Zoë Coombs Marr: ‘Making a queer history of Australia? What a terrifying, impossible task’

Tuesday 2 December 1727: the day queer people in Australia were first recorded by Europeans. A Dutch ship captain wrote in his journals of two boys who were found “committing the sorrowful and godforsaken act which, god forbid, shall afflict plagues over our peoples and island”. The boys refused to confess; as punishment they were left to die, marooned on separate islands.

Almost 300 years later, comedians Zoë Coombs Marr and Hannah Gadsby are chatting on national television. It’s a scene in Coombs Marr’s new ABC show Queerstralia: a sprawling and irreverently meta queer history of Australia that shows just how we went from two boys being left to die to watching two of our country’s most beloved lesbians pretending to play pool on the telly.

“Well, I’m glad you’re making it and I’m not,” Gadsby says in the documentary, about the documentary.

Does Coombs Marr now feel that Gadsby was right? “God yes!” she half-shouts at me. She’s spent weeks on the edits and looks frazzled. “Making a queer history of Australia? What a terrifying, absolutely misguided, fool’s errand of an impossible task. It’s ridiculous. She’s right. It has been incredible but also – we were never going to get it right.”

Over three hour-long episodes themed around belonging, identity and law, Coombs Marr covers everything from lesbian convict gangs to the gay bushranger Captain Moonlight; the 78ers and gaybashing at Mardi Gras to the persecution of trans sex workers; the representation of queer people in media and the Aids crisis. The writer and actor Nayuka Gorrie steps in to cover First Nations experiences, with the pair interviewing the likes of Aunty Dawn Daylight, trans academic Dr Yves Rees and several 78ers, including the legendary activist Peter de Waal.

It is “very organised chaos”, Coombs Marr says. “It’s a real tight coil. Especially with this sort of thing – you don’t want to seem like you’re not taking it seriously.”

When Coombs Marr sat down with many of the interviewees, the first question they asked her was: why comedy? Why make a documentary that is as much about making people laugh as it is about pain and persecution?

“The answer for me, and a lot of queer people, is that we process the world through humour because we have experienced some degree of trauma. Humour and trauma are two sides of the same coin,” Coombs Marr says.

Why were all these old white men in powdered wigs in England so concerned with who was putting what in whose bottom?

“People were worried that we’d be making fun of people, but we’re making fun of the absurdity of the situation. Like, why were all these old white men in powdered wigs in England so concerned with who was putting what in whose bottom? That is inherently strange. But the people who had their lives destroyed by those laws, that’s not funny. I’m not a monster.”

It is also in part about Coombs Marr, who was, by her own description, “a very gay child”. She even interviews her own parents “about how gay I am”. (“You are very gay,” her dad replies sweetly.)

“It is as much about my attempt to navigate the history, as the history,” she says. “We do try to tell as many stories as we can, but we are also just as interested in the connections between the stories.” The show often cuts back to Coombs Marr frantically sticking pins into a board, making links with red string between court cases and newspaper clippings that are sometimes decades apart; as she says, the documentary is “as much about the string”.

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It is a sprawling and, frankly, magnificent puzzle. It seems Coombs Marr could have easily ended up in Ken Burns territory, with a 14-hour documentary. “Oh, I thought you meant zooming in on stuff,” she replies. “It’s not a comprehensive history. It just can’t be.”

A strange consequence of Britain’s eagle-eyed monitoring of convicts is that Australia now has a uniquely detailed record of queerness; with so many men and so few women, Australia was eventually dubbed “the sodom of the South Pacific”. But the nation did not welcome such a label: it laid a foundation for relentless persecution from the state, police and media, with LGBTQ+ people framed as threats to families, losing their jobs and even murdered for who they are, all of which continues to this day.

Queer history is often preserved through police and court records, which impacts the extent of what we know and how queerness is understood. Being linked so deeply to criminality leaves many LGBTQ+ people to grow up with an ineffable knowledge that they are somehow different, but with no awareness of the long, brave and joyous history that they fit into. It can be a lonely way to live.

One of Coombs Marr’s main motivations to make Queerstralia was to make that history utterly clear. “In all of the interviews that we’ve done – and I’ve lost count now – that sense of isolation, loneliness and being different has come up again and again and again,” she says. “I think we have a tendency to think young queer people today have it better. Now I think it’s very different, but I think even before you are really aware of much of the world, you know there is something about you before you even have words for it. And that still happens today.”

The title of the show is in itself contentious as some people hate the word “queer”, especially those who have had it spat at them as a slur. But Coombs Marr regards it as “the best word that I could find to sum up the experience and community we’re talking about”.

“I would say there is a misconception about ‘queer’,” she says. “Most people think that it was a slur first, then reclaimed. It was actually a self-definition first, much earlier than people think. We cover this in the documentary – but we were able to clarify that people once used ‘queer’ in the same way that people use the word ‘camp’ today.”

Related: Zoë Coombs Marr resurrects Dave – to take on ‘cancel culture’ and Dave Chappelle

One gets the sense that Coombs Marr is now able to blitz any pub quiz or dinner party bore with facts for the rest of her life. “I’m going to be absolutely insufferable! I will be the worst. People will be like, ‘Don’t invite Zoë, she’ll just talk about the history of aversion therapy!’”

She has not only been left with hundreds of facts, but an unexpected emotional awareness too. “I’m very uncomfortable with earnestness and feelings, but this has been a really emotional experience,” she says. “I feel really lucky. I just hope that I’m doing them justice and not getting in the way.”

And she hopes straight people see it: “I mean, whatever straight people do in the privacy of their own home, I don’t mind – so long as it is watching my show!”

  • Queerstralia premieres on ABC TV and iview tonight at 8.30pm and will continue on Tuesdays