Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Keeping the Nation Straight

Jenny Lee

For much of the 20th century, Australia’s censorship regime was based on the assumption that homosexuality was a disease you could catch through reading. An ‘easy tolerance’ of homosexual relationships, warned long-time censor Kenneth Binns, could ‘play a large part in initiating such practices, especially in the young or sexually unstable’. When censors spoke of protecting the populace from depravity and corruption, homosexuality was one thing they had in mind.

Before and even after the formation of an independent censorship board in 1933, Customs acted unilaterally to block the importation of books on homosexual themes. Among the first to suffer this fate was Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, which was banned in 1928 and remained a prohibited import for 11 years.

The Censorship Board itself was hardly more liberal. Its founding chairman, the venerable Sir Robert Garran, wrote in a brief note recommending the prohibition of Terence Greenidge’s The Magnificent: ‘I have no doubts about this book. Half the characters are homosexual, with a habit of telling their friends and acquaintances so.’ To portray openly homosexual characters was sufficient to attract a ban.

Well into the postwar period, the censors used the language of disease to justify banning novels ‘infected with sinister homosexuality’; even medical texts on the subject were restricted. During the 1960s, however, public criticism became vociferous, and there was dissension among the censors themselves over decisions such as the 1963 banning of James Baldwin’s Another Country

Publishers, authors and importers also became more inclined to appeal decisions to ban books dealing with same-sex relationships, and eventually there was a wholesale release of formerly banned books in 1973 — though by that stage many were long out of print.

The response was an outbreak of moral panic, especially in the less populous states, where conservative politicians imposed their own bans. Fanning the atmosphere of crisis were evangelical Christian activists such as the South Australian Lance Shilton, who memorably explained his rationale: ‘If you have homosexuality, group sex acts with animals, portrayed as the norm in sexual relationships, people will soon say “It’s good enough for me.”’

The fragmentation of authority over written expression has left the way open for similar crusades against publications directed at gay audiences, particularly of young men. In Western Australia, for example, just as sodomy ceased to be a crime in 1995, the state passed a Censorship Act that reintroduced the old ‘reasonable citizen’ test, making it an offence to distribute sexually explicit materials that might be offensive to this mythical person, always assumed to be heterosexual.

Maybe - Tomorrow

Recommending a ban on Jay Little’s self-published novel Maybe - Ttomorrow in 1955, one of the censors wrote: ‘This is one of the most unsavoury books that I have ever read — so nauseating that I cannot bring myself to write a synopsis of the story. The author's world is peopled almost exclusively with homosexuals, whose practices are described in revolting detail.’ The novel remained a prohibited import until 1971.

Myra Breckinridge

In 1968, the Censorship Board banned the original US edition of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge but passed an edition hastily expurgated for British publisher Anthony Blond. Two years later, the original book became part of a high-profile court case initiated by gay activist Dennis Altman, who defied the ban by importing the unexpurgated Myra Breckinridge along with Sanford Friedman’s novel Totempole. While the judge released Totempole, he upheld the ban on Myra Breckinridge, saying: ‘The objection to this book is not because it deals with the perverted behaviour of an aggressive homosexual, but the manner of its treatment of the subject matter.’ The ban was eventually lifted as part of a general release of prohibited books in 1973.

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