Not Just a Phase: Recording Newcastle’s queer history

Photograph of Newcastle Beach, an area well-known in the gay community for its beats, in the 1950s. Photo: Douglas Brown, [1950s]. Newcastle Living Histories Collection

At the beginning of this year I read an amazing book by Anna Anthropy titled Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form.[1] Part manifesto, part history, part memoir and part manual – Anthropy argues for marginalised groups to hit the keyboard and design videogames to represent their experiences. Reading Anthropy’s work completely changed the way I thought about media forms and storytelling,

 ‘I can imagine – you are invited to imagine with me – a world in which digital games are not manufactured by publishers for the same small audience, but one in which games are authored by you and me for the benefit of our peers. This is something the videogame industry, by its nature, cannot give us. I like to think about zines – self-published, self-distributed magazines and books… I like the idea of games as zines: as transmissions of ideas and culture from person to person, as personal artifacts instead of impersonal creations by teams of forty-five artists and fifteen programmers.’[2]

I can hear you asking – what do videogames have to do with history? Am I in the right place, I thought you were supposed to be talking about a university history project? 

When I first read this book, I never thought it would make me think differently about history. But, what Anthropy argues for in Videogame Zinesters has a lot to do with history and its creation. 

Though we have an understanding of public history as part of our historical consciousness, it’s always been seen as lesser – as capital H history’s younger, dumber brother. But with the rise of social media, podcasting, blogging and the democratisation of website-making (with programs like Wix and Squarespace) there is now even more opportunity for public history to be made – not only by those who work in government funded institutions, or who are able to fund their own works but by those who want to write their own history.[3] This is where videogames and history collide – where history – like videogames – isn’t just the ‘impersonal creation… [of] forty-five artists and fifteen programmers’[4] but can become the work of what Anthropy calls, the ‘freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, drop-outs, queers, housewives, and people like you.’[5]

For the past few months I have worked on a public history project to redesign the digital archive of Newcastle queer history group – Hunter Rainbow History (HRH). I have also created a zine featuring some of the main pieces of their archive to act as a portable exhibition of queer history in Newcastle. Both these projects were made with the aim to allow more people to access the archive, as well as to increase awareness of the archive’s existence (through the zine), make the archive more user-friendly, and to create an easy-to-read queer history of Newcastle that would provide entry-points into the more complex material in the archive.

When I first saw the HRH archive I was blown away by the amount of material that was available, but I was also overwhelmed by what each piece meant and how it all connected to a broader history. It was only after spending many hours familiarising myself with the material, doing secondary research and talking to John Witte (a founding member of HRH) that I was able to see how each piece connected and why it was so important to understanding Newcastle’s queer history. When working on my project this became my main aim – to allow people to access the archive and to instantly see the connections between the objects.

However, creating the zine presented a steep learning curve, particularly regarding how personal the creation of public history can be. I found Lorina Barker’s Hangin’ out” and “Yarnin’”: reflecting on the experience of collecting oral histories[6] a very helpful way to understand why this process was difficult – as both an insider to the community (growing up in Newcastle and being queer) and an outsider (as someone who hadn’t lived through the trauma of the AIDs epidemic, police arrests of the 1950s or ongoing violence), I felt incredibly attached to the people whose history I was writing. It often felt like removing a single sentence was wiping out the work which had been done to record LGBTIQ+ history. This was particularly difficult due to the short nature of a zine and at times it felt counterintuitive to have such a large amount of history condensed into under 400 words. However, the process also taught me a lot about what it means to create a historical narrative, and the importance of recognising the place of your work in broader historical writing.


Much of my research for this project came from the book Out in the Valley: Hunter gay and lesbian histories[7] (2010),which is one of the most substantial, and well researched written accounts of Newcastle’s queer history. I used Out in the Valley to generate a broader understanding of the common themes and events which I then used to understand the connections in the HRH archive. I also used the Australian Lesbian and Gay archives[8] as a model for writing queer history. The readings from this unit also helped guide my understanding of how to write public history – most notably The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History by Frank Bongiorno and Erik Eklund (2014)[9]; and Anna Clark’s Private Lives, Public History (2016)[10]. An essay by Sam Leah and Jessie Lymn titled What Makes An Object Queer[11] made me think critically about the importance of objects to queer history, and how to involve more than one perspective in the writing of a historical narrative. These articles shaped how I approached the project, particularly the importance of considering audience, aim and how my project fit into history as a discipline.

Overall, I am so grateful for this unit for allowing me to make connections with the queer past of Newcastle. I am planning to continue working with HRH over the Summer and hopefully in the following year. Most of all, I hope my project is able to connect others to their own community and increase the visibility of Newcastle’s queer past.

Finally, the introduction to Out in the Valley contained a few key quotes which motivated me to continue this project. Below is one of my favourites, that acted as a constant reminder that queer people deserve more than a history confined to homophobic newspaper articles:

Up until the 1990s, when the hunter gay and lesbian community began to publish its own news magazines, the occasional newspaper article was the only evidence homosexuals of the region could find to tell them that their existence and history had not been completely erased from the consciousness of the community in which they lived. The negative articles at least enabled local homosexuals to see in print the kinds of views about them that were held by the people who were part of their world.’ [12]

You can visit the Hunter Rainbow History new website here.

The zine will be available in the archive pending copyright approval.

[1] Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, (Newcastle: Seven Stories Press, 2012).

[2] Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, 2012, p. 7.

[3] However, there is still a lot to be pessimistic about regarding the democratisation of history. I was only able to undertake this project because I was given time in my university degree, I was able to fund printing and access to a  laptop by myself, I was given access to resources and education through my ability to pay for university and I was able to fund my travel back and forth to Newcastle. There are a lot of privileges that still limit access of the creation of history. But my hope is that forms like zines, like videogames, like podcasting allow more people to access history and that there will continue to be more work done to increase that access. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lorina Barker, “Hangin’ out” and “Yarnin’”: reflecting on the experience of collecting oral histories”, History Australia, 5, no. 1, (2008), pp. 1-9.

[7] Jim Wafer, Erica Southgate and Lyndall Coan, Out in the Valley : Hunter gay and lesbian histories . Newcastle, (Newcastle: Newcastle Region Library, 2000).

[8] Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives | Since 1978, collecting and preserving Australia’s very queer history.

[9] Frank Bongiorno and Erik Eklund, “The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History,” New Journal: An International Journal of the Humanities, Creative Arts and Social Sciences 3, no. 1 (2014), pp. 39-53.

[10] Anna Clark, Public Lives, Private History, (Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2016).

[11] Sam Leah and Jessie Lymn, “What Makes An Object Queer: Collecting and exhibiting LGBT stories in regional museums and archives,” Information Research, 22, no.4, (December 2017).

[12] Jim Wafer, Erica Southgate and Lyndall Coan, Out in the Valley : Hunter gay and lesbian histories . Newcastle, (Newcastle: Newcastle Region Library, 2000), p. 2.

Hunter Rainbow History Group – the importance of queer histories

It’s Summer 2019, my friends and I are wandering through the stalls of Mardi Gras Fair Day. The sun is unbearably hot, and our faces are greasy with the layers of sunscreen and glitter piled onto them . We stop in the shade of an empty stall and take a moment to look around the crowd swarming Victoria Park. But I am distracted by a sign in the stall next door that’s far more exciting. It’s a sign for a pride festival later on in the year, but to my surprise it’s for my hometown – Newcastle. 

When we were asked to pick a community organisation for a history project, I had no idea where to start. Having only moved to Sydney in 2016 (and into four different suburbs since then), I’d never properly connected with any local organisations. But after being asked in this course to reflect on the communities and values I deem important, I knew I had to do something to connect two of the biggest, yet most separate communities in my life – Newcastle and the queer community.

Growing up in Newcastle I was never exposed to anything related to queerness – while it definitely existed, Newcastle’s history of queer lives and experiences was very much hidden from the average Novocastrian. When I moved to Sydney for university I was incredibly surprised, and grateful to find such an open and honest community of people. I couldn’t believe that Newcastle, only a 2 hour car trip away, was so different, and its queer community so concealed. It’s for that reason I have chosen to work with the Hunter Rainbow History Group for my history project.

The Hunter Rainbow History Group, a queer history group operating in the city of Newcastle, was formed to ‘record and collect the stories and experiences of LGBTIQ people in Newcastle and the Hunter, to preserve and illuminate the hidden histories of this vital and resilient community’. Their work involves the digitising, archiving and collecting of queer stories in Newcastle – the results of which I believe do incredible work to avoid the confusion and isolation of growing up queer away from a capital city. Currently, the group are working on recording the experiences of HIV/AIDs survivors and victims in Newcastle’s two HIV/AIDs designated hospitals – the Royal Newcastle Hospital and MacKillop House. The last few weeks I have had the pleasure of being in conversation with John Witte, a member of the group, who has suggested I could assist with digitising photos for MacKillop house, and working with the  Sisters of St Joseph Lochinvar who were part of the creation of MacKillop House in the early 1990s. 

I am beyond excited to be working with this group and hope that I am able to bring more visibility to queer histories as an essential part of public history. Most of all, I am grateful that I am able to work with a group that are able to connect the younger and older generations in Newcastle – allowing us to connect to a long-standing community that has too long been left to be forgotten.