TV Review: Queerstralia ★★★★1/2

Comedian Zoë Coombs Marr’s irreverent look at Australia’s queer history, aptly titled Queerstralia, takes a big topic and makes it easy to digest over three episodes. Like a rollicking good dinner party conversation, it is provocative, hilarious, and completely non-linear. This isn’t your standard History Channel doco.

“Each generation has its own story, but I’m not necessarily sure we talk to each other,” says fellow comedian Hannah Gadsby early on. “In fact I think we kind of get a bit shirty with each other.”

Magda Szubanski and Zoë Coombs Marr in Queerstralia. © 2023 ABC.

Coombs Marr has bitten off a massive topic for her debut doco-series about, and she does it in her own self-referential and fourth-wall breaking style. She is more likely to have an argument with the booming, serious voice-over than to battle with a historian. Along the way are scattered observations of queer elders, archivists, and celebrities with fascinating stories to tell. All trying to connect the narrative from pre-colonial times to today.

The first recording of homosexuality activity in Australia comes from the captain of a Dutch ship in 1727. “Clear sky. Good weather. Two persons found committing the abominable sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. A sorrowful and godforsaken act.” But it’s clear queer people were present long before that.

One of the strengths of Queerstralia is the way that Coombs-Marr hands over the narrative to indigenous elders and historians to explain the place of homosexuality before the Western invasion, and the British pathologization of queer behaviour. It is well noted that the British and other colonial powers were responsible for exporting homophobic laws to the world. 

The first episode of Queerstralia sets the scene looking at the law, explaining how the original British penal colony gained the nickname the “Sodom of the South Pacific”, prompting efforts to send more women to the colony. Sex between men was illegal in Australia until the mid-seventies; with the last state, Tasmania, only decriminalizing it in 1997. Apart from listings in arrest warrants and court cases, queer lives are all but absent from the record.

Zoë Coombs Marr and Rhys Nicholson in Queerstralia.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy here,” Coombs Marr points out, “queer people are criminalized, invisible, and only seen when we commit crimes. So we come to be viewed as inherently criminal, justifying further criminalization. It’s a queer crime snake eating its queer crime tale.”

While many people think of the 1978 march, the first Mardi Gras, as the birth of the Gay Liberation movement, its beginnings date back to 1969 with the foundation of the Daughters of Bilitis, and CAMP (the Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in 1970. It’s still shocking to think that after the march in 1978, the police arrested and beat participants, and the Sydney Morning Herald printed everyone’s full names and addresses. Twenty years later, police officers would march in the Mardi Gras parade in full uniform.

Episode two looks at how gender identity and its discussion has shaped our view of local homosexuality, while the third episode focuses on our expansive LGBTQIA+ multi-ethnic community. There’s discussion on the use and reappropriation of very Australian terms like pouftah/poofter, and Indigenous terms like Sistergirl and Brotherboy. The show jumps back and forth across Australia’s LGBTQIA+ timeline in a way that is sometimes a bit scattershot, but as Coombs Marr told the Sydney Morning Herald, “The idea of a beginning, a middle, and an end is very linear, it’s a very straight structure.”

Zoë Coombs-Marr in Queerstralia.

Queerstralia brings back stories that have been absent from our consciousness for far too long. Including tragedies like the murder of Dr George Duncan in 1972, who was drowned by bigots, rumoured to include police, and then thrown back in the water so news crews could film his body being retrieved. Then there are moments of quirky joy like the existence of the Unfinished Sex Dictionary of Dr Gary Simons, an exhaustive collection of gay language that sits in boxes in a Brisbane storage container; a piece of history narrowly saved from destruction. 

While definitely not as deliberately comedic as the recent Book of Queer, Queerstralia refuses to be dry and boring. Coombs Marr’s personal asides are as funny as they are revealing (hearing her own mother talk about having sex in the 1970s is suitably uncomfortable). Queerstralia establishes a narrative that is unique to Australia, a story that moves in tandem with places like the US and UK, but is independent of them, and it’s a fascinating piece of the greater queer movement.

By Chad Armstrong

Queerstralia is available to stream in Australia now on ABC iView.

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