Australia’s relationship with its LGBT+ community has always been complicated; it is in two mindsets at once. One is the progressive modern Australia that heralds our nation’s increasing diversity and celebrates fixtures like Oxford Street, the hub for our nation’s LGBT+ community. The other is traditional Australia, home of bush rangers and ANZAC’s, which comes with in-built conservative values, casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia. These two cultural mindsets uncomfortably co-exist, with a fault line of tension running through their territories.
Take the year of 1994 as an example. This was the year that homosexuality was nationally decriminalised, shockingly late compared to many of our Western counterparts. In that same year Stephan Elliott’s LGTBQI+ cult film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released to critical and public acclaim. Since its release the film has enjoyed ongoing relevance, not just as an indisputable part of the Australian cinematic canon — sitting alongside films like Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and The Castle — but because it was integral to the normalisation of the LGBT+ community within Australian culture.
The film depicts different shades of queerness, de-legitimising outdated preconceptions with equal parts empathy and comedy. Bernadette Bassenger (portrayed by the iconic Terrence Stamp) was the first transsexual character many Australian viewers had encountered whose story was handled with delicacy. Concepts like dead-naming are addressed within the film but never lingered on for uncomfortable lengths. At every turn, Elliott reinforces that what matters is Bernadette who is now not who she was once. Moments like these made Priscilla invaluable as an instructional text for the cis-heterosexual audiences who saw the film at the time, and indeed audiences who see it today.
But for every tender moment, there exists plenty that exhibits a trademark Australian roughness, Priscilla captures our brand humour perfectly. A standout scene is when the youngest of the film’s three protagonists, Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), describes a childhood encounter he had with an older male family member. The setup makes it seem like the young Adam is going to be taken advantage of sexually, but that cliché is quickly subverted, with the Adam regaining control over the scene, and by extension, over the wrongheaded stereotype that links homosexuality to abuse.
While played for comedy, the scene also exposes a deeper truth about the LGBT+ community in Australia. Throughout the film, Adam is revealed to have issues with trust and internalised self-loathing. These issues don’t stem from an easily quantifiable moment but a myriad of societal misgivings that Adam has lived with his whole life, solely on account of his sexuality. Indeed, all three of the film’s protagonists exhibit traditional Australian traits: they’re caustic, irreverent, display ample amounts of larrikinism and have a true love of all things alcoholic. The only thing that sets them apart is their sexuality/gender. It is for this reason that Priscilla is celebrated to this day, it was one of the first mainstream works of media that displayed LGBT+ characters with internal complexity to mainstream audiences.
What is less remarked upon, however, is the power of Priscilla’s narrative for LGBT+ viewers. Queer pride and national pride do not sit neatly together for Australia’s LGBT+ community, that same tension that exists between Australia’s two cultural mindsets also exists within us. For every step that is made toward total acceptance and inclusion, there is just as much pushback. Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1978 was interrupted by unprovoked police action; fast forward to the 2013 parade and this happened again, for all that changes there is an equal amount of social stasis. How is one meant to feel pride as part of a nation that cannot reciprocate that same feeling pride unconditionally?
This is what Priscilla allows for its LGBT+ viewers. It is an object for cultural compassion that allows both parties to see and accept each other, as separate groups that make up a unified whole. Cis-heterosexual viewers find space for queerness within their national identity, and LGBT+ viewers experience a reversal of that. The film grants us the latitude to feel a genuine sense of national pride, that we are a part of the culture rather than outsiders.
Key to this is Priscilla’s plot, which is as by-the-numbers as they come, hitting all the narrative beats methodically. This genericism is crucial to the effectiveness of the film as a queer narrative. By putting queer people centre stage in an otherwise generic narrative, we’re allowed to feel a part of the mainstream, accepted. No generic element in the film is more important than the setting: the outback.
There is no piece of iconography more inherently Australian than the outback. It is the embodiment of the relationship between land and people, and that relationship runs through every aspect of our national identity. This idea was codified in Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, which as pure a distillation our national ethos as there can be:
“I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains”
That ethos finds its roots in Australia’s origins as a penal colony. Australia was colonised by convicts, people who left England as social write-offs, and thus by coming here were given a second chance. The land has come to embody that, the vast plains of the outback representing the chance for personal rebirth.
This dynamic is complicated, however, by the fact that this relationship is built upon colonial seizure. Australia’s Indigenous people possess an even richer relationship to the land — or Country as they refer to it. Country is the spine of all cultural traditions for Indigenous Australian’s. Their relationship to Country symbiotic, they give to Country and Country provides for them in a cycle of reciprocation. This relationship was disrupted by Australia’s colonisation, with Indigenous Australian’s being displaced from Country and, by extension, ownership of their own national identity. Indigenous people have fought for their right to be recognised as the traditional custodians of Country, but that battle is slow as Indigenous Australians’ relationship to Country is often viewed as incompatible with the widely accepted, colonial relationship.
The journey undertaken by the queens engages with both these relationships to the land. When they first set out Adam announces that after the final show he wants to climb to the top of King’s Canyon in full drag. Doing this is his way of declaring his personhood in the eyes of a nation that, in 1994, would prefer he didn’t exist. The queens would queer the kind of conquering act that forms the bedrock of our colonial-national identity, in effect demonstrating that they are just as entitled to it as any other Australian. As the plot unfurls, however, the strictly colonial relationship between land and national identity metamorphoses into one more indebted to Indigenous Australians’ relationship to Country.
Early in the film, the queens spend a night with a tribe of Indigenous Australian’s. They party throughout the evening; the Indigenous tribe perform a traditional dance, and the queens return the favour by lip-syncing Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ in full-drag. The sequence is cultural exchange in action, with two seemingly different peoples creating joy through the sharing of traditions. The sequence highlights that the LGBT+ community and Australia’s Indigenous people, while seemingly distant, share an existence that is coloured by dispossession and the ongoing battle against it. Moreover, by drawing parallels between the queens’ experiences and Indigenous experiences, Priscilla implies that Australia’s LGBT+ community are as connected to the Australian national identity as Indigenous Australian’s are to Country.
This exchange encourages the queens to continue sharing their traditions, and as they do, they find themselves more willingly accepted by the various character’s meet throughout their journey. As Caucasian’s descended from colonial invaders Tick (Hugo Weaving), Bernadette and Adam will never possess a spiritual relationship to Country, and indeed never seek it. But they do learn the values underpinning Indigenous Australians’ relationship to Country, and by exhibiting it find themselves become more widely accepted in the communities that maligned them, much in the same way that Priscilla itself encouraged acceptance through comedy and understanding, trusting its audience to see the humanity in the community it put front and centre.
Late in the film Adam, along with Tick, Bernadette, fulfils his dream of climbing Kings Canyon in full drag. While it was envisioned as a conquering act, the reality is anything but that. They appear one with the landscape, despite the absurd gaudiness of their drag finery, or maybe because of it. In drag, they are the fullest embodiment of their queer selves, and they belong in the land as much as any other Australian. At the top, as they gaze over the outback, Bernadette says: “It’s endless, isn’t it? All that space”.
When she says it, she does so with a hint of pride.
by Josh Sorensen
Josh Sorensen (he/him) is an Australian writer, student, and human. He’s currently completing his undergraduate degree majoring in english literature, creative writing and international relations. His favourite films include The Millennium Actress, Cabaret and The Lost City of Z. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd @namebrandjosh.