Queers of the Desert


Some of the stories on this site contain the names and images of people who have passed away.

Privates on Parade (1943)

The Cook at the Aerodrome (1949)

Jimmy Bergengren (1956-93)

Down & Out Along the Track (1979)

Eric Michaels (1982-88)

Something of a Sisterhood (1983)

A Gay Party in Alice? (1987)

What a Drag! (1987)

Hot Gossip (1987-88)

Dancing in the Desert (1987-02)

AIDS Council (1987-02)

Desert Devils do Mardi Gras (1988)

Central Network Handout (1989)

Desert Rose Connolly (1989-06)

AIDS: The Central Issues (1990)

AIDS Quilts (1990)

Equality for Some (1992)

E J Milera (1992-95)

Not Alone & Not Welcome (1993)

Being in Alice (1993)

Desert Dykes (1993-02)

Anwernekenhe: Us Mob (1994)

Eat Me: Alice IS Wonderland (2001)

1943 Privates on Parade

Based on the statements given before the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in Alice Springs, several things seem certain. On the evening of Thursday October 21, 1943 a small group of soldiers had been drinking in the beer garden of the military canteen shortly after it closed at 9:30. After the rest had retired two troops remained behind to finish their drinks. Exactly what happened next was the point of substantial disagreement between the pair, but when the corporal on canteen duty went out to investigate the noises, it seems he found the two soldiers engaged in some sort of struggle on the ground with their clothing in disarray. Whatever the truth of the matter, the outcome would be charges and a conviction for 'assault with intent to commit buggery' for one of the men, with 12 months hard labour and a court martial. His partner would be cast as the victim of the piece. Whether one soldier had sexually assaulted the other or both were willing participants but, faced with discovery, one turned against his mate to save himself, remains unclear.

1949 The Cook at the Aerodrome

Constable Bill Whitcombe probably thought he had a watertight case. There were two witnesses who had both sworn statements that the cook from the Alice Springs aerodrome had made unwanted advances towards them and had sexually assaulted one of them not once, but twice. The fellow even had form, with a few counts of stealing, receiving stolen goods and railway trespass on his record, although they were from many years before. A conviction would have seemed certain. However, it was not to be, and the case would collapse in court when the key witness retracted his statement admitting it had all been a lie.

1956-93 Jimmy Bergengren

I first met Jimmy Bergengren in the late 1980's through a mutual friend. A younger guy named Kym who had been living with Jimmy between stints in Adelaide invited Paul and me to a dinner party at his house in Raggett Street. The meal itself, laid out on the table that formed the cellar trapdoor, was a Swedish smorgasbord in recognition of Jimmy's heritage but also featuring little Australian toothpick flags to indicate those dishes of more local origin for our benefit. Jimmy entertained us before and after dinner with tales of his youth in Sweden and his 30 or so years in Alice Springs; the guys he had known and some of the events he had witnessed. His conversation was peppered with the names of several prominent local families and veiled hints of scandal.

1979 Down & Out along the Track

This story appeared on page 15 of Campaign issue 57, printed in 1980. It describes the trials and tribulations of a young, newly-graduated gay male teacher who made the clearly unfortunate career choice of taking up his initial placement in Tennant Creek. As much about the foibles of life in the NT public service in the late 70's as it is about being gay in the Territory of the time, it  provides a fascinating insight into the attitudes of queer city folk to the idea of trying to function in remote Australia. There is also a reference to the formation of an Alice Springs Gay Society at the time, which has not been previously recorded, as well as some commentary on an early battle between good Christian women and those of suspect sexuality, centred around staffing the Alice Springs women's refuge.

1982-88 Eric Michaels

I clearly remember the first time I met Eric. It was the same day as I arrived to live in Alice Springs; August 11, 1984. Not that we were strangers. We had been corresponding in the months before I left Sydney and established that not only would we both be gay men living in Central Australia, but that we would both be researchers working with Aboriginal people. Quite a coincidence! Eric was so keen to meet me that he appeared at my hosts' house within hours of my arrival and dragged me round to the Gap Hotel for a drink. I can still vividly recall watching the replay of the Los Angeles Olympics closing ceremony while listening to his critique of his own American culture. That night I couldn't possibly have predicted that four years later I would be helping with arrangements for Eric to make one last trip back to Alice Springs to die.

1983 Something of a Sisterhood - Megg Kelham

My mother - English, living on Sydney's North Shore and not at all 'out' about my sexuality - had an eighty-year old friend who came to Alice Springs on holiday. After her visit, my mother, interested because this is, after all, my home town, asked for her friend's impressions. "Oh, lovely," came the reply. "I really liked Alice Springs. You know, m'dear, there seems to be something of a sisterhood in that town." "Something of a sisterhood" - I love that phrase to describe the visibly large, some say socially and economically powerful, community of single women and lesbians who live in the Alice. If the rest of Australia has a ten percent gay population, then 15 percent in Alice are lesbians, with a few brave gay men hanging on at the fringes.

1987 A Gay Party in Alice?

By late 1996 conversations between Jim, Paul me turned to entertaining possibilities of overcoming our shared isolation. Between the three of us we were able to identify a growing group of known or, at least, suspected gay and lesbian people in and around the town and were sure that most of them knew a few more. On that basis we thought we'd take a chance and organise a social function to see who turned up. Although we were probably anticipating a meeting rather than a celebration we thought the idea of calling it a party was a more appealing way to get people to attend. When the night finally came we weren't too hopeful of a big attendance. So we were very surprised when about 50 people came through the door within a couple of hours of the designated time.

1987-02 Dancing in the Desert

After the success of the first Central Network party in January 1987 it was only natural that people would want more. And providing a social outlet for the desert's queers had been the primary aim of forming the group anyway. So, over the next two years there began an irregular circuit of parties in people's homes around town. Normally the events were mixed, although some were 'boys only' based on the householder's preference and the separatist mood of queer politics at the time. However, by the middle of 1988, most of the welcome mats were worn out and it was Paul's and my place in the old Eastside that had become party central. That was alright for a while, but growing problems with bad behaviour, gatecrashers, and complaining neighbours soon made the situation untenable.

1987 What a Drag!

Paul always enjoyed dressing up. On occasion this took the form of some fairly spectacular drag that was always guaranteed to turn heads. A six foot plus woman in six inch heels usually wearing little more than ladies underwear was pretty hard for most of the locals to ignore, whether it was in the Sheraton cocktail bar or the beer garden of the Memorial Club. Fluffy too could easily be talked into a drag outing. And so it was in August 1987 when they decided to make an appearance at the then Ansett Bindi Ball; a charity event billed as a costume ball. A good night was had by all and the boys received plenty of attention from friends, strangers and the usual throng of confused and excited straight men. There was even someone there from the social pages of the local press who flattered the 'ladies' by snapping a few poses and taking their details. So, it wasn't too much of a surprise when Fluffy and the bunny girl made an appearance in both the Centralian Advocate and Sunday Territorian in the following weeks.

1987-88 Hot Gossip

By early 1987 things were really starting to take off for Central Australia's queer community. We had just held our first party and were organising regular gatherings in people's homes and dining out together. In this context it seemed like a good idea to rally the troops and provide a means of letting others know what was happening. Thus Hot Gossip was born in February of that year. Although it only managed four slim issues between then and the final one in August 1988, it is the earliest known record of an attempt at regular queer publication in Central Australia. It would later be well and truly surpassed by Desert Dykes; the lesbian newsletter published by Desert Rose from 1993 into the next century.

1987-02 AIDS Council

AIDS has never been a gay disease. However, throughout the early years of the epidemic in this country it was clearly gay men who were most affected and accordingly took up the first positions in the front line against it. Central Australia was no different and throughout the late 80's and 90's a small group of gay men, lesbians and their friends played an instrumental role in shaping the local response. Perhaps the single greatest act in this regard was the establishment of Australia's only regional AIDS council.

1988 Desert Devils do Mardi Gras

The decision to be in the 1988 Mardi Gras was a very spontaneous one. As was often the case a group of Sydney expatriates were regaling some of the other locals with tales of our former lives in the Australian gay mecca. I guess, like in many isolated communities, this was the normal way that we passed on our myths and culture. There was a lot of wishing that we could be there for it, but we also knew that the airfare to Sydney was outside the reach of most. In those days there were no discount fares. I can't remember who, but someone came up with the wild idea that if we could find the time and pool our resources it might be possible to drive down. Within a short space of time we had worked out that we had the means and enough interest to make a go of it. Once the decision was taken to get there it didn't take long before we decided we had to be part of the parade. The idea of a group of us driving roughly 3,000 kilometres to Sydney for the event and not making sure to let them know what we had done became inconceivable.

1989 Central Network Handout

This document is an electronic copy of an information sheet that was provided to people contacting Central Network for the first time; locals, new arrivals or just visitors passing through. It appeared in a few different versions over the years. This one is from the late 80s when the organisation still viewed itself as being primarily for gay men. By 1991 coverage had been formally extended to the Centre's lesbian community, although most activities had actually been mixed from the outset. Then, as now, it provides an insight into how we viewed ourselves and what we were trying to achieve.

1989-06 Desert Rose Connolly

Rose Connolly; a.k.a. Desert Rose, moved to Alice Springs to live in 1989. After five years of dealing with the isolation and a lesbian community that she felt could be a bit more organised, Rose determined to do something about it and together with a small group of helpers began producing the newsletter; Desert Dykes, that continued to inform and instruct local women for the better part of a decade.

1990 AIDS: The Central Issues

By 1990 the Central Australian AIDS Action Group (CAAAG); precursor to the AIDS Council, was becoming increasingly concerned that the message about HIV was not being heard in Central Australia. Gay men and lesbians, the straight community, and the Aboriginal population all tended to view the disease as only relevant to the big cities and then still only a gay men's problem. Few had any direct experience of AIDS and most of the public health effort nationally was being directed to major population centres. Such were the times. To remedy this situation CAAAG joined with the local NT Department of Health & Community Services and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress to seek funding for a local conference that would give HIV/AIDS a higher local profile and provide an opportunity for potentially affected groups to meet and discuss. A key purpose of the event was to bring leading community and public health experts from the cities into the desert so that they could gain an appreciation of isolated communities and their needs and present local people with the latest developments in the field. It was also decided to bring a prominent PLWHA spokesperson to the event, and incorporate an unfolding of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

1990 AIDS Quilts

The first AIDS conference in Central Australia was held in 1990. A feature of the event was the display of panels from the Australian section of the Quilt Project. On that occasion quilts commemorating the lives of three local residents were presented for inclusion. Images of them are displayed below with brief notes about the lives they represent.

1992 Equality for Some

There was an atmosphere of keen anticipation in early 1992 concerning the impending introduction of anti-discrimination legislation in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. Many expected that they would finally be provided with some protection from the kind of negative treatment that had been prevalent over preceding decades. But, the hopes of the Territory's queer community were dashed with the announcement that sexuality was to be explicitly excluded from the grounds on which discrimination would be unlawful. Fortunately some public and private lobbying, and likely pressure from the federal government, saw its complete omission overturned. However, while sexuality would now be included, the draft legislation still had a sting in its tail and proposed exemptions were announced in the areas of education and the care of minors. The Country Liberal Party government was clearly having some difficulty balancing the relaxing moral views of the broader community with those of its own more conservative supporters.

1992-95 E J Milera

Edward John Milera (John Cross) was an Aboriginal man who lived and worked in Alice Springs from 1992 until he ended his own life in 1995. He made significant contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS in the Aboriginal communities of Central Australia, the participation of Aboriginal men in Central Australian gay social life, and the profile of Indigenous Australian queers nationally.

1993 Not Alone & Not Welcome

By 1993 the AIDS Council of Central Australia had identified a significant issue with its inability to access younger guys who were not attached to the local queer community and unlikely to be fully appreciating the risks of their own behaviour, especially if they didn't see themselves as homosexual. To try to deal with this issue ACOCA had lodged a successful application under the Commonwealth AIDS Prevention and Education grants scheme. The project that was funded had several aspects, but the main one was for a local media campaign to communicate directly to young men who were potentially engaging in unsafe behaviour with other men. Being a bit of a photographer, I agreed to help Chris with the images for the ad. He recruited a couple of straight backpackers from a local hostel who were keen on some cash and we headed to a local park to take some shots. There were lots of variations in poses and the final one chosen was quite demure; one guy leaning on the other's knee with his arm across the former's shoulder, but no eye contact - absolutely nothing risqué. Similarly the text was pretty inoffensive, or so we thought.

1993 Being in Alice - Phil Walcott

I often wondered if I would ever get around to writing some of my story since I came to live here in Alice Springs. Buoyed by the success of the Queers of the Desert I guess now is the time to put down for posterity, or pure indulgence, some fond memories of my time here - the people, the magic of the country and the essential spirit of the land that has left such an indelible impression and impact on my entire life. No matter how much longer I have left to live; being now in my 51st year, there is nothing that could ever come more close to heaven for me than this place. I can't begin to express the joys that living here has brought me - the adventures, the experience, the wonderful memories and the fantastic opportunities that Alice has provided for me. She has opened many doors, presented me with a few obstacles, supported my dreams and created a brilliant reality that I will cherish all the days of my life.

1993-02 Desert Dykes

Desert Dykes was published by Desert Rose Connolly from July, 1993 until the final edition came out in 2002. Although initially provided as a free newsletter for the Central Australian lesbian community out of Rose's own pocket, it was later sold for a nominal price to cover costs and had a number of subscribers in Alice Springs and across the world. Over the years organisations such as Central Network and the AIDS Council of Central Australia occasionally came to the rescue and provided modest subsidies to keep the presses rolling. And while she tried to make it regular, varying levels of contribution and support from others meant that there could be extended periods between issues. Each one canvassed many relevant topics, but Desert Dykes always had a strong local focus, keeping women in the Centre in touch with events and informed on matters of interest and importance.

1994 Anwernekenhe: Us Mob

The idea of a national conference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander queer men was born out of the interest groups at the Central Australian AIDS Conference held in Alice Springs in 1990. It was here that many of the organisers first met and, withdrawing from both the Aboriginal discussion groups dominated by heterosexuals and the gay men's group dominated by non-Indigenous Australians, determined to take some action for themselves. After many conversations and meetings a national organising committee was formed that together with people on the ground in Alice Springs, such as John Cross, brought Anwernekenhe into being at Hamilton Downs in 1994.

2001 Eat Me: Alice IS Wonderland

In 2001 local queer entrepreneurs Phil Walcott and Kalikamurti Suich decided on a bold undertaking, to develop an Alice Springs link into the lucrative Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival. The idea was to integrate a local dance party and associated events with Phil's Rainbow Connection hosted accommodation to produce a local season of community festivities that would draw national and international tourists and stimulate the development of a queer tourist market in the Centre. In celebration of that other famous Alice, the festival was christened Alice IS Wonderland. Although the festival was notionally linked to Sydney's Mardi Gras there was never any intention to hold a parade. The organisers had also rather astutely decided not to invite local antagonism and only promoted Wonderland amongst the queer communities in Alice, interstate and overseas. So, it was with some horror that that they learned, just one month out from the event, that the Centralian Advocate had obtained copies of their promotional material and was intending to run a story.

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