It was 1967 when a teenage Peter McEwan first learned the bitter truth about being gay in Australia.
Arrested, charged and convicted of being with a man at a beach said to be frequented by homosexuals, the then Catholic school boy suffered the shame and humiliation of going to court and having his name splashed across the front page of The Truth newspaper.
Ultimately the experience threw Mr McEwan into the path of the gay liberation movement and, while at university, led him to march for gay rights as part of the inaugural Mardis Gras in 1978.
This week, 50 years after first being arrested and almost 40 years after Australia’s first ever Mardi Gras, Mr McEwan will return to those roots to lead Swinburne’s annual Pride Day march.
“Little did we think in the early years of Gay Liberation, in 1971 and 72, when we asserted our right to exist by merely being visible and loud, that one day we would be broadly accepted and not just tolerated,” he says.
Peter McEwan and his late partner Julian Desailly in 1972.
Now 67-years old and on the board of the Victorian Pride Centre, Mr McEwan is using his decades of activism experience to try and help young LBGTIQ people through the quagmire of the same-sex marriage postal survey.
You are OK just the way you are. You are lovable and you are not alone."
“Views expressed casually by parents around the dinner table in relation to the current postal ballot can deeply wound these young people,” he warns.
“The damage to mental health and emotional wellbeing from the postal survey will be considerable. Young people are the collateral damage in an unnecessary political exercise.“
And while he acknowledges the landscape in Australia has changed dramatically since his youth, Mr McEwan feels that the fundamental issues facing LGBTIQ people in Australia remain the same.
“It is the personal journey away from living in shame, secrecy and fear to coming out into the light of self-acceptance that is most important for young people.
“Then it is joining together with like-minded people in solidarity and kindness to support each other, not just in the LGBTQI sphere, but also wherever discrimination and inequality exist.”
His message for young LGBTQI people in Australia is:
“You are OK just the way you are. You are lovable and you are not alone."
From being involved in one of Australia’s most pivotal moments in gay liberation in 1978, to leading the Swinburne Pride Day march in 2017, Mr McEwan says he is proud to represent early gay rights pioneers.
“The majority of the men from that early period were lost to us through the scourge of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. It is for them in particular that I feel pride.”
Universities have traditionally been places where intellectual diversity is celebrated and rigorous discourse encouraged, he says.
Looking towards how universities can help shape a more welcoming culture for all people, he says it is critical that they provide spaces and a culture that is based on mutual respect, safety and support.
“In hosting the Swinburne Pride Day march, Swinburne is to be acknowledged for its commitment to creating such an environment for all of its students and staff.”