Sex Crime: 1984

tYou can’t make people good by Act of Parliament — that is something.

  • Oscar Wilde (from A Woman of No Importance)


When the year 1984 dawned, pundits were all comparing Orwell’s dystopian society to the real world, when the only real comparison was to the Soviet Bloc countries that still existed then.  The 1984 movie was made that year, with the Orwellian repressive, nightmare world as an alternate reality {Thuresson IMDB}.  The Eurythmics sung the soundtrack; they had a big hit with disco tune ‘Sex Crime (1984)’.


One group who may have felt they lived under a repressive regime’ back then, was homosexual men.  In NSW in 1984, it was still a crime for Winston and Julius to have sex.  They faced 14 years for ‘committing the abominable crime of buggery…with mankind’, lesser sentences for lesser physical contact a la Labouchere, all under Sections 79-81B of the Crimes Act.  All this was ‘with or without the consent of such person’ {Wotherspoon 1991 114}.


It’s hard to believe that we once had sodomy laws in Australia; right up until 1997 in Tasmania, a century after Oscar Wilde was released from prison.  Perhaps the only legacy is the annual Mardi Gras, if we remember the history was a protest against those laws. ‘The first such parade through Sydney, in June 1978, ended in confrontation with police, extreme levels of violence, and pitched battles in the streets’ {Wotherspoon 1991 209}.


An Australian history of homosexuality would have to include the crowded hulls of tall ships, chain gangs, convict barracks and Female Factories.  So were the convicts gay?  The first answer is to look at the high ratio of men to women in Colonial times: 4 to 1 in the settlement, with 20 men to every white woman in the bush. {Hughes 1987 264}.  The second answer: ‘Obviously, most lovers were not caught; hence, statistics on sodomy from the penal period are of little use, as they were based only on court indictments.  Homosexual acts in penal Australia were done in secret, and prisoners seldom swore out complaints against other prisoners for performing them’ {Hughes 266}.


In those Colonial days, “Unnatural Crime” was a hanging offense.  However, only a handful of men actually paid the Ultimate Price for their sexuality {Wotherspoon 2008 2}.  Others were sentenced to flogging, the chain gangs or re-sentenced to Moreton Bay or Norfolk Island {Hughes 267}.  Even this wasn’t enough for Captain Arthur Phillip, our first (prison) Governor: ‘There are two crimes that would merit death – murder and sodomy. For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal till an opportunity offered of delivering him as a prisoner to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him’ {quoted in Wotherspoon 2008}.


Lex Watson addressing gay rights activists setting up their 'Gay Embassy' opposite former NSW premier Neville Wran's ...


Australia’s first gay rights organization was the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), established in July 1970, with the first meeting in Balmain in February 1971 {Wotherspoon 1991 168}. The founders were John Ware and Christabel Poll, and they published a magazine called Camp Ink, and campaigned against psychiatric treatment for homosexuals, especially aversion therapy. One former member recalls, that while the lesbians were more likely to be associated with the contemporary feminist movement:  ‘As far as gay men were concerned, the primary aim of the gay rights movement was the reform of the criminal law’ {Hay 5}.


There would be many protests during the Seventies, with the Mardi Gras becoming established as an institution in Sydney.  Even this did not change the law, it was still a sex crime in NSW.  By 1984, two other states had reformed their sodomy laws: South Australia in 1975, then Victoria in 1980.  The first attempt at law reform in NSW was in 1978, by John O’Dowd, the Liberal opposition leader, but this went nowhere {Carbery 27}.  The Gay Rights Lobby (GRL) was established in 1980 by Lex Watson, formerly of CAMP, and Craig Johnston {Carbery 28}, and their first meeting was on 10 February 1981, where law reform was given ‘highest priority’ {Pride History}.


In NSW Parliament, their straight ally was George Petersen, the member for Illawarra.  He once remarked sardonically: ‘My opponent in the preselection ballot in 1977 for endorsement as the ALP candidate for Illawarra used to say, “George Petersen is too tied up with prostitutes, poofters and prisoners to look after his electorate”’ {Legislative Assembly}.  Petersen would introduce two bills in 1981, and even risked being ruled out of order by his own party {Carbery 28}.


For the issue of law reform, the tipping point would be a notorious men’s sauna named Club 80.  This establishment in Oxford Street was first raided by Darlinghurst police in the early hours of 29 January 1983 {Pride History}.  The papers printed lurid details of what they found there, especially in the cubicles downstairs, six men were charged with “scandalous conduct” and acts of indecency with a male, under the anti-homosexual laws {Akersten 2013}.


The reaction in the gay community was widespread outrage!  Protest rallies were held against police harassment, and what was later described as ‘a particularly nasty and pointless raid’ {Johnson & Van Reyk 11}.  On 5 February, over a thousand people marched from Green Park against the raid {Pride History}.


These were not the only police raids at this time. On 28 February 1981, police raided a gay bar, the Rex Hotel, where thiry people were arrested {Pride History}. Other raids included the pornographic Platterpuss Bookshop and a sex club called The Signal {Harris Witte & Davis, p22}.


A month later, on 26 February 1983, Club 80 was raided again, and another eleven men were charged.  This led to even more protests, including a march to Darlinghurst Police Station {Pride History}.  Soon after this, the new Club 80 was declared a “disorderly house” {Clews 2013}.  It was closed on 16 May 1983 {Pride History}.  Even so, the police action continued.  In August 1983, two gay discos were closed.  Club 80 had moved back to the old premises on Little Oxford Street.  On 27 August, there was another raid here, with another eleven people charged {Pride History}.  Another protest was organised in Taylor Square, but this was beginning to be seen as not enough.


It was later remarked: ‘Sometimes – especially when they don’t mean to be – the cops are our best friends’ {Willett}.  The gay community which had grown around Oxford Street in the Seventies realized that the laws against them were no paper tiger: with all these men arrested and facing jail time, it definitely had teeth and claws.


So the protestors upped the ante.  On 6 September, the Gay Rights Embassy caravan was set up outside Premier Neville Wran’s home in Woollahra {Pride History}.  For three weeks, they were protesting, singing and generally campaigning, for 24 hours a day {Johnson & Van Reyk, p11}.  This definitely added a new definition to setting up camp.


Perhaps even more outrageous was an idea of activist Lex Watson, described as a “stroke of genius” {Willett}.  He and Robert French signed Statutory Declarations, admitting they had committed buggery with another man {French 2014}.  They then presented these, along with 28 other men, to the Vice Squad {Akersen 2013}.  After all, they were committing the same crimes as the men of Club 80 had been charged with, and demanded to be arrested.  The police ignored these, and took no action {Clews 2013}.

Lex Watson (left) and Robert French signing statutory declarations in 1983.

Lex Watson (left) and Robert French signing statutory declarations in 1983.
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And so the new year of 1984 dawned.  Premier Wran was no Big Brother, just the non-lachrymose Balmain Boy, something he was about to prove.  After winning his fourth term in the March 1984 state elections, he possibly began considering a bill on homosexual law reform.  His personal tipping point would come at the 21st anniversary dinner of the Council of Civil Liberties on 6 April, whose chairman was John Marsden. This would turn into a bunfight – literally.


In addition to gay law reform, there were several issues that night: the presence of Ananda Marga members, whose leader had been jailed, and the Age Tapes Scandal, involving Justice Lionel Murphy.  Wran came to the defense of his “little mate” Murphy, which led to attacks on the civil libertarians there for not supporting him.  Solicitor Carolyn Simpson pointed out that this violation of the Listening Devices Act should have been dealt with by the Minister for Police, who was Wran.  After that, his response was anything but civil, attacking everyone there.  This led to booing, throwing bread-rolls at the Premier, along with the accusation that he had not even decriminalized homosexuality. ‘He had promised changes to the law years ago but had not kept those promises.  When was he going to deliver?’ {Knightley 296}


Soon after this, Neville and Jill Wran flew out on a European holiday.  ‘Wran had come reluctantly to fully support homosexual law reform having not fully supported other Bills in 1981 and 1982, but community pressure finally forced him to it’ {Akersten}.  When he returned from holidays, on 29 April, he announced that he was introducing a private member’s bill to decriminalise homosexual acts {Pride History}.


The Crimes (Amendment) Act 1984 pleased neither side.  One of the provisions was that the age of consent for homosexual sex was 18, when it was already only 16 for heterosexuals {Akersten}.  One justification was that girls could legally marry when they were 16 back then, but boys had to wait until they were 18.  A gay group called the Ad Hoc Law Reform Group was not in favour of the bill, they staunchly supported an equal age of consent {Pride History}.


The Homosexual Law Reform Group held a meeting where they agreed to support this bill {Pride History}, perhaps seeing it as their last chance.  After all, the homosexual age of consent in Britain at this stage was 21.  Watson led a delegation to meet with Wran, who refused to reduce the age of consent provisions {Carbery 34}.  After this the Premier agreed to a compromise: no boy aged 16-18 would be prosecuted for buggery or gross indecency without the consent of the Attorney-General {Carbery 33}.


The AHLRG were far from the only ones opposed to the bill.  Reverend Fred Nile, a self-appointed morals crusader, politician and the head of the Festival of Light, had called for all gay men to be quarantined in 1983 {Pride History}, in order to prevent HIV transmissions.  When the bill was debated on 15 May 1984, he led the faithful in a protest in Macquarie Street.  They were joined there by the opposing camp, who held their own rally {Pride History}.


On the floor of the Legislative Assembly, there were also many politicians opposed to the bill.  However many were in favour. Some quoted the Bible; others such as Nick Greiner, the Opposition Leader who voted in favour, quoted John Stuart Mill.


The foremost opponent of homosexual law reform was Leon Punch, leader of the National Party.  He gave the usual doomsday predictions: ‘This bill, as previous attempts at homosexual reform attempted to do, strikes at the very heart of the Christian and moral standards of our society. It seeks to erode further the role of the family unit as the cornerstone of our society … The Premier, by promoting this legislation, is doing his bit in contributing to the breakdown of civilization. History shows us that the collapse of civilization has inevitably followed the breakdown of spiritual values, an increase in permissiveness, the breakdown of the family unit, and a growing dependence on the welfare state’ {Legislative Assembly 704}.  He continued, quite preposterously for the time, with: ‘Will it be long before he seeks to push his reform even further to allow marriages between homosexuals and the adoption of children by homosexual partners? Is it beyond imagination to believe that the Premier, the champion of homosexuals, might one day be the celebrant at a homosexual wedding?’ {Legislative Assembly 705}



The bill would be debated late into the night of the 15th, and then voted in by the Legislative Assembly in the early hours of 16 May {Pride History}.  The bill was passed by the Legislative Council on the 17th.  It was then returned to the Legislative Assembly for final approval, and then passed on 22 May 1984 {Akersten}.


The Crimes (Amendment) Act 1984 was proclaimed on 6 June {CAMP}, then passed into law on 8 June 1984 {Carbery 34}.  Fittingly this was just before the Queen’s Birthday holiday long weekend {Johnson & Van Reyk 11}, which the journalist David Marr called, ‘Wran’s little joke’{Knightley 297}.


This was the end for two consenting adults like Julius and Winston, being judged for committing a sex crime, from 1984 and onwards.





Harris, Gavin; Witte, John & Davis, Ken (2008) New Day Dawning. Pride History Group: Sydney.

Hughes, Robert (1987) The Fatal Shore. Vintage Books: London.

Johnston, C & Van Reyk, Paul; Ed. (2001) Queer City: Gay and Lesbian Politics in Sydney.  Pluto Press Australia Ltd, Annandale.

Knightley, Phillip (2000) Australia: A Biography of a Nation. Jonathan Cape: London.

Wotherspoon, Garry (1991) City of the Plain: History of a Gay Sub-Culture. Hale & Iremonger Pty Ltd: Sydney.



ABC (24/8/2015) Timeline: 22 years between first and last Australian states decriminalising male homosexuality.  Retrieved from:

Akersten, Matt (21/4/2014) Neville Wran’s legacy for NSW’s gays.  Same Same.  Retrieved from:

Akersten, Matt (26/6/2013) Flashback: 1983 raid on sex club sparked outrage. Same Same. Retrieved from:

Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW (2015) History of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) Retrieved from:

Carbery, Graham (2010) TOWARDS HOMOSEXUAL EQUALITY IN AUSTRALIAN CRIMINAL LAW: A BRIEF HISTORY.  Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives Inc. Retrieved from:

Clews, Colin (15/7/2013) 1983. Sydney gay activists publicly declare they’ve broken the law. Gay in the 80s. Retrieved from:

CRIMES (AMENDMENT) ACT, 1984, No. 7. An Act to amend the Crimes Act, 1900, in relation to certain sexual offences.[Assented to, 31st May, 1984.]  Retrieved from:

French, Robert (29/5/2014) Lex Watson: Leading gay rights activist and trailblazer. Fairfax Media. Retrieved from:

Hay, Bob (2007) The Modern Gay Rights Movement.  Bob Hay Online Resources.  Retrieved from:

Legislative Assembly (15/5/1984) Crimes Bill. Hansard. Retrieved from:$file/481la007.pdf

NSWCCL (1984)  Civil Liberty Journal No 111.  New South Wales Council For Civil Liberties.  Retrieved from:

Pride History Group (2015) 1980s. Sydney’s Pride History Group. Retrieved from:

Slee, John (11/4/1984) Wran and the civil libertarians.  Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from:

Thuresson, Matthias (2016) Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). Inc.  Retrieved from:

Wilde, Oscar (2014) A Woman of No Importance. eBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide Library. Retrieved from:

Willet, Graham (2016) 1983: Outrage! History Bites. Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.  Retrieved from:

Wotherspoon, Garry (2008) Gay Men. The Dictionary of Sydney.   Retrieved from:


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