1986: End of an era

Since 1975 gay and lesbian activists had been gathering in an annual conference to discuss, debate and cruise. In 1986, this era came to an end with the 11th National Conference of Lesbian and Gay Men held in Sydney in April.

The first such conference was held in Melbourne, sponsored by the Australian Union of Students, but organised by an autonomous collective. The result outstripped everyone’s wildest hopes. Six hundred gay people turned up and the discussions were, if fierce, widely felt to have been useful.

Another seemed inevitable. Sydney put its hand up – and an annual tradition was born. August became conference month and over the following decade the hoopla moved from city from city – Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra all got a go as well.

The shifting terminology caught the changing language of activism – it was variously a conference for homosexuals, lesbians and homosexual men, lesbians and gay men … Themes such as ‘The Common Ground’, ‘Come out, fight back’ caught the moods of the times.

And everything was on the agenda. From revolution to law reform, from rural gays to young gays; links with other struggles – were all debated.

But people found time to enjoy themselves too. The conference dance was a regular feature. More than one conference affair was noted. The occasional relationship was founded.

In the end the conferences were not abandoned because they were useless, but because AIDS was swamping all other issues. The rise of the national AIDS conference coincides with the decline of the broader one.