Because we know virtually nothing about the place of same-sex relationships in indigenous Tasmanian culture, the island's homosexual history begins with early explorers like Matthew Flinders, who, with George Bass, circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798–99, proving it an island. Flinders writes of Bass:
there was a time when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me pleasure; your footsteps upon the quarterdeck over my head took me from my book and brought me upon the deck to walk with you.
Partly thanks to Bass and Flinders' discovery, colonial outposts were soon established in Tasmania as dumping grounds for England's over flowing gaols. In the fifty years to 1853, tens of thousands of convicts were transported to Tasmania, many for sexual offences including sodomy. In the island's gaols coercive and power-based homosexuality was common. But so were love bonds between men and between women, as shown by this letter written in 1846 by a convict sentenced to hang for mutiny:
I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you….The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together. I hope you wont fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.
Women discovered in same-sex relationships in gaols like the Hobart and Ross Female Factories were labelled 'pseudo-males' and assigned as servants to farmers in distant corners ends of the island. Some misbehaved so they would be returned to gaol and their companions. Separation was also used to punish men. When James Boyd, the Superintendent of the Maria Island penal station, wrote that he had walked in on eight men who had pushed their beds together and lay sleeping in each other's embrace, his words echoed all the way to London. Not long afterwards Port Arthur's prison dormitories were re-designed to keep inmates under constant surveillance, and the hated separate and silent prison was built as the final solution to convict homosexuality.
Reformers like the Rev John West thought a better solution was the end of convict transportation altogether. In the same year as Jack's lover died, West published this poem in the Launceston Examiner, part of his campaign to discredit the convict system by associating it with sodomy: 'Shall Tasman's Isle so famed, so lovely and so fair, from other nations be estranged, the Name of Sodom bear?' This fear-mongering worked. The transportation of convicts ceased soon after. According to Robert Hughes, this is why the new Australian national identity that the anti-transportation movement gave birth to, was tainted by profound homophobia well into the twentieth century.
Repression of homosexuality remained a feature of Tasmanian life. The last man to hang for sodomy in the British Empire was in Tasmania in 1867. In the subsequent hundred years Tasmania had the highest rate of imprisonment for private consenting male sex anywhere in the world. One of these men was Bert, quoted from a 1976 Examiner article entitled, 'Why Noel Shot Himself and Bert Went to Gaol':
If there had been reform in 1958 I would have been saved from the worst period of my life. I was 21 and living in Launceston with another man of the same age. The police came to the house and asked who lived there. When we said we did, they asked where we slept and we pointed to the only bed in the house. We were taken to the police station, interviewed and charged with gross indecency. In the Supreme Court I pleaded guilty. I had no legal representation. The case was over in 10 minutes. I got three years.
Ironically, for some there was greater freedom in Tasmania than elsewhere. The first photos of same-sex couples in Australia were taken of young loving male couples in the secluded mountainside Hobart suburb of Fern Tree in the 1890s. Painters like Isobel Oldham and writers like Marie Bjelke Petersen lived openly with their same-sex companions. Bjelke Petersen wrote of her partner Sylvia Mills: 'God's Angels often come in human form not as strangers whose lips never touch ours … but as friends, close dear friends, whom we may fondle & caress & feel they really belong to us'. By the 1960s Hobart's cruising areas had become social spaces with car bonnets spread for picnic lunches. Soon afterwards, gay bars and then clubs emerged in central Hobart, despite police harassment that included compiling lists of the names and car registration numbers of patrons.
With this tumultuous legacy full of contradictions and extremes it is no surprise that the history of Tasmania's modern gay and lesbian movement is also dramatic. Inspired by the globally significant Tasmanian environmental campaigns of the 1980s, led by openly gay Greens' leader, Dr Bob Brown, the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group formed in 1988. A nine-year debate over the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which involved the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the federal government, the High Court and Amnesty International, saw the issue become the defining social reform of the 1990s, and resulted in a dramatic increase in popular support for gay rights, and gay law reform in 1997.
Tasmania was the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality. But the dividend of this long polarising debate was better laws and policies on homosexuality than in the other states. Tasmania now has some of the world's best school anti-homophobia programmes, anti-discrimination laws and same-sex relationship laws. In 2004 Tasmania became the first Australian state to allow same-sex couples to register their relationships.
Further reading: R Hughes, The Fatal Shore, London, 1987; M Morris, The pink triangle, Sydney, 1994; A Alexander, A Mortal Flame, Hobart, 1994.