‘The Emancipist’ is an essay by Rodney Croome, originally published in Island 114 in 2008.
My cell was bound by iron bars on three sides. It was a police cell, and not one in which wrong-doers were meant to spend any length of time. In each of the two cells adjoining mine a friend sat quietly. Although we could speak, touch, even kiss if we wished, we chose to sit as far from each other as our confinement allowed. We had not been told how long we would be held, and feared we might be detained many more times. As this undefined period of detention was a form of intimidation, these cells, with their abundance of bars, were perfectly designed.
High up in my cell’s wall was a small barred window. Through it, if I climbed the toilet and braced myself between bars and uneven stones, I could peer to another old police building across the lane. Its forgotten lintels and bricked-in doorframes were fossils from past worlds of incarceration suspended in layers of brick and stone, and now half-drowned by a tide of deep, late-afternoon shadow.
Perched precariously above the cistern I heard the cries of the others who had been arrested. Each time a police van stopped in the laneway the cramped detainees would break into chants to which we would sometimes respond. Incoherent angry shouting followed as each person the van disgorged was processed, locked up or ejected from custody.
“ … this undefined period of detention was a form of intimidation, these cells, with their abundance of bars, were perfectly designed.”
After a while all I could hear were the voices of one or two people left in the van. No words were clear unless they called out ‘What’s happening?’ or ‘Why are we still here?’ Then they too would be led away and there was silence.
In the spring of 1988, on the strength of one anonymous complaint and after it had appeared only a handful of times, the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group’s stall at Hobart’s Saturday morning Salamanca Market was banned by the Hobart City Council. The stall was the first public act of a community that had been silent and invisible for decades. The response of the authorities reminded us why our gay forebears had dwelt for so long in shadow.
The small inconspicuous stall, two card tables, a petition and some information about gay law reform, grew in the eyes of Hobart’s Council. Blind to the off-colour souvenirs across the street, the city’s fathers denounced our stall as offensive. Oblivious to the socialists only metres away, they condemned our presence as ‘too political’. Armed with little but indignation we set up our stall anyway. Nervous Town Hall officials asked us to leave and, nervously, we refused. Then the police asked us to leave. When we also refused their requests we were arrested for trespass, one by one, leaders first and then as the morning wore on into afternoon, dozens of others. When there was no one left who was prepared to be arrested, our side folded the card tables, their side garaged the arrest vans, and everyone went home.
Each week unfurled new variations on this basic theme. Embarrassed by the crowds which gathered every Saturday to cheer for us from the market’s grassy verges, and by the media contingent that came to report on these unusual events, the Council tried to scuttle our stall before the supporters and reporters arrived. So we set up decoy stalls.
Irritated by our simple cunning the Council banned us for life from its ‘family market’, and ordered the arrest of anyone known to be gay, found in possession of one of our petitions, or displaying the words ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or any symbol of the gay movement, including the pink triangle Nazis used to identify homosexuals. The next week we became the strange, fitful dream of some poor, starving wretch in a concentration camp: hundreds of noisy, well-fed, brightly clothed men and women, smiling, singing and laughing, and all adorned, wherever we could hang or pin them, with triangles as pink as fresh flowers.
The police matched and exceeded the Council’s clumsy repression. Clicks, whirrs and suddenly silent lines meant detectives were tapping our phones with their old-fashioned machines, or so we were told by the environmental campaigners who had experienced all this before. Meetings convened by senior officers to stop the seemingly endless arrests would climax in threats to apprehend us as we left our homes on Saturday morning. Our response was to sleep Friday night at the houses of friends. At the market our petitions to parliament were ripped from our hands and torn up before our eyes and the vents of the arrest vans were kept locked until we gasped for breath. Bruised from the deliberately bumpy ride to the station, we were marched into a room full of young constables who wore rubber gloves to hand us pens. They joked about our queerness and made fun of the Jew among us. The cells were next, at least for those whose backs the police felt compelled to break.
The lock-up did have one compensation. I could rest my feet. They ached from lugging tables, standing behind the stall, and skipping. Like the territories with which animals mark their boundaries, Salamanca Market is marked by the Council’s lines of authority. These territories run along gutters, across pavements and around traffic islands in lines mostly invisible to the uninformed eye. But to us these lines were the boundaries of our lives. On one side we were citizens despite being openly gay, on the other, at least for several hours every Saturday morning, we were criminals because of it. Skipping backwards and forwards across that boundary was a game many of us liked to play. Step across the line and you automatically invited arrest, but as the authorities approached, step back and you were out of their reach. Doing the hokey-cokey of defiance, dozens of protesters would link arms, jump into the market, jump out, jump in and jump out again and collapse in a chorus of laughter. We knew at some point we would cross the line to be arrested, but until then this new game mocked the authorities, relieved our anxiety and passed the time.
And like all games it told a truth that is hard to accept any other way.
It is said of Tasmania that if you set off from the far northwest tip you can walk alongside one continuous line of fences, broken only by a handful of rivers and roads, to the opposite end. The fences vary from sagging barbed wire to sandstone walls to freshly painted white palings, but they join in a single artery of delineation from which stem a thousand veins to divide the land.
Can this really be the same island to which people from distant nations resort precisely so they may wander without let or limit? What one mind unites another rips to pieces, and for those with a need to rip, Tasmania’s geography speaks not of a multihued whole but of a thousand tiny, sovereign kingdoms, each disconnected from the others by fast rivers, steep mountains, deep gorges and thick forests. In minds that are compelled to disintegrate the world, rigorous fence lines are not an artificial imposition on an already demarcated land, they simply reflect and enhance it.
Minds such as these have been at work in Tasmania for a long time, and often with the advantage of authority. Just as colonial officials exiled female convicts discovered in each other’s embrace to lonely homesteads at opposite ends of the island, so they assigned each district a single Irish rebel so that he would helplessly pine away alone. Just as Lady Jane Franklin plucked from the natural fabric the single animal she detested – the snake – and St Patrick-like consigned it to hell with a bounty, so the native people were plucked from their land with guns and lies and deposited on an island to die from neglect. Imprisoned men found kissing were consigned to silent, separate cells carefully designed to imitate the loneliest places on earth, and in this solitude were expected to straighten. In the loneliest places on earth, a century later, rivers found taking a natural course were blocked, diverted and concreted into new grotesque forms. ‘We welcome everyone to Tasmania except homosexuals’: words from the lips of one of the twentieth century’s last great dam builders – Premier Robin Gray – as he amputated yet another limb from the Tasmanian body so that he could more easily dominate the bleeding trunk.
What makes the boundaries which dismember Tasmania even more remarkable than their geographical and historical pedigree is that all of them – ecological, racial, religious, political, social or sexual – are policed by an infinitude of stories. Some of these stories hold within them advice about how to live in the tiny spaces to which we are confined, the promise of some peace if boundaries are respected, and, of course, dire warnings about transgression.
The gay community into which I came out brimmed with such stories. This should come as no surprise, given the repression I’ve begun to describe. Tasmania was the last place in the British Empire to hang men for sodomy. In the twentieth century there were more incarcerations for homosexuality in Tasmania than in any other Australian state. Such history was our prison and fear its guard.
This guard stood watch from the moment I entered my first gay meeting at the beginning of 1988. He directed the furtive glances and inspired the nervous chatter of men who, as if we were in the Resistance, insisted on using first names only, preferred coded names known only to each other, and refused to share their family names just as they cared not to know mine.
“Tasmania was the last place in the British Empire to hang men for sodomy.”
I was the typical all-knowing, all-judging undergraduate who in his shock and amusement insisted on offering what is written on my birth certificate, and being given in return what is written on theirs. I can only assume from their subsequent behaviour that the response of some of the men to this disrespect was a vow never to speak to me again. Perhaps out of concern for the welfare of this new rash young soul others were more generous and began to tell stories.
The police, they said, had a list, a ‘pink list’, of homosexual men and women, the names of the prominent ones in bold at the top. None of them had seen it, but they knew it was there because they had been told by those unlucky enough to be arrested in years past. In what might seem blunt irony typical of police, the list was printed on pink paper to distinguish it from regular documents. But in fact this was an important distinction and no joke. Although the police made and kept the list, it wasn’t for their heavy-handed purposes alone. Copies were made available to a small number of the most powerful government officials for a hundred small purposes that in the end became one: to protect the state. At the very top of the list, so it was whispered, were the names of Governors.
They told me that wolves prowled at the door. Perhaps the evening I heard these stories, perhaps the next, and certainly at the end of many meetings past, the police would gather outside, noting registration numbers. A pact between Christians with a distaste for persecution and desperate gay men and lesbians seeking some sanctuary meant a great number of these meetings were held in the back rooms of church halls. But God’s shield failed once your eyes caught the stars and your face felt the brush of cold air. As each man and woman took leave of their fellows and dispersed to cars whose numbers had been noted, the police, in a pack, would sniff one out, one whose scent they did not already know, surround and descend on him or her. If fear stilled their prey’s tongue against ever firmer inquiries for a name and address, that tongue could be budged at the station, and the list lengthened.
I had been wrong about the Resistance. This was not Paris during the War. It was, in the dark cloak the world knew it then to wear, East Berlin.
Like the citizens of that half-city our lives were half-nightmare. But also half-dream. And like most dreams ours began long before we were born.
The vans had stopped arriving, so I guessed the arrests were over. There would be no more skipping or singing today.
The silence, like some delicate lover, unlaced my doubts.
When I came out to my mother, her advice had been clear if unwelcome: ‘Go to Melbourne like your cousin did.’ She had never expected me to be gay or to be open about it, she could never have consciously prepared herself for the consequences (and she’d never told me about that cousin before), yet she instantly, instinctively knew to give the order to flee.
My friend Michael’s admonition, when he knew I was about to speak on TV about the Council’s ban, came just as suddenly from the same hidden and hardened place. ‘Justin was gay-bashed on the steps of the Cathedral last week and if you go through with this worse will happen to you.’
These words were reflexes. Like the Council’s hysteria and the police’s heavy hand they arose beyond thought and reason in some dark corner of a past Tasmanians barely knew but all shared, and which tyrannised us all every moment of our lives.
I had been sure that this tyrant could be toppled if enough of us defied him. Even if I was wrong, better real handcuffs and cells than the prisons-of-mind in which the poor gay lags who stayed and the sexual refugees who fled had lived their shadowed lives.
But now I was shorn of this certainty and defiance just as surely as I’d been stripped by the police of my wallet, belt and shoes. Was there a way across all the boundaries? Had we ever been free, or would this cell, with its abundance of bars, remain my home for a hundred years to come?
It had, after all, begun in chains.
Two centuries ago, despite the doubts of some medical mavericks, blood-letting was still a popular treatment. Medical practices have a habit of becoming social theory, and purging was no exception. The body of late Georgian England was bloated and gouty from gorging on the tribute of its colonies and the products of its new machines. Appropriate veins were cut and out flowed the poor, the desperate and the rebellious. In the midst of that flow was Isaac Iles, a ploughman from Hampshire and my forefather.
In the autumn of 1831 a young Isaac marched with a hundred other labourers out of his village up to the house of a farmer who had recently purchased a steam-driven threshing machine. Using pickaxes and shovels Isaac and his fellow villagers disabled the machine.
As defiant as it clearly was, the protest was not unconventional. In a procedure anticipated and accepted by all concerned because it had been practised for centuries, and made even less remarkable by the fact that it was occurring in villages across southern England, the labourers had symbolically displayed their frustration at the cause of their chronic underemployment, expecting thereby to restore some balance to village life.
It was a shock to farmer and labourer alike when the authorities rounded up the labourers, hanged their leaders and transported the rest to Van Diemen’s Land. Clemency pleas from local priests were useless. There was wealth to be made from the new technology, and there had just been another revolution in Paris. In that age, rural rebellions were as threatening as urban riots.
Isaac’s seven-year sentence appears to have done little to restrain his assertiveness. Prison records show he consistently infringed the petty rules which governed convict life, risking Port Arthur or worse, to go where he liked and meet who he wanted. Nor, once freed, did he bow to the system that had wrenched him from all that he knew and delivered him to a strange island at the edge of the universe. As an Emancipist Isaac opened unlicensed pubs in valleys north of Hobart; wooden huts where shepherds, stockmen, convict and free, would meet and drink liquor from his illegal stills. Tasmania's rulers were wary of drink. It drew the discontented together. Troopers would regularly inspect Isaac's allotment. But all they found were the elderberry bushes from which came the berries that made the wine that in turn became brandy. The brandy itself was gone, concealed in small earthen jars on a rope on the bed of the muddy Coal River that flowed past Isaac's tiny stone cottage. The story became the place name: Brandy Bottom. The elderberry bushes still grow, and according to fanatical collectors the jars are still there to be found.
Isaac Iles also failed to adopt the practices that had dispossessed him. While his contemporaries seized upon government incentives to become commercial farmers, Isaac refrained from acquiring ever more land or using the land he had for profit. The few acres he was granted produced all he needed, including seven sons, known throughout the district and in family lore as the Seven Wild Ileses for having inherited their father's defiance. At the age of ninety-five Isaac died, three years shy of becoming a citizen of a new nation, still unable to write his own name, contentment beaming from the one photo of his face that survives.
And he had been here, in this gaol, bound by these bricks and bars.
“I had been sure that this tyrant could be toppled if enough of us defied him. Even if I was wrong, better real handcuffs and cells than the prisons-of-mind in which the poor gay lags who stayed and the sexual refugees who fled had lived their shadowed lives.”
Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison, Havana’s port fortress, Barcelona Cathedral: they’re all examples of how repressive states recycle their torture sites from one century to the next as if a second or third go will get it right. My police cell fitted the pattern. It lay at the southern end of what was once a sprawling convict gaol. In this gaol, quite near my cell, there had been a treadwheel. Isaac’s punishment for being caught in a place and at a time off-limits to convicts was to propel this wheel for a week unceasingly but for sleep. No grain was crushed, no water moved. The sole aim of this great machine was to exact the revenge due to all its cogged brethren, to break the machine breaker. But he was not broken, and survived instead to secrete his defiant spirit in the silty, meandering streams of memory. There it would be forever safe from those who would destroy it, and available to those – like me – who might dig it up, imbibe of it, and be fortified by its promise of freedom.
A small orange triangle of sunlight slid slowly up the bricks above my bunk. My fingers traced it as if they could intervene and hold it in place, or at least to say this happened, the sun shone here.
After seven weeks and one hundred and thirty arrests, the Hobart City Council relented, granted the gay law reform stall permission to operate, and dropped the charges against everyone whose arrest it had ordered. The stall has been there ever since, gathering signatures and distributing information, as the laws it advocates on, and the society around it, have changed and improved beyond anything anyone could have imagined in 1988. Thanks in part to that little stall, Tasmania now boasts Australia’s most progressive anti-discrimination and relationship laws.
In June this year the Hobart City Council voted overwhelmingly to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Salamanca arrests with an apology to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, and all those who were arrested in defence of fundamental human rights.
RODNEY CROOME was the editor of Island from 1995 - 1999. In 2003 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his gay rights advocacy and in 2015 was named Tasmanian Australian of the Year.