Last semester, the annual queer edition of Honi Soit — this year featuring the masthead “Fagi Soit” and an image of a trans woman’s torso — was distributed on 16 May.
I walked past one of the stands shortly after it had been filled. When I passed again minutes later, it was empty, leading me to comment that the edition must’ve been very popular — it surely deserved to be. Though I had been blissfully unaware of what happened, the editions had been disposed of in what this paper has condemned as an attack on queer expression. Honi estimates that over Tuesday and Wednesday close to half the paper’s print run of 2,000 was stolen, with many copies found in bins.
Honi Soit has a history of stirring the pot, to an extent that any newspaper, student or not, would struggle to hold a flame to. In fact, the disgraceful actions that occurred this year aren’t the first instance of copies of this paper being stolen en masse. To learn more about the paper’s past, I delved into the archives.
The sixth edition of Honi for the year 1952 was published on 24 April. It featured the usual Honi antics, including a jab by Damaris J. Bainstow in response to an invitation to join the Sydney University Regiment, “…I fear the Army has rather strong views on [women serving]”. On page six, the letters section, was a letter to the paper from four men ex-college students titled “Ye Olde College Rorts.” The letter took aim at the hazing rituals — the “Fresher system” — to which new college residents were subjected, reminiscent of continuing outrage against the colleges today for widespread hazing and sexual assault & harassment which has been covered dutifully by this masthead. The authors lament that “Freshers are being bashed with the same old heartiness in the colleges of St. John’s, St. Paul’s, and St. Andrew’s. Wesley alone is resisting the tide of savagery.” It goes on to describe the rituals in detail:
“The old trappings are back; Freshers are being exposed to the most loathsome indignities. In one college they are thrust, covered in oil and boot polish, into a filthy horse-trough while the seniors stand and jeer; in another, similarly befouled, they are made to lie under icy showers. At other times they live under a constant threat at the beck and call of their ‘betters.’”
“It was only after much soul-searching that a group of men who had suffered these indignities and who had been forced to leave college decided to write to Honi Soit,” the letter continues. It concludes, “In all the colleges morals are low and drunkenness common.” This exposure was not taken well.
News of the ensuing rioting made Hobart’s Mercury and Lismore’s Northern Star. College residents threatened to burn copies of the paper if the letter was not withdrawn. They chased a truck delivering copies of the paper out of the university, and a student who grabbed a bundle of copies was tackled to the ground. Students stormed Honi’s office, with the invaders running off with 400 “mostly old” copies while being chased by staff of the paper. The principal of St John’s College flatly denied the charges of the letter. Little has changed many decades later.
Throughout its history, Honi has drawn the ire of Christian societies; in 1945 for publishing information on birth control (and misquoting the Bible, admittedly); and ran into trouble with authorities, from the fifties to the seventies for its openness to printing nudity. It is no doubt that the cause of these frustrations with Honi Soit were in the same vein as the frustrations felt by those who sought to censor this year’s queer edition.
1945’s fifteenth edition of the paper prominently featured an article about birth control with the headline “Murder… or not?” The article ridiculed claims by a Mr. J. Wilkinson, made in front of an audience at Manning House, “that birth control is morally wrong, is an offence against the Laws of Nature, and the Church, and a frustration of the purpose of sex.” It included the following conversation piece:
“I am informed that the Catholic attitude to Contraception is the following:
In this bed, a thousand sperms may expire in solitary splendour. This is good.
And in this bed, endless successions of ova may die lonely deaths. This is splendid.
But if they die together in that bed, that is murder!
Is this the case?”
The article witfully dissected Wilkinson’s claims, causing the Newman Society representing Catholic students to call for the dismissal of the paper’s editor, Ms. Wilson, claiming the issue contained “blasphemy and obscenity.”
An article about Catholic Action, the name for groups of Catholics who advocate increasing Catholicism’s societal influence, from the second edition of 1945 concludes with a retort, “…where, as here, sin is equated to inability to assent to unjustifiable propositions, I for one am content to be a sinner and one of the generation of vipers.”
A 2021 feature on student journalism notes the vandalism of the Honi Soit archives by campus Liberals during Tony Abbott’s 1979 SRC presidency, said to include the paper’s coverage of the first Sydney Mardi Gras march. One writer of that article investigated for themselves at the State Library, finding editions with “torn out parts, missing pages, and blacked out names”. The comparability of this behaviour to the censorship of “Fagi Soit” is remarkable, with both cases entailing the desecration of newspaper copies so as to deny the public access and silence voices of dissent.
In 2013, Honi Soit was once again taken off stands, though not by thieves. Regardless, the “Vagina Soit” debacle following the printing of 18 vulvas on the front cover once again bears clear similarities to the thefts of “Fagi Soit” for the censorship of free expression, whether for women or queer people, encapsulated by their respective cover photos. The episode made international headlines and prompted a searing editorial by the women editors of Honi in the Guardian:
“We were told to cover them with ugly black bars before publishing. Why, even after complying with this, were the issues taken off the stands?”
Indeed, from its founding in 1929, Honi Soit has stood against what is regarded as “acceptable” and “civil”, on the basis of principle and standing for what’s right.
This will continue regardless of what comes in response.