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Online launch of Unfit for Publication

– Thursday 27 November 2014 –

Peter de Waal


The Hon Michael Kirby launching the online version of Unfit for Publication. Photo: Fernando Jimenez
The Hon Michael Kirby launching the online 
version of Unfit for Publication.
Photo: Fernando Jimenez

Thank you, Michael Kirby, for your very kind and generous words.

Thanks also to the Pride History Group for arranging this wonderful function, and arranging for Unfit for Publication to be published on their website, and to support the running of their website I would like to make a donation. [Applause]

I too, would like to welcome the Conference participants and dear friends who are assembled here tonight.

It was at the fifth Homosexual Histories Conference at Newcastle on Monday 28th October, 2002, that the inspiration for this project originated, and it is being launched tonight. Goodness! Twelve years ago almost to the day!

At that conference, Robert French presented the keynote address, and he spoke about, amongst other things, male to male sex offences in Tasmania. My ears pricked up because I had just completed the history of the Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force, entitled: Lesbians and Gays Changed Australian Immigration: History and Herstory. I found it very satisfying and important to compile that most successful history of the group. Thriving on the satisfaction of completing that task, I was very eager to commence another aspect of documenting our community’s past. Hence Unfit for Publication was born. Initially a ‘one man show’, the enormity of the work ahead soon involved other contributors who had become excited about it and offered their skills.

I’m going to take you on a journey. I’ll be using the analogy of the theatre which will reveal the depth and breadth of this our magnificent historic production. The writers of this play were:

Peter Bonsall-Boone, one of the dramatists, who tirelessly transcribed, verbatim, the depositions of nearly 280 cases tried before the NSW Supreme Court. I recorded them on my dictation machine, mostly from handwritten documents, at State Records New South Wales – they even gave me a room on my own so the subject of my reading aloud didn’t spook other researchers! In all, 7,300 pages containing 4,100,000 words are part of this our play. Originally it contained three volumes. If printed now it would easily fill nine of them.

Next on the scene appeared Peter Trebilco, another dramatist, who stamped his mark on various scenes. Peter undertook the reconnaissance of the weekly New South Wales Police Gazette from 1856 to 1930, checking meticulously through hundreds of issues, using the old fashioned microfilm reader at State Records New South Wales, to find relevant cases for inclusion. Peter’s tenacious contribution has resulted in a cast of some 2,500 characters, listing for them, for example, the offence, trial judge and court location, plea and verdict, and other biographical details, like date and place of birth, trade, height, complexion, hair and eye colour, and finally the arresting police officer.

David Conolly, another member of the dramatist team, at an early stage of writing this play, wondered if, and how, he could make a contribution. At that stage I had discovered the existence of hand written judges’ notebooks, probably written by the judge while the trial took place. David toiled with magnifying glass in hand to decipher the mostly appalling handwriting. All the handwriting was abominable, and one judge had even invented his own brand of shorthand, quite unrelated to Pitman, the code of which David broke. The transcription of these 220 notebooks added an extra dimension to this vast production.

Finding authentic theatre props can be difficult. This one was made by well-known executioners Nicci Lindemann and Craig Gilmour. (Put on the noose).

Any stage production needs it sponsors!

Hence, it needs to be stated that without the financial support of generous donors for a stage production, the scenes in the play would have remained dull. An empty stage with just orated scripts. Their financial contributions have made it possible to include multiple scene changes. Images, bringing alive a personal visual impact to the vignettes that our characters perform. The images to be projected on to the stage during the performance include: 1,200 jail photographs; over 180 historic images of public buildings; and another 130 pictures illustrating relevant documents.

A play without a technical wizard, or ‘Techie’ in theatrical terms, to bring its scenes, orations, and acts together would fail at the box office for certain! Enter Richard Capuano. Stage left AND stage right, such is the importance of his wizardry. With hours and hours of Richard’s help and expertise Unfit for Publication’s presence on the internet has been assured.

Alex Greenwich, Member for Sydney in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly is impatiently awaiting his call. He’s in the wings carrying three weighty tomes.

Now that we have listed the contributors it’s time to introduce the characters of the play, Unfit for Publication, to you. It’s a huge mostly male cast. Some 1,750 characters play their parts. The audience is exposed only to segments of the players’ lives. Some of the players appear for longer periods on the stage than others because some scripts have not survived. For those whose scripts were lost, in a 1882 huge fire, their characterisation has been extracted from 340 different metropolitan and country newspapers. Our players’ ethnic backgrounds are mostly Anglo-Celt, but there is a sizeable number of other groups; Chinese, Aboriginals, Dutch, French, Italian, Maltese, and others. Their ages are varied. The literacy proficiency of our characters is dubious and because of that their legal literacy is even more doubtful.

A vast majority of our cast in this play and performance are marginalised, manual workers, and labourers. People excluded from their community in various ways. In many instances alcohol was their solace and escape from loneliness and isolation. Over 99% of them belong to the lower or working class in society. Their convictions are most certainly a class issue. The cases brought against professional and upper-class characters, such as: clergy, a law clerk, and teachers, can be counted on the fingers of two hands. And they generally were acquitted.

Our characters lived under centuries-old oppressions and bigoted, prejudiced, draconian criminal laws that this state inherited from centuries of oppression under English common law and criminal justice. They were regarded and treated as the scum of the earth and were always the underdogs fighting an uphill battle.

This institutionalised bigotry and prejudice should never have been on the statute books. It is clear now that the offences central in our play should never have been offences. The law was, as we now call it, institutionalised homophobia, which we inherited from the English criminal justice system.

The phrase ‘Unfit for Publication’ was used over and over again, in newspapers, in an attempt to protect the general community from these so called moral pollutions our theatre troupe engaged in. It is implicit that this phrase was also used to avoid mimicking and imitation by the remainder of the community of these ostensibly victimless crimes. “Close the court” followed by judicial orders: exeunt omnes – exit all the cast.

Peter de Waal during his speech at the online launch of Unfit for Publication. Photo: Fernando Jimenez
Peter de Waal during his speech at the online
launch of Unfit for Publication.
Photo: Fernando Jimenez

The ultimate exclusion our characters could suffer was the noose (illustrated), held over them for what they considered to be part of their humanity. After all it was mostly consensual behaviour. Further forms of punishment were incarceration, being placed in the stocks in public, flogging, transportation for life in irons to Norfolk Island, long-term penal servitude, etc. Apart from the foregoing punishments our characters were often castigated and humiliated, during their sentencing, by the judiciary, with derogatory remarks such as, for example:

“However beastly the act, … it was the act of a harmless, simple-minded.”

The judge described the offence as “simply beastly.”

The judge said “it was really a case for a good birching.”

“He had been convicted of an offence that all laws, human and divine, punished with death.”

Your crime is “… polluting to Christian ears.” And there are many other remarks.

Most ironic, and perhaps even absurd was and still is the sentencing of our cast members to all male prisons for male-to-male criminal sexual behaviour.

Our characters don’t often speak – they’re mainly spoken about. There is very limited dialogue between them and their nemeses – police, judiciary, prison officials. On occasions when our characters do speak they would state, in varying voices, ranging from loud, strong, soft, defiantly, confident: “I am not guilty, your Honor.” They never had the benefit of a full dress rehearsal, or practice run. They appeared unprepared, unrehearsed, unsupported, and frequently legally unrepresented, with ad libbing a constant necessity. This was before highly articulate judicial institutions with centuries of practice and legitimacy, backed by laws promulgated by a parliament of privileged males – our cast had no hope, even in hell.

Euphemistic terminology of body parts, or actions, for example: ‘his person’ (penis), ‘his fundament’ (anus), ‘had connections with’ (buggery, or sodomy) do frequently occur in the early part of our play. No doubt some members of our prospective audience will want to impose censorship restrictions, for so called good moral reasons, and decency of course. Therefore, audience members who have a delicate sensitivity to strong and descriptive language should enforce their own censorship. Our cast members are sick and tired of what others consider objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or politically incorrect theatre.

Our cast performs an even larger extravagance than the 1959 historical film ‘Ben Hur’. In fact, theatre critics and historians say that this IS the largest production of its kind in the world. Despite their performances being sold out for long periods, and being box office blockbusters, they never received the ultimate actors’ reward of a standing ovation. Neither were they permitted to receive visitors in their greenroom. Nor did they have crowds waiting at the stage door after their splendid and eloquent performances. Instead they experienced the slamming of heavy, thick cell doors as their reward and heavy metal handcuffs instead of a gold Logie. And they faced incarceration in dark, dingy, damp, dim and overcrowded cells for long periods, or work on the roads in irons. Two consequences arose for our characters from this punishment. Firstly, their homelessness and regular meals, although nutritionally poor, would be guaranteed during that period. But secondly, and more poignant and profound, their names would be added to the potential recidivist list, and they would very likely return. Return perhaps for another sex offence or other crime, to the same – Repressive State Apparatus – the prison. This concept of the Repressive State Apparatus was developed by the 20th century French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser. Repressive State Apparatus, according to him consists of the army, the police, the judiciary, and the prison system.

Our cast members who were exposed to various forms of the Apparatus, but more particular the prison, have acutely experienced its repressive nature. The other two aspects, police and judiciary, were never far from them.

The very costly and inefficient incarceration system has never produced the outcomes it promised and it never will!

The location of the characters’ performances is set, to name just a few, in boarding and guest houses, hotels, public parks, stables, huts, tents, and under bridges in both metropolitan and country areas. Because of their low social and economic status, the overwhelming number of our cast did not have a permanent abode. They had nowhere to which they could invite the other person to live-out their desires, dreams or passions. Their overall status in life made the characters vulnerable and exposed to detection by the police. This disadvantage was of course not experienced by the professionals in our play.

Characters in this Unfit for Publication production express love, meanness, humour, lust, sadness, violence, physical and sexual sharing, and pleasure, extortion, longing, tenderness, etc.

Our cast fully comprehends Noel Pearson’s profound insight when he recently stated that “Only those who have known discrimination, truly know its evil. Only those who have never experienced prejudice, can discount the importance of laws that provide equality, justice, and inclusiveness for all.”

Imagine the NSW Legislative Assembly chamber. Enter centre stage, Alex Greenwich, dressed in his gentlemanly suit with his sign-of-the-times rainbow coloured socks. He takes part in the Criminal Records Amendment (Historical Homosexual Offences) Bill 2014 debate. He states: “Criminalisation of homosexual sex was an appalling approach to law that passed judgement on the private non-violent relations between consenting adults. It institutionalised homophobia and homophobic discrimination, violence and abuse of homosexuals …” He further says that “Australia’s history of homophobic laws is long and horrific.” During his oration he places on the parliamentary table the three weighty volumes of the first edition of Unfit for Publication.

A number of dramatists present in the chamber are overcome with a flood of varying emotions. Pride, joy, inclusiveness, but most of all empowerment—our cast has had their ‘offences’ posthumously and symbolically extinguished! Their names are now part of an institution which in the past promulgated laws that made their behaviours criminal and punishable.

To intensify the drama of that moment, the tabling of Unfit for Publication, some might like to invoke mythology or a Christian esoteric tradition by comparing the tabling to the Last Judgment Day. That’s when the souls of earthly goodies and baddies are judged to ascertain who should inherit heaven or hell. Surely our characters, the so called baddies, should go to heaven? They lived hell on earth.

The former Australian theatrical empire, J C Williamson, would have eagerly taken on our play. Williamson’s vision of staging it would have been grand. Through the internet he brings it to the world. Into each and every room in a house. Into every library. For the use of researchers, family historians, playwrights, academics, legal historians, authors, linguists, and the list goes on.

Our characters do not hold any copy rights to the scripts they utter, however, they strongly request that their play, Unfit for Publication, will be appropriately acknowledged and referenced.

The Hon Michael Kirby and Peter de Waal at the launch of the online version of Unfit for Publication. Photo: Fernando Jimenez
The Hon Michael Kirby and Peter de Waal at the
launch of the online version of Unfit for Publication.
Photo: Fernando Jimenez

A bit over a year ago during the annual reception hosted by the Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, for our diverse tribe. The then president of the Pride History Group, the recently deceased Lex Watson, was in attendance at Clover’s do. Lex was approached about auspicing Unfit for Publication. A millisecond of silence and contemplation passed, and then he responded, with a twinkle in his eyes, and enthusiasm in his voice, “we could launch it at the forthcoming Homosexual Histories Conference”. And here we are!

There is one character from 1889 for whom I have developed a fondness over the years. I am going to single him out. Imagine a large, dark stage, void of props. A single character stands in the centre. A single spotlight throws a tight circle around the young man. George Harrison was born in 1869 at Parramatta. A backdrop lowers with a large version of George’s gaol photographic description sheet. It contains his name. Apart from that a handwritten note, by a prison official states: “alias Carrie Swain, the female impersonator. Said to be a Pouftah.”

The Oxford Dictionary has the earliest citing of ‘poofter’ recorded in the Truth newspaper during 1903. George’s designation is fourteen years earlier, and The Oxford Dictionary said they would make a suitable change to their entry.

During his arrests in 1888-1889, George’s alter ego, Carrie Swain, was also at the time an extremely popular actress from the USA, performing in Australia. Her popularity was such, that it is said that her song, “We are going to be married next Sunday,” sung by her, was whistled all over Sydney for years afterwards.

George Harrison, had an unfulfilled dream to be a star, but was unfortunately born a hundred years too early, otherwise he would have been the lead performer in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” in 1994.

In conclusion I wish to state that I stand here in solidarity with the multitude of characters in this our play. I commend the playbill to the world so that their lives and histories are no longer Unfit for Publication.



Unfit for Publication - Setting The Scene
(Courtesy William Brougham)