clarke to consider the case.
Amongst other writers joining Tovey for the event are Bryan Andy, who reflects on the death of his uncle from HIV/AIDS in 1997, and explores Melbourne’s history through realistic non-fiction and Aboriginal myth; Dennis Altman talking about sex and gay liberation; Liz Ross in a piece on gay and lesbian union activism; Loretta Smith on the life of a lesbian garage owner in early 20th century Melbourne; and Daniel Marshall and Graham Willett from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
Queer 3000: Melbourne Queer History, January 23, 2013, 8pm, Hares & Hyenas, 63 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, wordisout.com.au