This week an article in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed that ‘Oxford Street is straight’, that ‘straight’ venues now outnumber the gay ones, and that The Gaff is hosting the ‘straightest’ ritual of them all – a wet t-shirt competition. Few would dispute that the strip, and gay Sydney for that matter, has changed radically in recent years. So as a scene and a community, where are we at? Is the party almost over?
It’s the morning after Sydney Leather Pride’s annual fundraiser Inquisition and many have continued on to the official after party at Phoenix Rising. It was the first year that Inquisition had ventured away from the glamorous, gentrified Entertainment Quarter – a brave move in a new direction that many supported. But while the party tickets sold out, the comments floating around the dancefloor tell a different story.
“The cops came with dogs and stayed for hours, people were getting arrested.” “The venue refused to turn the lights down.” “For a leather party it was sexless.” “I didn’t like the music.” “There were too many straight people.”
A leather clad woman furiously sips on her drink.
“I am tired of going out and having men put their hands up my skirt,” she tells me, introducing herself as Jen. “I know I have long hair, but hello – I’m a lesbian! I’m not interested! I’m tired of putting up with this every time I go out. Is this just a place for the straights to come and experiment? This used to be ours!”
True, it used to be. But so much has changed in such a short amount of time. The internet came and took a chunk of the scene away, and through their sponsorship of Mardi Gras online sex sites like Gaydar were handed to gay Sydney on a silver platter. The scene, particularly Mardi Gras, became increasingly commercial, which meant money came first and politics second. The scene, awash with straight girls, in turn attracted all the straight boys, and as homophobic violence and aggression on Oxford Street rose, along with police numbers, the strip became an increasingly unpleasant place to be.
“I don’t think Oxford Street caters well to anyone,” says Damien Eames, head of Marketing at New Mardi Gras. “I rarely go there anymore… Sydney’s mix of planning controls and liquor licensing restrictions means there are very few high intensity night life districts. There are only so many venues that can be crammed into Kings Cross, Oxford Street and George Street. The market isn’t really that competitive and as a result venues can treat their customers as cattle.”
Eames grew up in Belfast and says that when he went back home last Christmas, he couldn’t believe how many cute little gay venues had popped up there. “This conservative provincial city of 300,000 compares favourably with Sydney, but there’s no comparison when you look at London, Paris, Berlin or Madrid. I don’t think my friends in London are quite so addicted to Gaydar and Manhunt as people are here. It’s not a great city for meeting new people.”
“It feels gay people are outnumbered on the strip,” says promoter and DJ Dan Murphy. “Often the bulk of the people who aren’t there to go gay clubbing are rough and intimidating. They definitely have an overwhelming presence on Oxford St.”
“I have travelled extensively and always visit the gay areas and clubs,” says Glenn Hansen, Promotions and Marketing Manager at Stonewall. “A lot of clubs in America and London have become mixed. The hardest thing is the law because when it comes to who we let in our clubs, we cannot discriminate. I think this is where the problems started to occur. Straight guys hated going to gay clubs – now they enjoy it.”
Kooky promoter and DJ Seymour Butz is much more optimistic. “We have safe streets, great weather, lovely beaches, hot men and good health care. There are gay ghettos with drunk gawking straights everywhere in the world!”
While he cites Phoenix, The Flinders and Kens On Kensington as his favourite places to go in the East, he believes that there’s been a geographic shift back to the inner-west.
“[The pubs in Erskineville] are way friendlier and cheaper than Stonewall and last weekend saw Inquisition, Kooky and Manacle have the most vibrant and eclectic gay events all happen in the inner west,” says Butz. “Walk down any street and we gays are ubiquitous in Sydney. Come weekends the beaches, parks, restaurants, bars and backrooms are always full. The fact that we have no ‘official’ gay bar in Newtown has more to do with a golden opportunity waiting than lack of clientele or community. The most dynamic ‘alterna’ gay events like BadDog, Kooky or Scooter all happen in the inner-west. The Red Rattler is an amazing venue with a queer focus. Here’s to more and more!”
“Sydney has the potential to be a world leader when it comes to gay culture,” says Murphy. “But without some effort our title of being a gay destination could easily be lost. As it is, Sydney is a great holiday destination whether you’re gay or not, but to make it a must-go gay holiday destination is going to take some work. There has been a lot of speculation as to why gay spaces have dwindled, with no conclusive answer. What we do know for sure is that there are a huge number of us living here, but just not so many going out anymore.”
So what’s the missing ingredient?
“It’s not so much that gay Sydney is missing something, it’s that it has too much,” says Daniel, 40. “There are too many events competing, too much media for its size, too many sex websites and far too many men hooked up to them. There’s so much that there is nothing at all. There’s no longer a sense of courage and active exploration in defining what, who, and most importantly why we are the way we are. I believe that’s what the gay movement should be about, not the pursuit of middle class comfort and jacking off on Gaydar.”
Eames thinks that something has to give, and that Sydney needs a new gay village. “That’s what happens elsewhere. The gays move on to somewhere new and make it cool. Unfortunately Sydney makes this hard, with far too much emphasis placed on residents and not enough on the positives of having multiple centres of nightlife activity. Newtown practically closes down at midnight. Glebe could be a fun place if you could open a late bar there, but these possibilities just aren’t there. We may need to be creative and inhabit some quite industrial areas if we want spaces where we can make some noise and not have to deal with drunken straight kids.”
But is gay Sydney ready to move away from our gentrified inner-city neighbourhoods? Stuart Fraser co-owns The Clarence Hotel in Petersham, which houses Manacle, Sydney’s only leather bar. They made the decision to move away from the strip back in 2007, and he said the resounding negative that they hear is that Petersham is too far away. However, it’s the same distance from the Sydney CBD as Melbourne’s leather bar The Laird is from their CBD.
“When [we moved] there were a number of factors to consider. The changing feel of Oxford St was a very small part of our decision, in spite of what many people believe. The larger part of the Oxford St equation was the abundance of venues but more so that from Sunday night through to Thursday night the majority of venues in the area were so quiet, as was the street. Real estate prices were also a consideration. One venue we considered was a leasehold hotel – the purchase price was over $2.5 million…”
Fraser said that if people want gay venues then they have to remember that those venues have massive overheads and enormous rents or mortgages. He puts it quite simply – “use it or lose it.”
Leanne Lincoln, spokesperson from the City of Sydney said that Clover Moore’s Small Bars Bill is just one part of an overall strategy to help encourage a vibrant, boutique bar scene in Sydney.
“With serious problems of alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour, particularly on George Street, Oxford Street and Darlinghurst Road in the inner city, the new laws also create vital new powers to stop rogue venue operators creating problems for others. The new liquor licensing regime helps to protect residential amenity, build a more civilised drinking culture and provide more opportunities for the young musicians, artists and entrepreneurs to find a niche in our city.”
Lincoln says that as of June 25 there were 6 small bars operating in the City and another 13 waiting in the wings. Pocket Bar is a hot new addition to Darlinghurst, and the Council said that they haven’t refused any DAs for small bars to date, however they do place conditions on them to minimise impact on residential amenity and protect patron safety.
But is it just about laws and location, or does it run deeper than that? When was the last time gay Sydney made a bold political statement, like marching up Oxford Street with Fred Nile’s head on a platter? Do we all just want to be entertained? Has Sydney itself become politically apathetic and conservative?
“Gay Sydney just rolled over sold out – it’s that simple,” says Daniel. “It’s all about ‘the sell’ with the emphasis on publicity spin that never, ever delivers. And despite all the exhausting efforts it’s all ‘form’ without a speck of essence, which of course is the hard edge of the bargain when you sell your soul. When New Mardi Gras announce proudly about how much money they’ve made for the state and how pleased the government is, I find that extremely devaluing. Our worth is purely about the money we generate.”
Daniel thinks that when Sleaze Ball failed in 2005, New Mardi Gras should have fallen. “It would have meant no more big showground parties or a flagship event on the Events NSW master calendar, but it was a real opportunity to have the mainstream spotlight and expectations taken off of us, and we could have really grown again. What happened instead? We sold out to Gaydar, which has eroded the scene, Mardi Gras became a brand and it’s been hollow ever since.”
“It’s all about the headliners and the DJs these days,” says Jen. “I don’t give a fuck about the headliners. All the money that it raises and barely any of it goes back to the community, it all just gets poured into making the next one bigger and better! I’d love to see it all taken back to the streets.”
Karin, 40, agrees. “You know what I’d love to see for Mardi Gras one year? A silent march along Oxford Street. No glitter, no floats, no music – just the community walking together. But it’ll never happen.”
“Yes, I think Sydney is becoming more conservative and we are very much becoming a police state. I hope this will change!” says Hansen. “But the more we fight for equality the more we have to accept these changes to our venues. To be totally equal and not discriminate comes at a price. I believe the gay scene will stay strong and hopefully gay shops and restaurants will move in to all the empty shops in Oxford Street.”
“For years the gay movement pushed for acceptance – at our workplaces, by our family and friends and in everyday life in general,” says Murphy. “For a lot of people this goal has been achieved enough for them to enjoy their lives. Perhaps the goal-posts need to be moved and new goals set? Is it fair that what was once a safe street we could call our own is now full of aggression and we often don’t feel welcome there? Is it fair that we don’t have equal rights under Australian law? Is it fair to say gay people aren’t going out to gay venues anymore because they don’t feel there’s anything that exciting drawing them there? Is it fair to say that as a community on the whole, we’re not really doing that much about it? That sounds pretty conservative and non-political to me.”
“Our cowardly Labor government has been a huge let down to us as a community and we have a police commissioner from Hillsong,” says Butz. “Still, we don’t get killed for being gay. One day we’ll be allowed to get married or drink a beer and get a head-job simultaneously.”