Mayor of first council to recognise gay and lesbian relationships

Mayor of first council to recognise gay and lesbian relationships

JOHN FOWLER: 1954 – 2023

John Fowler, born into a family with historical roots in Sydney’s outer west, made his way into Sydney’s inner city and from there burst into uncharted territory, becoming the mayor of South Sydney, thereby breaking the ALP’s monopoly on the position, and also becoming the state’s first openly gay mayor.

In his challenge to the existing system of party politics, he started a move by independents that would flower in the teal movement in NSW politics decades later. Under his watch as mayor, South Sydney City Council became the first council in Australia to formally recognise gay and lesbian relationships. In doing so, the council pioneered a movement that resulted in a plebiscite 15 years later that recognised same-sex marriage.

South Sydney Mayor John Fowler after his return from the London Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 2002.

South Sydney Mayor John Fowler after his return from the London Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 2002.Credit: Fairfax

John William Fowler was born on July 16, 1954, son of a returned serviceman, Noel Bernard (Bernie) Fowler, who had taken over the running of the Wallacia post office and telephone exchange. This continued a family tradition started by John Fowler’s great-grandmother, Elisabeth, when she took over the Mulgoa post office in 1877. Elisabeth’s son, also John Fowler, took over the Wallacia post office in 1908, followed by his son, Bernie, in 1946. Bernie Fowler also became a councillor on Penrith City Council, a position he would hold for 23 years.

In 1954 Bernie and his family moved to new premises when the post office at Wallacia was relocated. Bernie’s children, John and older brother Ross, were brought up in a residence at the rear of the post office. John Fowler attended Wallacia Public School, followed by two years at Nepean High and four years as a boarder at Sydney’s Newington College.


Leaving school in 1971, Fowler did an arts degree at the Australian National University and got his teaching qualifications at La Trobe University, Victoria. He went to work as an additional language or English as a second language/dialect teacher at Punchbowl Boys High and at Intensive English Centres at Marrickville and Cleveland Street, Surry Hills.

In the early 1980s, he spent several years in London, working in administration at Australia House. Returning to Australia, he settled in East Sydney, and became interested in local politics. In 1989 he was elected as an independent councillor of the City of South Sydney. The council area then comprised the suburbs of Newtown, Darlington, Erskineville, Alexandria, Waterloo, Redfern, Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross, Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay, and parts of Surry Hill, a region of Sydney with, among other things, a high concentration of gay and lesbian people, all craving recognition and equal opportunity.

Mayor of South Sydney John Fowler at a press conference in 2001.

Mayor of South Sydney John Fowler at a press conference in 2001.Credit: Fairfax

Fowler was an independent in a council in which Labor had always had a monopoly of power. He initially found it hard to make an impact. A friend, Robert Tait, said: “For 10 years he was marginalised by the ruling Labor faction at South Sydney, although he managed to mostly ride above it and establish civilised, even friendly, relationships with his fellow councillors.”

Fowler’s niece, Alison Fowler, said: “John was very much opposed to party local government because he did not believe that was in the interests of grassroots people. South Sydney was a Labor stronghold that favoured business interest as opposed to the interests of the residents.”

There were liberalising trends which appealed to Fowler’s sensitivities. As a gay man, Fowler sympathised with those who suffered what he regarded as harassment. There was sympathy for them in council, though Fowler recognised political motivation in some of the council’s policies. In 1994, South Sydney City Council advanced plans to turn Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, into an official “pink precinct”. It called for consultants to look at the needs of the predominantly gay and lesbian community living, working and socialising around Oxford Street.

Fowler said that in the past, the council had consistently failed to protect the retail and safety requirements of residents, and he was now sceptical about the new proposals, suspecting the move to be just another ploy by the ruling Labor faction to get votes for the following year’s local government elections.

There were also other moves afoot. In 1994, South Sydney City Council moved to have brothels legalised in NSW. This was endorsed by most councils throughout the state. Fowler said: “The recognition of prostitution as an industry can only allow councils to plan better for their communities, and most increase the safety for workers in their industry, bringing it into line with other health and occupational safety legislation.”

South Sydney’s first non-Labour mayor, John Fowler, was elected in 2000.

South Sydney’s first non-Labour mayor, John Fowler, was elected in 2000.Credit: Fairfax

If he was pleased about that, Fowler was disturbed by state government’s decision in August 1994 to order a review of the redrawing of ward boundaries. Fowler and some other South Sydney councillors complained that the drawing would consolidate Labor’s majority. Fowler said that the boundaries were being redrawn without public consultation.

In 2000, Fowler got a group of independents and some Liberal councillors who backed him when he stood for mayor. He was successful and became South Sydney’s first non-Labor mayor. He was the first openly gay mayor in Sydney. He was re-elected mayor in 2001. He expanded his contacts, on one occasion travelling to Portugal for a local government conference. But then state government began the process which he saw as cutting the ground from under him.

It began with the merging of South Sydney with the City of Sydney, a process which continued despite vigorous opposition from South Sydney Council that found its way into the courts. Fowler said, “It’s a poor decision because it does mean that a state government, through a boundaries commission, could single-handedly alter the boundaries beyond the will or wish of the local community.”

John Fowler after his return from the London Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 2002.

John Fowler after his return from the London Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 2002.Credit: Adam Hollingworth

Fowler did make progress in his campaign for the gay and lesbian community. On August 13, 2003, South Sydney City formally recognised gay and lesbian relationships. During a heated meeting, councillors voted in favour of creating a partnership register, allowing couples unable to marry under Australian law to formally register their relationship. A similar register had been implemented by the Greater London Authority in Britain, but this was a pioneering development in Australia.

During Fowler’s mayorship, the Sydney Park AIDS Memorial Groves was unveiled. Fowler did not see homosexuality as a problem. He believed people should be treated equally, have equal rights and the right to choose their own lifestyles. Alison said: “The registration of same-sex relationships came 15 years before the plebiscite that recognised gay marriage. In terms of attitudes, that was something he drove through council.”


In 2004, South Sydney Council merged with Sydney City Council. Leaving local government, Fowler obtained a master’s degree in Town Planning and set himself up as a town planning consultant. He moved to the home of his partner, John Membry, in Pittwater, where he kept himself healthy kayaking.

John Membry died suddenly in 2007. Fowler lived in the house for a time, then moved back into the inner city and settled in Paddington, pouring affection on his beagle, Wallace.

John Fowler died of cancer on September 29 this year. A funeral service was held at St Thomas’ Anglican Church in Mulgoa on October 9, and John was buried in the adjacent graveyard.

John is survived by his elder brother Ross, a former mayor of Penrith City Council in 1995-1996, 2013, 2014 and 2018-2020. John also leaves behind two nephews, John and Gordon, and a niece, Alison, as well as two grandnephews and two grandnieces.

Malcolm Brown

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