I used to live in Brisbane, where, year after year on the afternoon of Christmas Day, a group of older gay men I knew would meet up in a pub.
Spending some of the holiday season catching up with friends over a few drinks is an experience familiar to most. At the time, I didn’t think too deeply about the annual ritual these men were undertaking.
Rituals are important for all at Christmas.
It is clear to me now, though, they were very deliberately seeking out and spending time with their chosen families on the one day of the year when escape from images of domesticity and family appeared all but impossible.
When Christmas rituals match with an individual’s belief system, they can induce immense comfort. There are certainly many lesbian and gay Australians who enjoy exchanging gifts, eating a festive meal and undertaking the more traditional cultural rites associated with this time of year. It is also difficult for some to avoid the conspicuous seasonal consumerism that marks the season.
If one looks deeper though, it is evident that the Christmas season can place a number of complex stresses at the forefront for some members of the lesbian and gay population. For some lesbian and gay Australians, spending the season with family may not be an option if families refuse to accept their sexuality or include their partner in celebrations.
For others, going home for the holidays can mean returning to places where memories of childhood and adolescent experiences of homophobia resurface. There are also those lesbian and gay Australians who do not have a home to which they can return. Rates of homelessness are much more pronounced among this population than the broader Australian population.
Even an activity as innocuous as watching carolling in a local shopping centre can be fraught for lesbian and gay Australians. Those prolific performers, the Salvation Army, have a depressing record on lesbian and gay issues, even going so far as to send a submission against marriage equality to the House of Representatives Inquiry into the topic in 2012.
Although lesbian and gay Australians have sometimes been on the outside of traditional Christmas rituals, this time of year highlights the ways in which lesbian and gay Australians have created their own rites and communities of support.
These are important not just during the festive season but throughout the year. The group of Brisbane men mentioned earlier provides one such example but the Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories oral history project provides others.
I’m a researcher on this project and part of it involves interviews with five different generations of gay men and lesbians across Australia. Over the past 60 years – a time period some of our participants lived through in its entirety – social attitudes towards gay and lesbian Australians have shifted remarkably.
A majority of our male participants are able to recall a time when sex with another man was illegal. Many of our lesbian participants stress the isolation and invisibility that marred substantial parts of their lives.
Although our interviews have captured accounts of prejudice, discrimination and loneliness, it is also clear that many lesbian and gay Australians responded to this by fashioning lives for themselves in ways that were both imaginative and inspired. Many lesbian women who were told that children would never be part of their future did indeed raise children, most frequently with partners, sometimes independently and occasionally with the involvement of gay male donors.