by Walter Mason
This is my secret confession. When I was 17 I discovered a collection of biographical stories of ordinary gay men called “Being Different.” I bought it second hand and read it compulsively, over and over again, but always in secret. It was edited by Garry Wotherspoon, and it had a tremendous effect on my growing up and coming out. He has remained one of my heroes, and, I discovered when he came to see me today, my story has been repeated to him by other people. It was a groundbreaking book, and it certainly helped young Queer Australians re-assess their history. He had staked out a new vision of history in which outlaw voices found a place in the national narrative.
So I was somewhat in awe of the slender and dapper man who sat in front of me in the grand green velour chair in Tom Keneally’s office. I needn’t have been. Garry Wotherspoon is about as charming and personable as they come, and, for a living legend, he is delightfully naughty and irreverent. I was developing a crush.
He has just published a fascinating and idiosyncratic history of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, one of this city’s longest-lasting and most venerable institutions, and the very place that has hosted my visit today. This new history is filled with wonderful stories of the great characters and numerous eccentrics (including one notable murderer) who have helped create this place.
“In the 70s urban history became the new focus,” he explained. “There was a shift away from the national narrative of rural history. We realized that most Australians had always lived in the big cities. The new historians thought, ‘We ought to be writing about the cities.’ And so I started something called The Sydney History Group, and in 1983 I wrote a book on Sydney’s transport.”
Garry has long been one of our premiere academic historians. He got tenure in the 80s, “And then I could start to pursue my real interest,” he said, “which was gay history. I released “Being Different” and at that stage every gay-themed publication was inherently political. Though gays, of course, had always lived here – governers, bushrangers, everything. We were quite conscious that the more we could get academic publishing about gay life in all its different aspects the faster it would seep through into our history books.”
Wotherspoon himself has been a part of Sydney gay history for so long. How does he feel about the state of things now? “Values have changed,” he says. “I am very happy that equality has been achieved in many ways. But there is still a terrible gay life for people in other places around the world.” This is a point that Dennis Altman has also made in his recent book “The End of the Homosexual?”
And like many Queer thinkers of his generation, Garry is ambivalent about the issue of gay marriage. Many gay couples, he realizes, have found a great deal of social recognition and acceptance “It’s like the suburban dream come true,” he says. “And good luck to them. But I think we have lost some of the political focus on what is important in the world globally.”
His curious mind saw him start to wonder about the history of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts once he joined it, in order to use the library. This idle interest culminated in the recently released illustrated history, a book published to commemorate the School’s 180th year. “It started out as a brochure, but as I was doing the research I realized, this is a goldmine! There were truly some wonderful stories – three Prime Ministers have been through this place and several colonial premiers.”
I am always interested to hear about people’s new projects, and I knew that a man as clever and fascinating as Garry would have something interesting up his sleeve. He does. It is a research project about the experiences of the Queer Chinese diaspora. This interest has come from a very personal connection and understanding of the different experiences Chinese gay men have in different places. “Westerners have their identity and their individual experiences. We come out and everyone has to deal with it. For Chinese men their main problem has been integrating their sexuality with the family. The family is the crucial thing. This is the theme that has emerged for me to explore.”
And I can’t wait to read the fruits of that exploration. It’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes, and even rarer that they are twice as fabulous as you could ever have imagined. The world needs more like Garry Wotherspoon.