Crosslight Designer Garth Jones recently returned to his home town of Broken Hill for the Broken Heel Festival, now in its second year of celebrating Australian cult film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
In the following piece, Garth reflects on the galvanising evolution in acceptance and tolerance in regional Australia, and wonders what lessons our political leadership could learn from community sentiment at large.
DIRECTOR Stephan Elliott’s cult Australian film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was partially filmed in the regional New South Wales mining town Broken Hill in 1993.
Released in 1994, Priscilla tells the story of two drag queens (female impersonators) and a transgender person travelling through outback Australia to an Alice Springs gig in a converted bus christened ‘Priscilla’.
The scenes taking place in Broken Hill pub Mario’s Palace depict the ‘locals’ and their initially shocked, prejudiced reactions to the three fabulous strangers in their midst, who they regard with almost otherworldly horror and awe.
Bernadette: [to the Bartender] Could I please have a Stoli…
Shirley: No! Ya can’t have! Ya can’t have nothing! We’ve got nothing here for people like you! Nothin’!
The scene ends with Bernadette (Terence Stamp), delivering a withering, unprintable put down to the belligerent Shirley, thus winning over the rough and tumble local drinkers, quickly segueing into an impromptu burlesque performance on the hotel’s world famous staircase.
In 1996 I was 18 years old. I voted in my first federal election, and Liberal John Howard was swept to power, defeating sitting Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating with a 5 per cent swing to the Coalition. The concept of marriage equality had yet to enter the public consciousness in any profound way.
I was born and bred in Broken Hill, population roughly 20,000 – what ‘locals’ would call an ‘A-Grader’. This is a status you retain no matter how many years, or decades, you spend living ‘away’. Away is anywhere that isn’t Broken Hill.
Like any isolated, pre-internet regional town – youth radio network Triple J began broadcasting just as I was preparing to leave – there was a sense of disconnect from the national body politic. In its place existed a culture derived from the primary industry, mining, and the prevailing pastime, football – both tending towards hyper-masculine extremes.
If you were an ‘arty’ kid, crude epithets yelled from passing cars, casual homophobia and sometimes violent intolerance would be a regular feature of existence.
In 1997, the Uniting Church’s Assembly Task Group report, Uniting Faith and Sexuality: Report of the Assembly Task Group on Sexuality, makes no mention of the church’s stance on Same Sex Marriage (SSM). It does, however, stress that LGBTIQ people “are God’s precious children and our brothers and sisters in Christ equally” (emphasis mine).
In 2004, Prime Minister John Howard amended the Australian Marriage Act to define marriage as “(a) voluntarily entered-into union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others”. A Newspoll at the time showed just 38 per cent of Australians supported SSM – the conservative prime minister rushed his legislation through Parliament.
Many members of our current Coalition government served under Howard, especially those from the conservative wing, who vehemently oppose SSM.
The 2008 Uniting Church Discussion Paper On Marriage states that “marriage for Christians is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life”.
Scarcely half a decade later, however, Rev Dr Robert Bos reflected in his 2013 report, Views of Marriage in the UCA, “if love is of God, and a gay couple evidences the qualities we look for in other relationships, and these are life-giving for the couple, how can we deny full recognition?”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government, elected after the overthrow of Kevin Rudd in 2010, famously opposed SSM, but nonetheless introduced a conscience vote on the issue in 2011. Two SSM bills were introduced to the 43rd Parliament, both of which were voted down in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
May 2013 saw Kevin Rudd briefly returned to the role of Labor PM. He threw his support behind SSM, stating on his blog: “I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage. I also believe that this change should legally exempt religious institutions from any requirement to change their historic position.”
In August 2013, a Fairfax/Nielsen poll indicated that 65 per cent of Australians supported SSM.
In November 2013, via an Act of Parliament, the ACT enacted the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Bill. Less than a month later, the High Court broke the hearts of those couples who’d married in the interim, ruling that only the Federal Parliament could legislate on the matter.
Less than three weeks before Tony Abbott was deposed by Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015, the Abbott Government proposed the notion of a plebiscite to eventually resolve the marriage equality issue.
As of this writing, the Australian federal government, now led by the moderate Malcolm Turnbull – influenced by several Howard era conservatives – is attempting to pass Abbott’s marriage equality plebiscite through the 45th Parliament.
In a blog post entitled ‘Conversations from the Heart’, Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan reminds us “we belong to one another”. This belonging is not a possessive, controlling belonging rather it is about mutuality and respect, recognising the intrinsic worth of every human being all bearing the image of the Creator.
There are fears that the plebiscite will engender a long, drawn out campaign fuelled by bigotry, further traumatising the families and loved ones of LGBTIQ people. Many heterosexual Australians also express discomfort at the notion of making decisions that influence others’ private lives in such profound ways.
On Wednesday 21 September, Melbourne radio station JOY 94.9 released a media statement regarding an email bomb threat against the station and the LGBTIQ community at large, further highlighting the divisive potential of a plebiscite:
“The threat… highlights the damage that can be done through a divisive public debate about our community’s aspiration to be equal members of society… Parliament can do its job and represent the views of the vast majority of Australians to legislate for marriage equality now.”
Australia is the only English-speaking country in the Western world to have failed to legalise marriage equality, giving this writer the sense that, as in the case of our asylum seeker policies, we are once more on the wrong side of history.
In 2009, Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist Ellen Goodman said “in the glacial scheme of social change, attitudes (about gay marriage) are evolving at whitewater speed”.
With that sentiment in mind, it seems well past time that our political leaders take note and represent the communities whose progressive, tolerant beliefs have surpassed the establishment’s conservative social agenda.
Polls now place Australian public support for SSM at 70 per cent, higher than in any other country, including the UK and New Zealand, when similar laws were passed.
In mid-September 2016 I returned to Broken Hill to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the second annual Broken Heel Festival, a three-day tribute to the cult film and all things drag.
Escorting three slightly apprehensive international friends – they’d all seen Wake In Fright, Razorback and Mad Max 2, of course – I was proud to help skewer a few regional-Australian stereotypes as we revelled in the glittering spectacle and ribald interplay of our fabulous hosts at Mario’s Palace Hotel itself.
As I’ve frequently returned over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe my home town’s continual, steady shift towards positive attitudes to the LGBTIQ community, the epitome of true-blue egalitarianism by way of tolerance, inclusion and acceptance.
The town’s vibrant arts and culture scene is ever-evolving – the stunning natural environment attracts (and indeed germinates) internationally vaunted artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers both as visitors and permanent residents.
In many ways, Broken Hill, once rough-and-tumble and quick to judge, is an apt barometer for the wider Australian community’s willingness to embrace marriage equality and progressive ideals. The town’s rapid shift in attitudes suggests a progressive path to embracing acceptance across cultural, social, gender and spiritual lines which far outpaces our elected officials’ desire for change.
It’s striking to think just how profoundly communities, both faith and secular, have outpaced our representatives. Be it a small regional mining town or a church barely four decades old, our rapid evolution in consciousness has left politicians looking out of touch with the “whitewater pace” of our capacity for empathy and spiritual growth.
I picked my way from the main hall to the front bar through a sea of glitter, sequins, outrageous platforms heels, fluorescent miniskirts and immaculately sculpted headpieces. I slid past fly-in fly-out mine blokes, old school mates and local sporting legends.
A few vintage A-Graders were perched at the bar with schooners as I ordered my drink from a towering local drag artist, tribal tattoo etched across a beefy shoulder and resplendent in lemon yellow latex.
Scanning the kitschily rendered interior of Mario’s, spiritual home of Priscilla, the 20 plus years since that infamous bar scene were shot could have been light years, so profound was the shift in attitudes and atmosphere.
There wasn’t a Shirley to be seen.