Queer unionists, the NSW Teachers’ Federation, and the curious case of a Mardi Gras rejection

Queer unionists ought not be forgotten, but celebrated for their unique and crucial activism which has long gone unnoticed by historians and the queer community.

The role of queer trade unionists and queer unionist groups in the queer liberation movement is deeply under researched and understood. Since at least 1978, queer people have carved out spaces within their unions and used those spaces to agitate for union support for gay rights and policy change more generally. The first of such groups was the Gay Teachers and Students Group (GTAS) which was formed at the First National Homosexual Conference in 1976 and worked for almost ten years within the NSW Teachers’ Federation. 

When Mardi Gras rejected the Teachers’ Federation’s application for a float in the 2023 Mardi Gras parade —a decision since reversed — opting instead for a float from the State Department of Education, the historical relationship between queer people and the trade unionist movement was ignored. Mardi Gras’ rejection of the Teachers’ Federation ignores the way that teachers’ unions catalysed the Australian trade movement’s support for gay and trans rights, a support which has endured until the present. Even worse, it overlooks the way that support was driven by queer activists within education unions and beyond. The work of these unionists was pioneering and serves as a reminder of the way workers and queer people have won rights for themselves, rather than being handed them by benevolent government departments. 

While GTAS was the first, other gay unionist groups began to quickly pop up throughout the 1970s. The Gay Trade Unionists Group (GayTUG) was established in 1978, with branches in NSW and Victoria, and worked towards strengthening the relationship between the queer communities and trade unions. The Gay Union of Tertiary Staff was also active within the 1970s and 1980s in addition to the Victorian GTAS equivalent, also named the Gay Teachers and Students Group (GTSG). While this list is in no way complete, and queer unionist groups existed within other (usually white-collar) unions, it does indicate that education unions and autonomous queer groups within them have been safe spaces for queer people since the mid-1970s.

The value of these queer unionist groups in this early period can be traced through their impact on the people who joined them. In a letter to Education, the union journal of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, an anonymous Sydney teacher wrote that GTAS’ meetings “have been the most profitable experiences – presenting an open forum where problems and ideas are aired.” In this sense, the existence of queer unionist groups enabled queer people to have stronger senses of selves. While this is clearly valuable on a personal level, the safe space offered by queer unionists enabled the queer movement to grow. Closeted queer teachers, who could not come out without endangering their job, now had a place where they could express themselves among other queers. In doing so, queer unionist groups brought people out of the closet and into the movement.

After a while, queer teachers groups grew beyond safe space-making and self expression. Members of the bigger GTSG began to publicly come out in the late 1970s. Prominent queer activist Hellen McCulloch was publicly out and a teacher at the same time, which indicated both to queer people and the broader public that queer teachers existed and should keep their jobs. 

GTSG also produced the seminal queer publication Young, Gay and Proud in 1978. Young, Gay and Proud provided pioneering advice and sex education for gay students, demonstrating the unique role of queer teachers’ groups in providing support for queer children, an ongoing battleground in the fight for queer liberation.

The work of GayTUG and queer unionists’ groups which were more community facing also made the union movement more accessible for queer people. The union movement was characterised by a strong masculinism and patriarchal sexual politics in this era. This posed a significant barrier for many queer people joining their union and thus opened them up to insecure work. Queer unionist groups including GayTUG organised floats in queer rights protests and parades, produced educational videos aimed at the queer community and held meetings at queer spaces, including both GayTUG and GTAS being active at CAMP’s headquarters in Glebe. They thus increased the visibility of unions within the queer community. This activism laid the groundwork for further collaboration between unions and queer people, as it reduced the queer community’s apprehension towards the union movement.

Whilst many of these groups were small and often short-lived — for instance, GayTUG (NSW) held meetings attended by roughly ten people and disbanded within four years — the unique legacy of queer education unionists remains..

Shortly after GTAS and GTSG were established, education unions across Australia began to explicitly support anti-discrimination protections for queer workers and recognised that queer teachers did not pose a threat to students. The work of queer unionists in writing to union journals, flyering union notice boards and speaking with colleagues was foundational to this, creating the rank-and-file support requisite for any formal policy change by union leadership. 

As part of this lobbying process, queer unionists often worked with feminist activists who also fought to destabilise traditional union sexual politics. For example, the GTSG in Victoria helped organise the Elimination of Sexism Project with feminist education unionists; the Project’s activist staffers frequently discussed queer issues along with feminist issues during their discussions with union members.

With large education unions in NSW, Victoria and beyond supportive of gay rights thanks to the efforts of queer activists, the Australian Teachers’ Federation (ATF) decided to support o support anti-discrimination protections for gay people, in a context where such protections did not yet exist anywhere in Australia. The ATF held significant power within the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations (ACSPA), one of Australia’s three peak union bodies at the time. At the 1978 National Homosexual Conference, ACSPA decided to convene national meetings of gay unionists, due to pressure from the ATF. This made gay rights more prominent within the national labour landscape. Ultimately, the Australian Council of Trade Unions adopted a detailed anti-discrimination policy that included gay people in 1981, reaffirming it in 1983. The motion to do so was proposed by the ATF.

Politically, unions have successfully lobbied State Labor governments to introduce anti-discrimination protections for queer people and since have publicly supported the Yes campaign in the 2017 Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite. But for workers, union support has also led to workplaces being pressured to support queer rights. 

During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health unions (led by queer unionists within them) produced educational material which not only helped workers protect themselves, but also dispelled harmful myths about HIV/AIDS. The Victorian AIDS council in 1986 described the ACTU’s HIV/AIDS Health and Safety Bulletin as “the best summary of the occupational aspects of AIDS yet produced in the world.” Since then, unions have continued to lobby to protect queer workers including the nation-wide campaign by the Nation Tertiary Education Union to ensure gender-diverse staff have access to gender affirmation leave.

Education unions — including the NSW Teachers’ Federation — have been key supporters of queer rights throughout history, with that support driven by unheralded groups of queer activists. As World Pride sees the celebration of the activist past and present of the queer community, queer unionists ought not be forgotten, rather celebrated for their unique and crucial activism which has seen the establishment of world-leading ties between the queer and trade union movements in Australia.