In the 1960s, I was studying medicine at Sydney University. The idea of making people healthy and happy always appealed to me, but I wasn’t all that keen on university. I was very shy. The other issue was I was gay. At that time, it was something no one spoke about, and police were busy arresting gay people by the hundreds. I remember one man—a radio announcer—being taken to jail, because he’d been seen kissing another man in a car. It was headline news, and there was much clicking of tongues and horror. It was absurd and repressive.
I got quite sick and developed a potentially fatal abdominal problem that occurs through internalising stress. Plenty of people said, “Well you must be very stressed to have this disease. There must be something causing you bother.’ Of course, the answer was “no”, because there was no way of talking about it without taking an enormous risk.
I bought a ticket to London in 1970 and it was a godsend. It was about going to an environment where I knew no one, had no social contacts, and was able to think for myself. I did locum jobs at five or six different little hospitals while I was there. One of them was St Mary Abbott’s Hospital, and I was working there when Jimi Hendrix was brought in dead. Straight away, I knew who he was, but there was nothing I could do for him. There were a lot of people weeping and much commotion. Poor Jimi.
Meanwhile, I was still tangling with my own demons and saw a psychologist, a young London bloke, who just said to me one day, “Why don’t you be who you are? Why don’t you just accept it?” He was very direct about it. The whole sense of what he was saying—despite the fear of what this would mean when I inevitably came back to Australia—played through my mind. It was a circuit breaker.
In London, I met other people who were also gay: folks from Britain, of course, but also Canada, Spain and elsewhere, who were effectively escaping the same situation I was in, but also finding each other. They were great people, wonderful folk. London was in its heyday as the centre of music, the arts and creativity, and I got enough into it to feel a liberation coming over.
I worked my way back to Australia on a passenger ship and saw an advertisement for three months in Launceston. I thought I’d go there because I wanted to look for the Tasmanian Tiger and have a look at Lake Pedder, which was then becoming national news. From the day I arrived, I drove over the central plateau and I was in love with the place. The first weekend I was there, I sent my parents home a card saying, “I’m home.” I’ve been in Tasmania ever since.
Suddenly, I found people thinking the way I did. The world’s first Greens Party had formed a month before I got there. I ran into the Lake Pedder people, and although I was still very shy, I got involved. In 1976, I floated down the Franklin River and ended up spending seven years on that campaign. The Wilderness Society was set up in my kitchen, and I had a protest on Mount Wellington against the nuclear warship coming into Hobart, fasting up there for 10 days.
I made public the fact I was homosexual and also told my family. My family was great about it, friends were good about it, but the hate mail and the shock of other people made it quite apparent why people still, to this day, still internalise and not talk about it.
The Bob Brown in his 20s is very similar to who I am today, except I’m now older and wiser. I’ve learned it’s okay to be confident. My advice to young people is, “Think well of yourself.” And if you’re a young person who wants to engage in environmentalism or politics—whether you’re Green, Labor, Liberal or National—go for it. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it, and don’t think somebody else will be better at it than you will be.