Review: Gays and Lesbians who changed immigration history

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Last February, as part of the Mardi Gras Festival, the Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force (GLITF) launched its self-published official history, Lesbians and Gays Changed Australian Immigration History/Herstory. The book is a unique, compelling collection of diverse perspectives in the form of 50 interviews conducted in 2000 by GLITF activist, Peter De Waal. “No one who reads this book could ever stereotype lesbians and gays again,” quips De Waal in his introduction. He spoke to former immigration ministers and departmental bureaucrats as well as to the queer couples who continue to benefit from GLITF’s achievement and the early pioneers who had the vision that Australia’s immigration laws could be changed.

In April 1983 Betty Hounslow, a socialist feminist lesbian legal worker at the Marrickville Legal Centre, met Ryosuke Shiaishi and Graeme Bray. Ryosuke was about to be deported to Japan. A long-standing gay couple who had lived together in Japan and then Australia, they knew that immigration policy did not recognise same-sex relationships. Ryosuke recalls, “…there were half a dozen lesbian women who lined up to marry me, and if everything else failed I could just go and hide. But Graeme had this conviction that, as an Australian citizen, he had a right to choose his spouse, regardless of being gay or Asian.”

They ended up at the Legal Centre. Ryosuke remembers, “…there was this butch dyke in a leather jacket…[She] convinced me to stop thinking about getting married because, frankly, that would fail…[S]he pointed out there was one clause in the regulations that didn’t specify the sexes in a defacto relationship.” With Betty’s help, they decided to lodge an application as a defacto couple to challenge the discriminatory law.

As more couples followed suit, the Gay Immigration Task Force (GITF, its original name) was established to advise applicants and to campaign. GITF made rapid progress. By 1985, Immigration Minister Chris Hurford was using ministerial discretion to approve applications by gay and lesbian couples. By 1991, a new immigration category — interdependency — was introduced, codifying  the recognition of same-sex relationships.

Activists around the country were inspired by the formation of the immigration task force in Sydney. In the ’80s, I led the Freedom Socialist Party’s work in the lesbian and gay movement. In Victoria, we gathered signatures on petitions, lobbied and spoke in the gay community about the issue. In June 1985, Victoria’s Gay Legal Rights Coalition had established an immigration task force sub-committee. Before the end of the year, GITF had a branch in Melbourne, holding a celebratory dinner to mark the success of the earliest applicants. This type of experience was replicated around the country.

Ken Davis, a founding member, describes the group as “the first significant multi-cultural, multi-ethnic organisation in the Sydney gay and lesbian community.” Some activists were subjected to racist taunts from within the gay community while petitioning on Oxford Street. But the biggest challenge came when GITF was targeted by National Action for being both gay and multi-racial.

Betty Hounslow provided important political leadership in how to fight the right wing, helping found Community Alert Against Racism and Violence to defend all targets of National Action attacks, after an April 1989 attack on a GLITF meeting by twelve fascists shouting abuse and waving racist and homophobic placards.

Several interviewees recall how German lesbian feminist Ute Geissler reacted. Ute herself says: “We pushed them…back to the entrance. There I tried to get one of these guy’s balaclavas off — it made me just furious that we couldn’t see their faces…[T]here was a lot of kerfuffle and yelling…Cyrus and I followed them into the street…[T]hey were running away…[W]e just did what had to be done. In the end it’s very great we did these things, instead of just sitting there… [P]eople think homosexuals…don’t fight for their rights. But it was just the opposite — off we went!”

In 1986 a proposal to change the name to Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force was raised. Many community organisations were making similar name changes in this period, in recognition that organising between gay men and lesbians must be a partnership. This debate created tensions in a group as diverse as GITF.

Betty recalls, “…some men were exposed for the first time to some feminist ideas, and for some of them that was very good…[F]or others it was just appalling.” Ute adds: “…some men were really furious and white in the face from anger, and some of them actually then left the group. It was especially ironic for Betty Hounslow, who was the founder of it all, being a woman and then something like that happens.”

Ute, and her Australian partner Cathy Davitt, highlight some of the contradictions of a process which requires queer couples to emulate aspects of heterosexual marriage. Cathy says: “I found it stressful that we had to behave as a married couple. Society was putting its values on our relationship. We’d never had a joint bank account, for example, but we had to go and get one.”

Ute and Cathy tackled the application differently from earlier applicants. Cathy explains, “…the men were writing how much they loved the other partner…[I]t read like Mills and Boon. I didn’t agree with that approach. I actually put in the statutory declaration that I believed I had the same right as every other Australian citizen to have my partner living with me…[W]e regarded it as a political act.”

Many interviewees credit the success of GLITF on its “moderate” approach. De Waal describes its “hallmark tactic as quiet diplomacy.” Yet to credit the reforms merely to clever lobbying is to miss the point. The interviews with former immigration ministers are illuminating. Gerry Hand, the minister responsible for introducing the interdependency category, describes the impact of a strong and vocal lesbian and gay community in his electorate of Melbourne. All former ministers stress their support for a “non-discriminatory” policy. This social change was not achieved through quiet diplomacy, but through years of hard struggle by the Gay Liberation Movement, including battles such as the Stonewall riot.

The final interview is with current Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, who De Waal politely describes as “controversial.”

Ruddock grabs the opportunity to defend his scurrilous policies and express indignation about being branded a racist, arguing: “[N]ow it wouldn’t matter if an unlawful came from Britain by boat, or whether they come from the Middle East, or Africa, or Asia, our approach would be the same regardless of people’s background.” But that’s just it. Illegal entrants from Britain don’t arrive by boat!

The Ruddock interview is a chilling reminder of the limits of reforms. Although the interdependency category is still in place, no further steps have been taken toward full equality. And Ruddock’s tenure as minister highlights how liberation must mean so much more than struggling to achieve equality within an unjust system.

Peter De Waal has made a compelling contribution to understanding the depth of change achieved — and the need to defend and extend it. The title of the book, Lesbians and Gays Changed Immigration History/Herstory is brilliant. It conveys the message that change can be achieved by determined groups of people working together. The struggle continues.

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