"Melbourne - Queen City of the South"

Melbourne Gay & Lesbian History series



listen: MELBOURNE UNI DEBATE- 04:27 minutes

Melbourne Uni, Dec 1963


One of the earliest public discussions of the politics of homosexuality ever staged in Melbourne took place in 1964 at Melbourne University. In July of that year, the Debating Union - ever on the look out for interesting and controversial topics - held a meeting on the issue, attracting a very large audience. Some 500 students filled the Buffet to hear panels of speakers present the case for and against the decriminalisation of homosexuality.


For the affirmative, AA Bartholemew, court psychiatrist, was joined by students Patrick McCaughy and Gary (later Gareth - yes, that Gareth) Evans. Those presenting the case against decriminalisation were Mr Clifford Pannam, lecturer in law, and students Michael Redfern and Peter Carter. Batholemew argued that homosexuality was a 'natural phenomenon' rather than a wilful crime; his team declared that the law unduly impinged upon the individual freedom of a large number of people. Against this, Pannam. and his team supported the existing law on the grounds that it 'conformed with the popular code of morality', that it caused the disintegration of marriages, and constituted a public affront. It was, in the words of Mr Pannam, 'revolting'.


But the Australian., which reported the meeting, declared that it was the opposition that was most 4 vigourously questioned' by the audience. The uni's student paper Farrago referred to 'audience question onslaughts' against those arguing the negative. And in the end the vote in favour of decriminalisation was a remarkable 281 to 98 - virtually three to one in favour.


And if that wasn't shocking enough, worse was to come. The Australian - a newspaper then only a few weeks old and one determined to forge a liberal point of view in public life - reported the Debating Union vote and then went looking for comment. Without exception, those whose views they sought, supported the student vote.


The President of the NSW Humanist Society, the warden of St Paul's College at the University of Sydney, the Professor of Philosophy at the same institution all agreed that decriminalisation was acceptable. Startlingly, so too did Dr Frank Woods, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne.


The debate in the newspaper's letters' column over the next few days ran along predictable lines. Many were shocked - particularly by the Archbishop's stand. Others argued that there was no good reason why the law of God should be imposed upon what was a largely secular society.


Whether these opinion-leaders were in line with community views is uncertain. Even at Melbourne Uni, it is unlikely that the Debating Unions audience three to one majority in favour of law reform was representative at the time. But a few years later this majority had indeed been established in student thought. A survey of 638 Melbourne University students in 1968 revealed that 66% were in favour of legalisation of homosexuality between consenting adult males, while only 29% were opposed, and 3% had no opinion.


In the mid-1960s, then, change was in the air. Students, the liberal press, even respectable community leaders were shifting their views.

  © text copyright Graham Willett, Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives 2002





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