It’s time for rural Australia to celebrate our LGBTQ+ pioneers – imagine the fabulous statues | Michael Burge

Queer stars Peter Allen, Orry-Kelly, Molly Meldrum, Portia de Rossi and Hannah Gadsby all grew up in the country – so where is the home town pride?

As a queer kid growing up in a very straight town in the New South Wales New England region during the 1970s, I endured the pushback against my unbridled enjoyment of everything from ABBA to Charlie’s Angels.

Yet I still managed to foster a sense of belonging, because I had allies in my mother and grandmother, who told me we had an unassailable local pop-culture luminary on our team.

Peter Allen, whose maraca-wielding, chart-topping hits blared out of the car radio on our long drives home, was from nearby Tenterfield. Once I realised I was not the only local boy who could shake his hips and wear bright colours, I abandoned any need to hide my enthusiasm at the school dance.

Four decades later when I returned to live in the region with my husband, both of us battle-scarred from equality campaigning, it was a delight to see Tenterfield announce an annual music festival in honour of Allen (1944-1992).

It was high time. Allen acknowledged his home town in Tenterfield Saddler, the 1972 ballad with all the cockatoos, kangaroos and tragedy of the best bush poems. The track – a tribute to his grandfather, saddler George Woolnough – accelerated Allen’s songwriting career, which included two Grammy nominations and an Oscar.

There could be no greater accolades for a country boy who performed multiple shows a week in pubs to support his family after his father’s suicide.

I helped the festival organisers with media content in their first year. It should, given Allen’s fame, have been an easy task, but I watched as they struggled to secure sponsorship deals with leading rural brands, which throw money at other music festivals in the bush. More disappointing was the old scuttle that did the rounds, about how Allen had wanted to charge Tenterfield big money when the town invited him for a return performance in the early 1980s.

Music writer Stephen MacLean investigated that claim in his 1996 biography of Allen, The Boy from Oz. The fee was only $11,000, which would have covered Allen’s expenses for band and equipment; but MacLean found “local gossip” had inflated that as high as $200,000. The show never happened.

The legacy of three-time Academy Award-winning costumier Orry-Kelly (1897-1964) fared much worse in his home town of Kiama on the NSW south coast.

Kelly was barely mentioned in the dairy region’s history prior to a 2015 documentary about his life. He had spent his early years in the town, where his father was a tailor, before moving to Sydney and the US to become one of Hollywood’s great costume designers.

Along the way, he had a relationship with English vaudeville performer Archie Leach, who would later change his name to Cary Grant.

What Allen and Orry-Kelly had in common was that they lived full lives as gay men, long before homosexuality was decriminalised in Australia. They also faced untimely deaths that some consider self-inflicted.

It seems the higher our rural LGBTQ+ pioneers fly, the harder many of us need to see them fall. The cheap shots at their reputations were designed to plough the brightest of the tall poppies into the dirt.

MacLean’s investigation of Allen’s Tenterfield homecoming revealed that the antipathy between the town fathers and their most famous son was likely mutual, but that was no reason to malign anyone for 40 years, over moneys that were never spent.

Despite the support of locals who celebrate Allen’s legacy, the pause button has been hit on his festival, silencing an ambitious program of platforming emerging rural musical talent.

In 2017, Kiama remembered Orry-Kelly by renaming an outdoor theatre after him, although his childhood home was recently relocated to make way for a new building.

This subtle erasure of regional diversity can damage the sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ residents, our families and allies.

So what does it take to express indelible inclusion in a country town, the kind that cannot be erased by the vagaries of the bush telegraph?

Statues and plaques are a powerful, publicly sanctioned way of remembering renowned locals, and while this country is debating a refreshed memorial landscape, it’s well past time for rural and regional Australians to remember our LGBTQ+ pioneers.

Mt Gambier’s Sir Robert Helpmann theatre led the way with its recent makeover, which included a large-scale image of the locally born, internationally famous dancer-choreographer. The regional city chose to rise above the anonymous barb in the Times obituary that labelled Helpmann (1909-1986) a “homosexual of the proselytising kind”.

Compare that with pioneering celebrity chef Bernard King (1934-2002). If he’s remembered anywhere in his home town of Maleny in rural Queensland, it’s not obvious.

With World Pride Sydney just around the corner, there is just as much potential for generating lasting pride – and visitation – in the regions, by acknowledging the rural origins of LGBTQ+ public figures such as Cate McGregor, who hails from Toowoomba, Queensland; and Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham from Yuin country on the NSW south coast.

Molly Meldrum and Portia de Rossi emerged from rural Victoria; Bob Brown from Oberon, NSW; Benjamin Law from Nambour, Queensland; and Hannah Gadsby from Smithton, Tasmania.

The process has already started, but there are many more who would probably welcome invitations from country councils to participate in the burgeoning rural LGBTQ+ events calendar.

A few bridges may need to be built, but making the effort could attract the support of LGBTQ+-friendly sponsors and outreach services that are bringing hope and validation to country communities.

In Tenterfield Saddler, which has at its heart a search for belonging, Allen called on his grandfather to “turn your head” to see what’s down the road.

Perhaps he was also asking the bush to see aspects of itself through new eyes?

Apart from anything else, imagine how fabulous the statues will be.


Michael Burge

The GuardianTramp

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