Pauline Pantsdown skewered everyone’s less-than-favourite redhead in the nineties and captured Australia’s imagination. Matthew Wade spoke to her alter ego about the fight for equality now.
Simon Hunt—the alter ego of famous drag satirist Pauline Pantsdown—was having sex with another man when homosexuality was decriminalised in New South Wales.
Before they had finished their tryst, the pair faced prison time for engaging in consensual, gay sex, yet afterwards they faced nothing.
Hunt says the political activism of the time by the likes of ACT UP inspired him to pursue his own, appropriating existing media and advertising as a means to make a political point.
“It was that queer sense of humour as a form of political action that I liked,” he says.
“At one stage I was involved in the lesbian sadism and masochism scene, so I would cut up sounds for the lesbians I was living with and make performance pieces for them.”
When founder of the One Nation Party Pauline Hanson entered the political sphere in the nineties, Hunt had just finished work on a project that dealt with the queer rights movement in Nazi Germany.
He saw parallels between both Hanson and the regime in that she made distinctions between who she perceived as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the country; that is, who she saw as Australian and ‘un-Australian’.
It was this correlation, partnered with an inbuilt sense of social justice, that motivated Hunt to don a red wig, wrap the Australian flag around his shoulders, and introduce Pauline Pantsdown to the world. And she was a hit.
Through parody songs performed by Pantsdown like “Backdoor Man” and “I Don’t Like It”, Hunt was able to deftly skewer Hanson’s myopic views on race while providing queer dance music that enabled many to laugh at the controversial things she said.
“When [Hanson] appeared we hadn’t seen or heard rhetoric like that in public for some time, and she brought that back to the surface,” he says.
“A lot of white people found the ridiculousness of it quite funny, or perhaps felt embarrassed to be Australian, but for my Asian and Aboriginal friends, it wasn’t as funny.
“Younger people from around Australia would write to me from their country towns and tell me that I was an important symbol to them, even though I saw myself as more of a clown-type character.
“One six-year-old wrote to me and said, ‘Hey Pauline P, I reckon you’re cool and I reckon Pauline [Hanson’s] got a fat head’. It was then that I realised how mainstream the songs were.”
After Pantsdown’s brush with fame in the nineties, Hunt backed away from the spotlight for more than ten years, before returning in the digital age to speak out for LGBTI rights online.
Over the past year, he was one of the Yes campaign’s most vocal proponents, calling out homophobia and transphobia where they arose throughout the postal survey process. He also ran a Twitter account satirising the Coalition for Marriage.
He believes that the advent of social media has brought with it a diverse sense of belonging for people from all walks of life.
“There are more voices out there now, and not as large a ceiling to break through,” he says.
“It’s easier for younger people to hear about other people’s lives and experiences, and you can be exposed to more diversity, music, and politics.”
Hunt says one thing that hasn’t changed is the ways in which humour and satire can help people take a sideways look at an issue and see it more clearly.
“During the postal survey last year I was getting angry and upset, but if you give someone a release it can make a world of difference,” he says.
“At a Yes rally I played some really sombre piano music and said ‘school told my son he could be an ocean animal’ to make fun of the No campaign’s ads.
“If you are angry, having the ability to laugh or turn something into comedy can really empower you.”
When it comes to the issues Hunt believes should be tackled now that marriage equality is done and dusted, his response is fast and simple: education and trans people.
He says we only have to look as far as the U.S. to see that those are the battlegrounds anti-LGBTI people have established since achieving marriage equality in America.
“We need to overturn this false narrative that’s been written about the Safe Schools program over the past couple of years,” he says.
“Young gay kids are still going to get shit at school, so we need people to understand the extraordinary concept of empathy.
“The people running these anti-Safe School campaigns are the grown up bullies.”
While he wasn’t born out of the drag scene, Hunt reiterates the vital role drag has played in helping to bring laughter and parody to some of the most pressing issues affecting LGBTI people.
“Drag people in the gay scene have always done extremely well, they can act as a clown and bring people together to laugh – they look after the community as well, and we should never forget that.”