"Melbourne - Queen City of the South"

Melbourne Gay & Lesbian History series




listen: FROM SIN TO SICKNESS - 04:45 minutes



At the start of the 20th century, most people in Melbourne, and the rest of the western world, were of the firm opinion that men who had sex with other men, and women who had sex with Qther women, were, without doubt, sinners, acting of their own volition against the natural order of God and man. Over the first half of the century this attitude changed to a large extent, with homosexuality being viewed less as a sin and more a sickness - an illness which could probably be treated with varying degrees of success.


In February 1903, Truth newspaper's front page carried an eye-catching headline - "THE SIN OF SODOM". Truth was starting a homosexual panic, following from some fairly sensational claims about dealings between journalists at the Herald newspaper and newsboys. The article accused homosexuals of molesting young boys and stereotyped homosexuals as dreadful, unhealthy creatures connected with the stage are given. Truth, however, also warned that homosexuals can be perfectly ordinary looking men. Articles like this were to be seen in the pages of the tabloid press for the next 70 or so years, and coloured society's views of homosexuality for a much longer period.


Interestingly enough, 18 months later, a Frankston man who was arrested for whipping a boy and then attempting "an unnatural offence" was referred to as a "Sexual Pervert", perhaps the first glimmering of the idea that some people enacted certain behaviours without making a conscious moral decision beforehand. The word 'sexo-mania' was first used in a report involving a man/girl paedophilia case in 1904 - more evidence of a growing awareness of sexual transgressors being considered mentally ill, rather than "evil".


By 1906, tabloid newspapers were carrying headlines such as: "THE UNSEXED - MEN IN FEMALE FORM"; "THE ELLIS-WEINIGER SEX THEORY" and "SOME FAMOUS HOMO-SEXUALS". There was talk of the new "pseudo-science" of "sex psychology" and gave some credence to the theory that there were all sorts of gradations between the masculine woman and the feminine man. It was stated, however, "Both the masculine woman and the feminine man are to be avoided... [the feminine man] is a wretched creature without decision, without character".


Such scientific and pseudo-scientific theories gained popularity over the next few decades so by the end of the 1930s, Truth was able to ask: "Crime or Disease - Sexual Offenders Sentenced at Ballarat" and "Sex Offenders and What to do With Them - Judge's Strong Complaint", with articles calling for hospitalisation of sex offenders and homosexuals as mentally ill, rather than gaol sentences as criminals. Several judges were of the opinion that sex offenders are "not quite sane" but gaol was the worse place for them.


By 1942, there was the case of two homosexual men, who pleaded guilty to a charge of committing an act against the course of nature" after their names were found in an address book belonging to another homosexual. They were sentenced by a judge to half-an-hour's imprisonment in the body of the court room. After hearing evidence from a well-known Melbourne psychiatrist, the Judge considered that the men were behaving in a manner completely natural to them, if not to most other men. He stated that as they had pleaded guilty under the law, he had no choice but to find them guilty and sentence them - but made their sentence as light as he could. "His Honour's treatment of the two men was considered by a well-known psychiatrist to be a true indication that enlightenment is coming to our courts", said the press at the time.

  © text copyright Wayne Murdoch, Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives 2002





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