Tag Archives: Cleansing march

Gay History: Rev. Fred Niles ‘Cleansing March”, October 2, 1989. A Spectacular FAIL!

On this day in 1989, I was running the “Expectations” store, opposite the Oxford Hotel, in Oxford Street. It was almost like the entire gay community, and its supporters, had been waiting for this day. There was a palpable feeling of excitement – almost Mardi Gras-like – mixed with a strong undercurrent of rebellion on the strip. Watching from the 2nd floor window of my store, you could see people starting to line the footpaths early. By the time Nile’s parade participants started their march down the other end of Oxford Street, the paths were packed, and you could follow the progress of the parade from the roar of the crowd! Only for this parade, the roar was not of encouragement, or light-hearted joy, but of hate and vitriol! The communities hatred of Nile, and his constant gay-bashing was being fully voiced. As it passed by our section of the street, I notices a car load of Islanders, roped in by Nile to add bodies to his parade numbers. I don’t know what he had told them, or what they expected,but the looked cowered and terrified! As much as I didn’t feel sorry for Nile, or his cross-on-wheels, I did feel sorry for them. It would have been a very frightening situation from their perspective. Nile got everything he deserved – and then some. As far as the gay community was concerned, the parade was a great success – but not for Nile, or his supporters. He would have gone home with his tail tucked very firmly between his legs.

1989. Politics: Evangelist attempts ‘Cleansing March’ on Sydney’s queer heartland

Queer protestors prepare to give Fred Nile and his followers a rousing reception on Oxford Street. Photograph: Terrence Bell, courtesy of Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Australia’s ‘Reverend’ Fred Nile has built a career out of homophobic opportunism. He is the man to whom the media could turn whenever they needed a ‘controversial’ sound-byte on topics such as decriminalisation, HIV/AIDS and anti-discrimination.

For several years he topped up his profile with his annual stunt of a prayer meeting by the route of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. As tens of thousands gathered to celebrate Mardi Gras, Nile and his small band of followers portrayed themselves as brave martyrs standing against a sea of depravity. And on those rare occasions when it rained on the night of the Parade, Nile would claim it was all the result of his prayers – conveniently ignoring the fact that Mardi Gras was held in the middle of Sydney’s rainy season.

By 1989, however, even Nile must have begun to realise that his prayer meeting was being ignored – by God and, more importantly, the media. And so it came to pass that he announced that he would lead a “Cleansing March of Witness for Jesus” up Oxford Street – Sydney’s gay ‘golden mile’ – on October 2nd. The march would end with a “Pro-decency ‘Solemn Assembly of Repentance and Intercession’”.

Never one for under-statement, Nile claimed there would be 100,000 Christians on the march. It’s most unlikely that even he believed he would attract that level of support, but it always makes good Press to come up with such numbers. But whilst he was clearly pre-occupied with boosting the numbers of his likely supporters, he obviously failed to consider the size of the opposition.

This was the first demonstration that I had attended since my arrival in Sydney the previous year and is was quite an eye-opener. It was obvious from the outset that Sydney’s queer community was extremely well-organised and that, in itself, signalled that Nile had bitten off far more than he could chew.

The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Sydney Gay Solidarity Group and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras were three of the key organisations involved in the counter-demonstration. As we assembled in Green Park, just off Oxford Street, we were all given a cardboard mask with a caricature of Nile’s face on it. The plan, we were told, was to greet Nile and his followers, with thousands of Niles staring right back at them!

But there was more to the masks than mere caricature. They came in a number of different colours and the reason for this soon became obvious. Protestors were despatched to different areas of Oxford Street based on the colour of their masks. This ensured that there was an even spread of people along the route of the Cleansing March.

A couple of protestors in Fred Nile masks. Photograph courtesy of Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. http://www.alga.org.au

It wasn’t long before we were all in position to greet Nile and his followers. Apparently they were all in high spirits for the first section of the march. Led by a young bearded man carrying a cross (with wheels, unlike the original) they seemed happy and confident – until they turned the corner into Oxford Street. The 1500 or so ‘Christians’ that Nile had managed to muster came face-to-face with 5,000+  vocal, angry queers. More accurately, they came-face-to-face with thousands of Fred Nile faces.

To most people, the fact that they were out-numbered four-to-one by members of the local community would be a clear sign that they weren’t welcome and that they should go back to their own neighbourhoods. But evangelical Christians like nothing more than playing the martyr and so they persisted on their inflammatory course, carrying placards with ‘Christian’ messages like “What’s so gay about AIDS?”

Counter-demonstrators responded with messages like “Repent, Relent, Re-decorate!” and chants of “Two, four, six eight. Are you sure your priest is straight?” The Christians processed dismally up Oxford Street, the queers turned their protest into a party.

At the site of the planned ‘Repentance and Intercession’, Fred Nile was drowned out by boos and chants from the protestors. Then Jamie Dunbar, a photographer from the local gay newspaper, leapt to the microphone and chanted “Go to Hell Fred. Gay love is best!”. He chanted repeatedly until he was removed by Christian heavies.

It was clear to everyone that Nile’s stunt had seriously backfired. Even the media opined that his march had been a deliberate and unnecessary provocation. Yet Nile continued to dig a hole for himself. When interviewed on one news programme he complained that counter-demonstrators had used portable toilets that had been installed for his supporters. In consequence his supporters had been unable to use them because of the risk of AIDS. His interviewer could barely believe her ears and left her audience in no doubt as to what an ignorant and bigoted remark this was. Nile never went near Oxford Street again.

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Daily (Or When The Mood Takes Me) Gripe : Let The Sydney Gay Ghetto Go!

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.

Tim Alderman
(C) 2015

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