Mardi Gras casts a long shadow. The small-scale march that turned ugly back in 1978 -” going on to become an icon -“ dominates our recent history.

But, such is its influence, Mardi Gras risks overshadowing what came before: a long and diverse gay and lesbian tradition in this country.

So says Con Anemogiannis, whose film The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia explores gay life from around white settlement until today.

It’s -¦ meant to give gay and lesbian people a sense of identity and history, that we were here way before the Mardi Gras and the legal reforms, in really very unlikely places, Anemogiannis says.

And so, from gay convicts to lesbians in the armed forces and passing women -“ 19th century women who dressed and lived as men -“ the film is a fascinating and sometimes quirky exploration of queer history.

Using documentary footage and modern recreations, The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia considers social life as well as the treatment of gays and lesbians by the law, the Church and the medical profession -“ with sometimes surprising findings.

Despite the severe prescribed punishment for gay sex acts after settlement, for example, actual sentences were quite lenient.

Less forgiving were some doctors, who until the 1970s practised aversion therapy and even partial lobotomies in an attempt to cure homosexuality.

Those efforts failed of course, just as the fight for gay and lesbian rights was gathering steam.

Gay community members including John Marsden, Sue Wills and David Marr recall the atmosphere of struggle and achievement of that period.

Modern challenges such as the AIDS crisis and ongoing law reform round out the film, which Anemogiannis hopes prompts us to assess where we stand today.

The subtext of it is: really how far have we come?

The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia is screening at the Chauvel Cinema, corner Oxford St and Oatley Rd, Paddington.

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