‘But you’ll love Sydney, and Sydney will be mad about you’.
Thus opens the first Australian novel to deal with homosexual life, Jon Rose’s At the Cross, published in 1961. It tells the story of Jon, a sixteen year old (who looks fourteen), who defies the wartime ban on interstate travel and sets off for the bright lights of 1940s Sydney.
His adventures there – as he is rapidly absorbed into the thriving camp community centred on King’s Cross – make for a rollicking good yarn. There’s a sly-grog joint accessed through a wardrobe door; male gypsies wearing tangerine satin, Jon naively delivering ‘Chinese herbs’ to desperate users. The novel’s highpoint, though, is the Gala Drag and Drain Party – a costume ball attended by Peter Pans, Greek soldiers, half a dozen Carmen Mirandas, with dancing, a cabaret … and a riotous police raid and subsequent magistrates hearing.
For a novel directed at the wider public, it is remarkably casual in its depiction of camp life. Sometimes the slang of the period is explained (‘drain’ means wine, or any drink really, Cliff tells Jon on his first day’ ‘Lily’ is ‘Lily law, the police’); sometimes however it is not. Who knows what your uninitiated reader would make of ‘TBH’, ‘TBHID’, camp slang which is used but never explained (‘to be had’; ‘to be had in drink’). And when Jon stays the night with Cliff and Dennis, sharing the bed, could anyone not have known what was going on?