Photo of a drag queen in costume at Sydney Mardi Gras parade.
A reveler in Sydney on Mardi Gras, 3 March 2007. Photograph by ZAC, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 licence

The Sydney Mardi Gras started over 40 years ago in an environment that was both legally and socially very different from what we have today in Australia. In the 2020s it is a celebration event but, in 1978, homosexuality was still illegal in most of Australia. Life for the communities involved at that time was often hostile and depressing.

Searching the State Library catalogue will reveal a good range of material on LGBTIQ+ communities, both in Australia and overseas, but one of our richest sources of information is the Archives of Sexuality and Gender database. There are five individual units in the database that cover: recent history from 1940; 16th to 20th century history; rare materials from the UK, US and France; and international and local publications on LGBTIQ+ communities.

The Australian Queer Archives

The Australian publications that are included, especially the serials, are probably one of the best sources of local history available, and they are accessible electronically to State Library members living in Victoria.

Screen shot showing home page of the Archives of Sexuality and Gender database.
Detail from Archives of Sexuality and Gender database

The Australian journal and newspaper collection included is from The Australian Queer Archives (AQuA) and is the biggest repository of historical materials about LGBTIQ+ experience in Australia. The Archive (AQuA) was established in 1978 at the Fourth National Homosexual Conference and covers material from 1969 to 2014. It includes 180 periodical titles with over 7,300 issues, and it essentially preserves and makes available the historical life of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities of Australia. As good as this collection is for Australian research, its value is further raised by being in the context of similar collections from overseas, especially the US, Canadian, British and African material. 

Cover of 'Brother Sister' magazine showing woman in black ball gown striking a pose.
Brother Sister magazine cover, 11 December 1992

The five parts of the Archives of Sexuality and Gender database

In general, this database as a whole has collected a significant range of primary and secondary sources covering over 400 years for the historical study of sex, sexuality, and gender. Researchers and scholars can examine how sexual norms have changed over time, health and hygiene issues, the development of sex education, changing gender roles, social movements and activism, and many other interesting topical areas. It is well worth reading the relatively short introductions and overviews provided for each of the five parts.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967 in the UK and we can search the database for The Wolfenden Report: Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, 1954-1957. The report had advocated decriminalization ten years before legislation made it happen and the Sexual Offences Act was finally passed in 1967. The Wolfenden Report files include the draft report, committee papers and transcripts of evidence.

Detail from Sexual Offences Act 1967 c 60

Social and political activities in both the UK and the US are broadly represented including material collected by activists and researchers, as well as some unexpected material such as FBI files from the Dan Siminoski Collection on Federal Bureau of Investigation Surveillance of Gays and Lesbians.

Earlier material is also available in Parts III and V, especially from the collections Sex Research: Early Literature from Statistics to Erotica from the Kinsey Institute, Sexual History and Sexology Books from the New York Academy of Medicine, books on sexuality from the Private Case Collection at the British Library and material from the L’Enfer (‘Hell’) French language collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In terms of diversity we could simply mention that the L’Enfer collection comes with a special appendix of 950 books on Flagellation, focusing on the novel de flagellation, a specialized branch of erotic literature published in France between the 1880s and 1930s.

Many of the works in these two Parts, III and V, come from special, restricted, or sometime secret collections, and their new accessibility is particularly welcome. While some of the works were acquired from legal and illegal booksellers, much of the British and French material was, in earlier times, seized by the authorities or more recently added by donation and normal collection building. The database certainly has some earlier copies of the famous 1748 English book published in London, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure – popularly known as Fanny Hill – and now recalled as the earliest example of the modern erotic English novel. The State Library has a number of electronic versions listed in the catalogue.

We must not forget, however, that the database is quite diverse and also includes pulp fiction, cartoons, comics and, with some browsing, a variety of topical magazine advertisements including this one, below:

Magazine advertisement featuring plastic same sex dolls holding hands
Magazine advertisement featuring a plastic same sex couple holding hands

It is likely that the Archives of Sexuality and Gender database will contribute to the rapid international expansion of scholarship on sex and sexuality. Given its large and significant collection of rare French, US and British materials, it will also complement interest in history of the book. This database has enriched our holdings in historically marginalized areas and will offer research opportunities to academics, students, activists, and those searching for broader understandings of themselves and our world. The materials are available online and are thus available to all Victorian resident State Library members.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *