Words || Angus Dalton
Dr Jeremy Fisher regards himself as a ‘footnote’ of gay history. He was expelled from Robert Menzies College in 1973 after the Dean discovered he was gay; the Anglican leader believed that Jeremy’s sexuality was the result of him being possessed by a Chinese mask. Jeremy mightn’t regard this event as hugely significant, but the union action and student solidarity that followed his expulsion is emblematic of the moment the gay radicalism that flared in New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots finally hit Australian shores.
I’d mostly read about Jeremy on A Radical History of Macquarie University, which, if you’re ever curious, is a detailed and fascinating blog that charts student activism and protest at Macquarie during the 70s, dedicated to proving that the university didn’t always possess the ‘alienating, authoritarian’ atmosphere we know today. As the main character in Macquarie’s most famous instance of student activism, Jeremy features prominently on the blog.
It’s a little surreal rocking up out the front of Jeremy’s Federation-style home in Haberfield. I duck under an arch of wisteria and up a path lined with lavender, and he greets me at the door with a soft, kind voice. We’re meeting a day before we originally planned.
“Sorry to muck you around with the date,” he chuckles, leading me through a hallway and to room overlooking a long garden fringed with frangipani trees. Jeremy explain that there’s a movie in production for the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras next year, and his time at Macquarie will be part of the plot.
‘They asked if I could be at the set tomorrow night at Fox Studios,’ he says. ‘I’m afraid I bumped you down so I could make it!”
By fluke, I already know about the film, and Jeremy’s role in it – my boyfriend had an audition to play him. The movie is called Riot, and it follows the Gay Rights movement in the 70s, including Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1978. The annual extravaganza that now parades down Oxford Street each year began with an impromptu celebration organised by the Gay Solidarity Group, who wanted to denounce anti-gay laws and the routine police harassment of the queer community. Hundreds of people walked down Oxford street, shouting ‘Out of the bars and into the streets!’. They were met in Kings Cross by police, bashed, and thrown into paddy wagons. The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of every person arrested, outing many people publicly. Some lost their jobs as a result. Jeremy, who attended the march, recalls some of those badly injured were Macquarie students.
“It wasn’t really a march,’ he says. “It was a protest. I didn’t get to the end of it, and when I got home the phone started ringing to get bail money so we could get people out of jail.”
The people who attended that original protest are now known as the 78ers. They have their own hallowed float at Mardi Gras and, at a rally for marriage equality in September, the group received a raucous cheer from the 30,000 people in attendance.
Jeremy had been involved in activism well before the events of 1978, partly of his own volition, and partly because of his expulsion from Robert Menzies. He had arrived in Sydney in 1972 from Goulburn and got a job printing Winfield cigarette packets in Five Dock. He knew he was attracted to men, but didn’t know anything about being gay other than the hysteric media coverage of various demonstrations that were cropping up in major cities. To be gay was to be an activist, he thought, and to a degree this was true at a time where
acting upon his sexuality was illegal.
He recalls walking through Glebe – a then decrepit suburb mostly owned by the Anglican Church – to find the headquarters of Gay Liberation, a radical organisation that split off the more ‘conservative’ CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) group.
He was welcomed in by a man who had been married with children, but had decided to be open and honest about his homosexuality. The man had been part of the Communist Party, and regaled an 18-year-old Jeremy about the need to throw off the chains of their oppressors and how sexuality was being used as social control. An hour later, they were having sex on a mattress on the floor. This, Jeremy writes in a memoir piece from the time, was the real Gay Liberation.
He moved into the Gay Liberation house, but only stayed a week; the gas heater in the bathroom exploded into flame. The fire, and the fact that Glebe was a long slog from Jeremy’s linguistics course at Macquarie university, convinced Jeremy that he needed to move.
He secured a spot in the under-construction Robert Menzies College, a new accommodation block for Macquarie students on Herring Road. He joined the Gay society on campus, a tight-knit group that also included Jeff Hayler, the head of the student’s council.
“We’d have our little meetings in the union building. So much has gone up around that building now, but the top floor was a function hall where they’d hold concerts – Split Enz, I remember them playing!”
Jeremy became treasurer of the group. He kept various items relating to the group in his room, like posters and Gay Liberation badges. While his new life in Sydney allowed him to be freer with his sexuality, it was still an incredibly difficult time to be gay – Jeremy had ambitions of being a teacher, and homosexuals were strictly banned from the profession. Sitting across from me at his dining table, he tells me of the day it all became too much.
“I’d been into town and met a guy, who basically sexually assaulted me. I hadn’t told my parents about my sexuality. I was in a college which was Anglican. Very evangelically Anglican. The guy who was the master claimed I was possessed by a mask my parents had given me. I attempted to take my life. I was found by the cleaner and taken to Macquarie hospital, which back then was a big psych hospital. That’s when my parents were contacted and things came out into the open.”
When he woke up in hospital, Jeremy was interrogated by a psychiatric registrar, who told him that the master had found Gay Liberation badges in his room. Jeremy admitted he was involved in the group, and that he was gay. The master, Alan Cole, refused to allow Jeremy back into the college until he sought help to repress his urges. Cole also refused to return Jeremy’s bond because of the ‘mess’ that had been left in the room after his suicide attempt.
The Macquarie University Student Council immediately launched a campaign that called for Robert Menzies College to be disaffiliated from the university unless Alan Cole repeal his decision. The Staff Association similarly threw their support behind Jeremy. But what of the university executive?
“Justice Rae Else-Mitchell was the Deputy Chancellor,” Jeremy recalls. “He took charge of the committee which was investigating the charges that Robert Menzies shouldn’t have the right to exclude people, because it should be a secular college and not impose religious viewpoints. But he was just a bastard. He railroaded this view that basically I was a little shit, and that the college could do what it liked. As far as he was concerned they were all doing what people should be doing – standing up for Jesus.”
In the face of blatant discrimination, the action of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) saw construction workers on campus join the fight in a case that would solidify Jeremy’s experience in the history books as the first time an industrial union acted in support of gay rights.
The BLF, led by environmental activist Jack Mundey, protected Sydney’s environmental spaces and housing areas for the vulnerable by implementing ‘green bans’. Workers would walk off a site where a development was seen to be unethical or environmentally damaging. Through this kind of strike action, iconic parts of the Rocks were protected from redevelopment, chunks of the Botanic Gardens were saved from demolition, and housing for Indigenous Australians in Redfern was preserved.
Robert Menzies College was still under construction in 1973; students had to trudge across a muddy field to Dunmore Lang for their meals. The BLF decided to enact a green ban in support of Jeremy. Workers refused to pick up their tools until the expulsion was reversed; the strike is now remembered as the world’s first ‘pink ban’.
“The guys on the working site didn’t give a rat’s arse about people’s sexuality,” Jeremy says. “All they cared about was people getting a fair go, and they didn’t see my situation as getting a fair go.”
When the university still refused to act, the pink ban was extended to other buildings on campus – many of the lecture halls we use today were being constructed at the time – and threatened to extend the ban to all of the construction sites on campus. With mounting pressure from students and extensive press coverage, the university and the college finally reversed Jeremy’s expulsion.
It’s an offer Jeremy didn’t take up. He had never wanted to return to the college. Rather, he wanted to challenge the precedent that gay people should hide their sexualities or suffer the consequences. The progression of civil rights, Jeremy says, is about visibility.
“Before that time, gay people were invisible. But by keeping on saying, ‘don’t throw me out of college, here I am, I’m not going away’, we established a visibility that then allows parents to say, ‘I can accept my gay children. They’re there, and they should have the same rights’.”
Since his eventual graduation in 1976, Jeremy has had a career as a professional writer and editor. He’s the author of the short story collection How to Tell Your Father to Drop Dead and released his celebrated crime novel Dirty Little Dog last year. He’s been the President of the NSW Society of Editors, the Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors, has been a judge on the Walkley Awards, helped establish the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and four days after our interview, received an Order of Australia Medal for his work.
I ask what he’s receiving the OAM for. He shrugs and tries to play it off.
“I have no idea why-”
“It’s for education, professional association and services to the literature industry,” says his partner, Lloyd, who comes in from the garden and proudly recites the full name of the prize. Jeremy and Lloyd have been together for three decades after meeting through an ad in Outrage, a gay magazine from the 80s.
I ask what Jeremy makes of the debate about same sex marriage.
“Well in the early seventies, we were arguing that the patriarchy needed to be dismantled and that marriage was a chain for women, and that nuclear families kept everybody in thrall,” he chuckles, and glances at Lloyd. “I guess my views have modified from that.”
I notice silver bands around his and Lloyd’s ring fingers.
“To think these days the whole issue of same sex marriage is even there, and people support it … I mean, you were a pariah to admit you were gay back then. From my perspective, looking back over 40 years, there’s been a tremendous amount of change.”
Leaving Jeremy and Lloyd’s house, I have a new sense of the history that has led us to this moment. I, like many other gay people, have been in despair about the postal vote and the vitriol unleashed by it – but it’s undeniable that the support far outweighs the hate. It’s people like Jeremy who got us here, who were courageous enough to stand up for rights when being gay was an illegal act; that’s what makes him far more than just a footnote.