Rainbow History – An interview with Dr Nikki Sullivan and Craig Middleton

Public programs and events


South Australia

During the 2018 History Festival, the spotlight is being shone on the past, present and future of LGBTIQ stories in South Australia. Migration Museum Curator Dr Nikki Sullivan and Craig Middleton, Curator at the Centre of Democracy, sat down to have a chat to the History Festival team about the rich program of events they are presenting. 

Dr Nikki Sullivan – Curator, Migration Museum

What was the inspiration behind the “Queer Styles” series of events you have curated?

‘Style’ is central to who we are, how we identify, and how we are identified by others. Style refers not only to what we wear, or how we present ourselves to the world, but also to how we live – ie ‘lifestyle’. Most of us adopt elements of style that are like badges of belonging. Sometimes these are explicit – for example, biker club patches, or military insignia – and in other cases they are less so – ‘sporty types’ wear ‘active wear’. Because historically, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) people have been persecuted, they have often communicated their sexuality through their clothing, style and behavioural signifiers that function like a secret language that only those ‘in the know’ understand. Hanky codes which were used widely by gay men in the 1970s are an interesting example of this: a particular coloured handkerchief worn on a specific side of the body indicates what kind of sex the wearer is interested in.

Why does South Australia need these stories to be told and celebrated?

Queer styles have interesting and important histories that can tell us a lot about the socio-political contexts in which they emerged. For example, in some contexts the wearing of certain garments was a legal concern: sumptuary laws in France outlawed the wearing of pants by women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, wearing clothes that may appear to others to be at odds with one’s assumed gender can lead to harassment and even violent attack. Clothing has played an important role in political activism and in the celebration of queer lives – the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is somewhere we see both these uses of style. For the most part, histories of queer style are not widely known or readily available: you won’t find them on high school curriculum, or in standard histories of Australia (or elsewhere). If, as David McCullough claims, ‘history is who we are, and why we are the way we are’, then queer histories are rich and valuable sources that need to be told.

Which History Festival events are you most excited about?

There are so many things I’m looking forward to, in particular the History Trust of South Australia and Migration Museum events that I’m involved in. I am also hoping to get time to go along to a few others: Cinemallunga Presents Willunga Talkies of 1936 has caught my eye, as has Adelaide Tours: Somerton Man Mystery.

Craig Middleton – Curator, Centre of Democracy

What was the inspiration behind the 'I am an Activist’ series at the Centre of Democracy?

The Centre of Democracy shares the story of social and political activism in South Australia, we do this in many ways – through object displays, digital interactives, and featured individual stories in the gallery – but there is nothing more exciting than hearing from the people who have lived experiences. I am an Activist will bring to the gallery floor the voices, memories, and personal experiences of activists who rallied, demonstrated, and stood up for what they believed in, and many whom continue to do so today. Often activism is hard to display in a museum setting as much of the material created for rallies and demonstrations is not kept – although we do have a fabulous badge display at the Centre.

Why does South Australia need these stories to be told and celebrated?

A goal of the Centre of Democracy is to highlight diverse voices - voices often unheard - and voices of disenfranchised people. It is through the personal stories of activists and activism that others can be inspired to have their voices heard. Democracy after all is about people and people coming together to make change. The more voices we share through the Centre of Democracy the better!

Which History Festival events are you most excited about?

Currently living in the Adelaide Hills I am excited out get out and about in my own community and explore. In particular the group art exhibition Make History at the Hahndorf Academy and the Mount Barker Railway Station Open Day. I am equally excited about the lecture series Queer Style(s): Then and Now – another way to broaden our perspectives on South Australia’s very diverse history!

Explore the History Festival program to discover a diverse range of events presented throughout the month of May. 

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