a) Gay Tasmania
The large number of LGBT people moving to Tassie is an indicator of how much the state has changed
(published Melbourne Community Voice, February 2003)
Dee is a successful lesbian accommodation and adventure tourism operator from Colorado, and like most self-made businesswomen she is astonishingly energetic. The day she called me she’d already quizzed several government departments and all of the state’s queer tourism operators about Tasmania’s business climate, social attitudes and human rights record.
She told me she’d fallen in love with Tassie and wants to move her business here. But I could tell there was more to the call than the rhapsody of newly converted Tasmaniac.
"Tassie used to have such a bad reputation", she declared. "But now the overwhelming impression I get is that it’s a really friendly and tolerant place for lesbians and gay men, is that your impression too?"
Many gays and lesbians from outside the state ask me this question, thinking that if anyone will tell the truth about homophobia it will be a gay activist. My answer to them, like it was to Dee, is that Tasmania has changed beyond recognition and is currently one of the most homo-tolerant communities in Australia.
On the basis of her research Dee has now decided to join an ever growing number of lgbt people moving to Tasmania. Each week at the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group Salamanca Market stall we meet two or three singles or couples who have recently relocated, forming part of the new "creative class" that the state government has said it is determined to foster. The stall also attracts the attention of the ever increasing number of lgbt visitors to the state, enticed by a government marketing campaign to the lesbian and gay community which is globally unprecedented in scale and intensity.
Perhaps Tassie’s most high profile gay immigrant couple is novelist and radio presenter, Robert Dessaix, and his partner, writer Peter Timms. They moved to Hobart almost two years ago, against the very strong advice of Melbourne friends who thought the pair had lost their minds, and despite not being entirely sure what they would find.
"What we did find" Robert told me, "was a much friendly and less tribal city than Melbourne. There simply aren’t the subtle boundaries or even sense of threat we felt where we used to live. I was accepted with open arms into a wonderful gay ball room dancing group – there was no attitude, no pressure to conform – and we’re open with the tradesmen who are renovating the house in a way we didn’t feel comfortable doing in Melbourne. People don’t feel the need to draw lines around us."
So are Dee and Robert seeing the typical Tasmania?
Inevitably there are pockets of overt homophobia in Tasmania. It has always been a deeply divided society. But the evidence of change is everywhere. In the wake of the bitter but ultimately successful campaign to decriminalise homosexuality, Tasmania adopted the world’s most progressive gay and lesbian anti-discrimination laws. In today’s Tasmania educational authorities print and distribute lgbt-issues bulletins to all schools while the government health department has authorised anti-homophobia training for all its employees. It will be quite a while before the rest of Australia catches up to Tasmania’s cutting-edge lgbt public sector programs.
Underlying these changes at a governmental level are astounding changes in community attitudes. Opinion polls show that Tasmanians, after years of being made to think about and discuss gay and lesbian issues on an almost daily basis, are now some of the most tolerant Australians when it comes to lgbt issues. Support for our human rights is consistently higher in Hobart than in the other Australian state capital. Without this popular support none of the legal and policy reforms I’ve mentioned would have been possible. That the State Government is set to introduce the world’s most sweeping relationships law reform and that, as a part of this reform, it is vigorously pursuing a registration scheme and adoption rights for same sex couples, shows how far public opinion in Tasmania has come.
But perhaps the best indicator of change lies in the number of lgbt Tasmanians who are moving back, sometimes after years of self-imposed exile on the continent or overseas.
Damien, a Hobart boy recently returned from Sydney, has always found Tasmania to be friendly and more welcoming than the anonymous cities he’s lived in. "But", he adds "there is definitely a changed atmosphere here when it comes to gay people, more understanding and acceptance. It makes living in Hobart comfortable and relaxed."
His partner, Stuart, has lived in both Melbourne and Sydney and agrees Hobart has a lot to offer him as gay man. "I’m enjoying the relaxed lifestyle", he says. "It’s an open and tolerant place to be."
Tasmania is far from being a queer paradise, but it has undergone a remarkable change, transforming itself from a by-word for homophobia to a model of lgbt tolerance in just a few short years. In this transformation lies many lessons for small communities the world over, and great promise for our future both as lgbt people and as Australians.
This article first appeared in Melbourne Community Voice in February 2003.
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