Some people just can’t let the past go, or have an inability to see when something has passed it’s use-by date! I have too many friends who keep reiterating that they wish the Sydney gay ghetto was still intact and functioning.
Let’s have a look at the (unspoken) history behind the formation, growth and death of the gay ghetto in Sydney. Historically, Kings Cross and Darlinghurst have always been protective enclaves for the dispossessed, eccentric, minority groups and the unclassifiable citizens of Sydney. Perhaps, initially, because of its foundations in working class and poverty-stricken populations, and later on the underworld, gangsters and prostitution – including transgender – it has always had its roots in notoriety!
In the 70s and early 80s in Sydney, the gay citizens were looking for a space to band together, to avoid the illegalities of being homosexual, and the social stigmatisation that happened at that time as we became more brazen and outspoken about our sexuality. I remember visiting there with a female friend in the 70s – before my own coming out – and the roots of the community were there already with nightclubs and cafes, though homophobic attacks and vitriol were prevalent as well. It was a wall-less ghetto in the making.
By the time the 80s rolled around, it was firmly established as a gay ghetto, ambling along Oxford St and its immediate environs, from Elizabeth St through to Paddington. The legalising of gay rights in 1982 brought around a boom in the area. The ghetto formed very much as a means for us to squeeze out the undesirables by a sheer force of numbers…and it worked. Any straight troublemaker coming onto our turf would have immediately felt threatened, and though violent attacks did occur, they were rare.
At its height, you could live within the ghetto and never move outside it. We had our nightclubs, pubs, cafes, restaurants, newspapers, magazines, bookstores, supermarkets, small businesses, doctors, dentists, optometrists, saunas, post office, houses, apartment buildings. A night out would involve a meal in a local cafe or restaurant, a visit to your pub of choice – about 9 in its heyday – then off to your nightclub of choice. In the early hours of the morning you could either stagger home via your favourite takeaway, or do a trip to your favourite sauna or backroom without ever being harassed. The ghetto was a security blanket.
During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, it was a true blessing. Once again, you could live as a HIV person within the ghetto and be safe and protected. Within the boundaries of the ghetto were established our hospital and hospice care, our HIV/AIDS specialists and GP practices, our support groups such as ACON (AIDS Council of NSW), BGF (Bobby Goldsmith Foundation), CSN (Community support Network), ANKALI (emotional support), and the Positive Living Centres, as well as our advocacy groups such as PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS), NAPWA (National Association of People with AIDS), our funeral directors, our church. We did our own fund-raising, and we supported each other through our pain and sorrow. Once again, it was a safety zone where the emaciated frames of those luving with AIDS could wonder without fear of derogatory remarks, hatred and harassment. In that zone we mourned, held our wakes, and looked for material and emotional support. Those religious groups such as the Festival of Light, who preached and promoted hatred towards us learnt the hard way about the strength and communication within the ghetto.
Fred Nile’s Cleansing March in the80s was a good example. Thinking his band of supporters would march unchallenged up Oxford St, he and they were in for a rude shock! From early in the morning on the day of the march, protestors, the gay community and its supporters started lining the length of the march. By the time the Rev Fred – with his cross-on-wheels – started marching up there, the footpaths, awnings and buildings along the route were packed to capacity with his detractors! The march, from his prospective, was an overwhelming humiliation, and failure! I remember seeing a car full of Tiwi Islanders who had evidently not been warned about how unpopular their beloved reverend was. They looked terrified for their very lives, overwhelmed as they were by the booing and vitriol of the massed ghettoites. I actually felt sorry for them!
However, in the midst of all this, other changes were taking place that were to instigate the downfall of the gay ghetto. Anti-discrimination laws came into play and all-male/female venues became – temporarily – illegal. Nightclubs like the Midnight Shift had to start letting women in, and once they started bringing their boyfriends and other straight male friends, the ambience of the clubs changed forever! And not in a good way! Many ghettoites who had been in the centre of the HIV/AIDS bonfire scattered to other states or to the far north of NSW. Indeed, by the time highly effective HIV antiretroviral regimes started in 1996, it was very much a decimated community, though the epidemic itself had moved on to the straight community, to drug-users and those that had the double-whammy of HIV and hepatitis. The myth of the “gay plague” was laid to rest for good!
But perhaps the greatest enemies of the ghetto was generational changes, social acceptance, and a movement away from the boundaries of the ghetto, a realisation the we no longer needed the safety and protection of the ghetto to live our lives. We dispersed to Newtown, Enmore, Erskinville, Camperdown, Leichhardt, Annandale, Alexandria, Pyrmont, Zetland, Moore Park, Surry Hills, Redfern and Summer Hill. We transformed areas into “Trendy” and moved away, in our hordes, from Oxford St. Yet, some pieces of our lives remained there – a few pubs and nightclubs, a few medical practices, but all-in-all, we moved on.
Darlinghurst and much of Paddington are now mere shadows of their former selves. A stroll down Oxford St now will reveal dozens of empty businesses, and those that do remain struggle for customers during the day. The nightclubs and pubs are now the enclaves of straight people, and a general feeling of desolation, violence, uncomfortable vibes, and unrest permeates the air. It is now, once again, a place where unsolicited violence can occur irrespective of your sexuality.
So the ghetto has outlived its usefulness, and is, to all intended purposes, dead! I can understand nostalgia, even fleeting yearnings. What I don’t get is an inability to accept the ravages of time, the changing dynamics of an area, the growth and development of populations, indeed diaspora! To those who wear blinkers, want the past to live on, the “good old days” to be a mantra for days gone by, I say…let it go! Enjoy the memories, but don’t wish for them to return. To deny yourself the insights of living in the “now” is to root yourself in a past that can never be repeated. Allow the ghetto to be swallowed by history, to takes its place in our memories as somewhere that we lived and enjoyed IN ITS TIME…and leave it there! Never let your yearning for the past, cause you to overlook the reality of now.