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Although 'lesbian', as an identity, is historically recent, there were women who had passionate or sexual relationships with women in 19th- and early 20th-century Melbourne, often living discreetly and leaving few accounts of their lives. Some lived, worked and dressed as men and married other women, while others had passionate friendships or lived with their female companions beyond reproach. By 1920 such relationships had become more suspect with Truth newspaper declaring 'Lesbian Love, Wife Loves Another Woman'. More visible lesbian sub-cultures based around friendship networks emerged during the 1930s and 1940s. Some women distinguished themselves by adopting mannish dress, engaging tailors to make suits and jackets. They also socialised in predominantly male camp sub-cultures, frequenting coffee shops such as Tai Ping (Punt Road, St Kilda), Raffles Restaurant (Collins Street), the Arts Ball and the Tivoli Theatre with its cross-gender impersonators. Val's Coffee Lounge (Swanston Street) which opened in 1951, became a regular haunt of bohemians, artists and the camp scene.

Some lesbians in the 1940s and 1950s had affairs or relationships while in respectable suburban marriages. Many individuals and couples were isolated, knowing no-one like themselves, but working-class lesbian sub-cultures had expanded. Six o'clock closing meant social life revolved around private parties not public venues. Yet Maisey's (Her Majesty's Hotel, Toorak Road, South Yarra) was a favourite haunt of Jan Hillier's notorious 'butch-femme' crowd in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Imperial Hotel (Chapel Street, South Yarra) and the Snake Bar, Chevron (corner of St Kilda and Commercial roads) were popular lesbian bars in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1964 Hillier started running 'Jan's Dances' (Darling Street, South Yarra) and attracted hundreds of camp women and men. As these sub-cultures became more visible, lesbians, like gay men, faced police harassment that helped to consolidate lesbian identity.

In 1970 the Daughters of Bilitis, Australia's first homosexuals' political organisation, was established in Melbourne, later renaming itself the Australasian Lesbian Movement. Lesbians were central in the emerging Women's and Gay Liberation Movements, challenged heterosexual women's homophobia and homosexual men's sexism. Calling themselves the Gay Women's Group, members began meeting weekly to socialise, support each other and plan political action. In 1973 they became Melbourne Radicalesbians and organised the first national lesbian conference. Insisting that lesbianism was a political practice as much as a sexual preference they brought lesbianism from the margins to the centre of the women's movement. Other lesbian feminist groups, including the Lesbian Separatist Group (1976) and Lesbian Action Group (1978), condemned working-class butch-femme sub-cultures for their adoption of gendered roles, asserting the desirability of 'androgeny'.

The 1970s saw the continued expansion of commercial gay/lesbian venues, such as Menzies Tavern (Little Collins Street) and Prince of Wales Hotel (Fitzroy Street, St Kilda) which became home to Pokey's and Penny's. Within women's liberation and lesbian feminist circles, other social activities like women's dances emerged. The Women's Cultural Palace (Moor Street, Fitzroy) rocked with the funky sounds of La Donna Women's Disco. The 1980s and 1990s saw continued separate lesbian and lesbian/gay coalition political activity in Melbourne, alongside the emergence of queer activism that challenged lesbian/gay 'identity politics' and urged the inclusion of bisexual and transgender people. During the 1980s and 1990s numerous lesbian venues opened and closed but a more theatrical/ performance lesbian social scene emerged with Miss Wicked Competitions and Drag King Shows becoming highlights of Melbourne's lesbian sub-culture.

Ruth Ford