From LGBTI radio to social movement

BY DASHIELL HANNOUSH

When I completed an internship at the NFSA, I was excited to discover a personal connection to the NFSA collection. 

I’m not the first intern to discover the work of family members in the collection. In my case, I found out that my aunt, Prue Borthwick, was part of the groundbreaking radio program Gaywaves (1979-2005 on Sydney community station 2SER). Prue grew up in Canberra and moved to Sydney in 1980. She was involved with the program from 1980 to approximately 1991.

In an interview I conducted with Prue, she told me about her many roles in Gaywaves, which was the norm for this passionate group of volunteer broadcasters. She explained: ‘My years with Gaywaves coincided with a time when I lived and breathed gay liberation. I was also active in the Gay Liberation Choir, AngGays (the Anglican gay group), the Christian Lesbian Collective and the Gay Christian Network. My work, firstly as a freelance book illustrator and then at Streetwize Comics, allowed me the time and space to engage as an activist.’

For Prue, connecting her personal experiences with her on-air persona and sharing them with the audience, was a natural process.

‘We took seriously the feminist slogan that “the personal is the political”, so it seemed very natural in that context to be sharing personal insights about your sexuality with others, as part of a movement. We were constantly reminded by our listeners and members of what it felt like to be closeted or struggling with negative stereotypes, or even self-oppression, not to mention active oppression by homophobic institutions and individuals.’   

One of the shows that Prue produced was the infamous Lesbian Sex Special in 1982:

‘It was a mixture of personal stories, music and a soundscape. It was almost like poetry, where a group of us sat with a microphone in someone’s lounge room and recorded short phrases or words that we thought captured sexual sensations and actions.’

After airing the special the station received two complaints and had to face the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, which classified the program as ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’. I actually think it is pretty cool that my aunt was responsible for such a controversy!

In the following clip from 2SER's Media Magazine program in 1992, Prue talks to Jackie Rundle about the 1982 controversy:

 

Our journey, their journey

Another memorable series that Prue co-produced (with Barbara Bloch) was the five-part lesbian parenting special Mothers and Others in 1991, which explored the topic with both sincerity and humour. Over five episodes they were able to cover a lot of ground and explore the issue from different perspectives, including that of the parents, the children and the donors. This is the Mothers and Others promo:

Prue produced the special as she was preparing to conceive my cousin Beatrice, so there was a very personal dimension for her. Same-sex parenting was a controversial issue at the time, but what Prue discovered was very positive:

‘Sure, there were problems, and we may have glossed over some of these in our enthusiasm, but overall we found the usual cosy, messy family behaviour that reassured us that lesbian parenting could produce just as warm and loving and nurturing relationships between the parents and their children as in heterosexual families.

‘Our journey helped the journey of others, and the reaction from the public was very positive. A lot of lesbians were beginning to dare to think of motherhood at the time but most of the reading material available was American, so people appreciated the Australian perspective and advice on the legal issues and services available.’

The transcript of Mothers and Others was published as a book, using a small grant from the AIDS Council of NSW. Prue proudly mentioned that it topped the Feminist Bookshop's bestseller list!

Prue acknowledges that 'some issues still exist, but discrimination and hostility have probably lessened'.

She donated several items to the NFSA, including all 15 episodes of the radio drama Gays of Our Lives, which she co-wrote with Gavin Harris, as well as Mothers and Others. Of her time at Gaywaves Prue remembers it as immensely satisfying and creative, and in our interview I asked what she felt the legacy of the program was:

‘I think Gaywaves was a generational thing, so it’s hard, and perhaps misleading, to try to isolate its legacy. We were part of a social movement that launched us into the world as openly gay and lesbian people and liberated us from an underclass where you had to be either closeted or exceptionally courageous and take enormous risks. Feminism and Gay Liberation were highly political and personal at the same time. As well as the empowerment and excitement we felt as activists, Gaywaves provided us with the space to explore and express our sexuality, our identity, culture and history, and our listeners shared these experiences with us. I suspect it was quite powerful radio.’

Listen to the Gaywaves discussion panel we hosted at the NFSA in 2015:

Listen to more clips from Gaywaves in our curated collection.