JUST around the corner from Maccabean Hall, built in 1923 to commemorate Jewish men and women who served in the Great War, and where the Sydney Jewish Museum is housed at Darlinghurst, trades the Green Park Hotel.
Like Maccabean Hall, the Green Park Hotel has a link to Sydney’s Jewish history, along with the harbour city’s early bohemian community.
The Green Park Hotel, established in 1879, was bought by one of Sydney’s wealthiest Jewish families, Gus and Betsey Wangenheim in 1881.
The Wangenheim family would later replace the two story brick pub with the magnificent, heritage listed hotel, with its splendid long bar, currently sitting at the corner of Liverpool and Victoria Streets in Darlinghurst in 1893.
The history of the Green Park Hotel begins in the early days of white settlement, when a 28-year-old Gustave Wangenheim arrived in Sydney Town, from Germany, in 1853.
Gus, as he was known, was one of Sydney’s most colourful characters, a cartoonist, painter, comedian and publican. He opened his first pub, the Post Office Hotel in York Street, Sydney in 1854.
In 1855 he married a fellow Jew, 21-year-old Elizabeth Simmons, daughter of James Simmons, a successful trader and brother of the proprietor of the Jerusalem Warehouse, now the site of David Jones department store.
Gus was also the foundation president of the NSW German Club, established in 1858, which hosted monthly balls at their premises in Pitt Street, Sydney. The Club was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as combining the social with the intellectual, and supplied “convivial pleasures and rational edification in a wholesome promiscuous form”.
A much-loved bohemian, who’s “humour was irresistible”, Gus could “reproduce characteristics with a happy exaggeration that few other artists could effect”. His artworks were a feature of his pubs, often drawn directly onto the walls. Besides an artist and comedian, he was also a splendid fencer and boxer, and spoke fluently several languages.
Just five years into his hospitality business, the Jewish publican suffered a major set-back after he was declared insolvent. He disappeared from Sydney social life in 1858, taking his wife Elizabeth and newly born child north to a Port Curtis, near today’s Gladstone in Queensland. Gus’s inability to maintain a healthy cash flow in business was a constant battle throughout his life, and he was declared insolvent at least four or five times.
After his departure from Sydney, another Jewish businessman, Saul Lyons offered a reward to “anyone who will prosecute to conviction” Gus “or the party or parties who took the passage for him, and assisted in his escape”.
The advertisement stated that he had “absconded from his creditors… in assumed name, with his wife and child, in the Maid of Judah”. Gus eventually made good his creditors, and returned to Sydney during the 1860s, where he took the reins of the Café de Paris, in King Street, and continued his “amusing repertoire of musical comicalities” at the Prince of Wales Opera House.
While the Wangenheims ran the Café de Paris, it was said to be “a picturesque resort of Bohemians, where the Duke of Edinburgh dined more than once while in Sydney”.
Gus and Betsey entered a new business venture in the 1870s, when they built Wangenheim’s Hotel, near the junction of Castlereagh-street with King-street. The hotel became an artistic landmark, with Wangenheims’ customers – the “bohemians and prominent members of all the artistic professions” – following their charismatic publican to his new business venture.
In a series of history articles published in the Truth during 1912, the author, “Old Chum”, revealed it was Betsey who was the brains behind the business of the Wangenheims’ business success.
The remaining interesting item in Castlereagh-street, north of King-street, was a public house, opened in 1875 by Gus Wangenheim, who had previously kept a hotel in King-street. In the Castlereagh-street house, the walls and tables in the bar, every available inch, were decored with character sketches by Gus, who was not half a bad artist. About the year 1881 the house passed to Richmond Thatcher, a clever Bohemian of much literary talent, but neither Dick Thatcher nor Gus Wangenheim was made of the stuff that successful publicans are composed of. The Bohemian strain in the character of each, good fellows though they were, was against the accumulation of large bank balances. Mr Wangenheim, however, was not entirely dependent on his exertions as a hotel-keeper; his wife – who, I believe, is still living – being the daughter of a very wealthy citizeness. Richmond Thatcher could do much better with his pen than with a beer engine.
Wangenheim’s Hotel later became known as the Bulletin Hotel and in 1885 the Burlington. It was demolished sometime before 1905.
A year before Gus’ death, the Wangenheims invested in a brick corner pub with a 90 feet frontage to Liverpool Street and 30 feet facing Victoria Streets, in Darlinghurst. Established in 1879, the slate roofed Green Park Hotel, with bar, cellar, two parlours, hall, five bedrooms and kitchen, had been trading for less than three years, when the Wangenheims added to their growing property portfolio in March 1881. The Green Park Hotel provided £3 14s a week in rent for the Wangenheims.
The death of the flamboyant publican at the age of 57 in 1882 came on the heels of the demise of another of Sydney’s bohemian identities, the well-known poet, Henry Kendall. Gus’ death reportedly left a void in the social life of Sydney that “can never be filled up”. The Queenslander reported on Saturday August 12 1882:
Following close upon the demise of Kendall was the sudden taking off of poor Gus Wangenheim. Gus was one of the identities of Sydney life. Not to have known this genial German was to argue yourself unknown. He was a genuine artist, though his range of accomplishments was not by any means restricted to the pencil. Art, however, was his forte. As his thoroughly genial and withal kindly disposition invariably led him to look upon the humorous side of everything, his genius naturally affected caricature, and as a caricaturist Wangenheim can scarcely be said to have had a superior… When he was hotel-keeping the walls of his hostelry were literally covered with caricatures of politicians, actors, and other celebrities, and these curious sketches were the admiration and the delight of the host of frequenters of his popular “pub” in Castlereagh-Street; but the vandals who succeeded Gus knew not their worth, and remorselessly rubbed them out – only awakening to a sense of their value when the gifted caricaturist himself was rubbed out. Gus was a competent musical and dramatic critic in addition to his qualities as an artist. Miss Emma Wangenheim, who is, I believe, pretty well known in Queensland, was his daughter, and doubtless inherited such lyrical gifts as nature may have endowed her with from her paternal relative. Perhaps, though, after all, Gus Wangenheim will be longest remembered for his social qualities – his homely, easy, unaffected conversational powers being the delight of all his companions. There was just the faintest approach to egotism in Gus Wangenheim. Egotism, perhaps, is too offensive a word to use. Gus’ self-appreciation, as it may be more fitly termed, may be said to have resembled the quality of egotism much in the same way as the mist resembles the rain.” So far from its being objectionable it really constituted one of the charms of his conversation, and was thus, in its way, as pardonable and as tolerable as was the egotism of Bousseau. Now that he is gone, all who knew him feel that a void has been created in the social life of Sydney, which at any rate, as far as the present generation is concerned, can never be filled up.
The Sydney Evening News reported the artistic publican’s death on August 4 1882:
Death of Mr. Gus Wangenheim.
People who frequent the town at night were yesterday startled by a report that Mr. Wangenheim, popularly called Gus Wangenheim, the well-known caricaturist, had “dropped down dead.” The rumour was not credited at first, as one of a similar character, that turned out to, be a canard, had been circulated before. Unfortunately, however, it is only too true; for the clever, genial, loveable, “man about town,” died suddenly at his residence, Pendennis, Lower William-street, Woolloomooloo, last evening, shortly after 5. Gas, may be said to have “passed away” rather than died. He was out at Waverley with his wife in the afternoon, and on their return, had a cup of cocoa, after which he went on the balcony, where he sat down and smoked a cigar. That finished, he took a book and commenced to read. Mrs. Wangenheim noticed that he put it down shortly afterwards, and thinking he slept told one of the children not to make a noise and ‘wake pa’. A few moments afterwards noticing that his head was very much to one side she looked closely at him, and to her horror found that he was dead. His head then was cold, the eyes were glassy and he must have died almost instantaneously. His hands were folded, and there was not the slightest trace of suffering on the face. The deceased man had been before the public for some years as a hotel-keeper and a sketcher and caricaturist of considerable power and facility. Though not so good at likenesses as Lascelles or Clint, Gus’ humour was irresistible, and he could reproduce characteristics with a happy exaggeration that few other artists could effect. The best collections of his drawings are on the walls of the Bulletin Hotel, which he kept for several years. Unfortunately the vandal landlord in possession at present papered over a whole room full. Besides being an artist, Wangenheim possessed a marked ability in other ways. He was a splendid fencer and boxer, and spoke several languages with fluency but he will, doubtless, be longest remembered for his genial ways and loveable nature and disuation. Of late he gave up all other business to look after the princely estate – chiefly town property— of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Simmons. Though forced at times to assert the rights of landlady against tenants, he never made an enemy; and it is said that on the few occasions when he was “in possession,” the folks levied on never had such a time of it in their lives. As a raconteur, who could illustrate his stories with lightning like rapidity, Gus had no superior and few equals. Mr. Wangenheim was a native of Germany, and about 50 years of age.
After Elizabeth’s wealthy mother died at the age of 98 in 1891, she decided to redevelop the Darlinghurst property.
The police had objected to the renewal of the license of the Green Park Hotel in July 1891. The pub was repeatedly falling foul of the law for Sunday trading, and allowing gambling on the premises. The pub was dilapidated and the court ruled it was unsuitable to trade as a pub.
Elizabeth, who was now aged 58, applied for a conditional publican’s license for a new pub for the site in October 1891.
The police opposed the application on the ground that there were at present more than sufficient pubs in the neighbourhood, there being four hotels within 250 yards of the proposed site.
The police argued that owing the number of hotels, in order to make a living publicans were resorting to Sunday trading and selling liquor at prohibited hours. Inspector Bremner said that since the Green Park Hotel had closed in June 1891, there had been a marked improvement in the neighbourhood. Interestingly the United Licensed Victuallers’ Association also opposed the application.
In support of the application, the court heard that the existing pubs in the area were of an inferior character, and that a first class hotel, such as Elizabeth’s was urgently. The existing hotels were merely drinking shops, Elizabeth’s lawyers argued.
The wealthy widow was granted a condition license for her proposed £2000 hotel after her legal team explained how it would bring a superior quality business to Darlinghurst. Elizabeth was granted confirmation of the conditional license after the completion of the hotel on June 29 1893. She remained as licensee for a year, before handing the reins over to Fred Moorehouse in 1893.
Several licensees were at the helm of the Green Park Hotel over the next 32 years during Elizabeth Wangenheim’s ownership. In 1921 professional boxer, Sid Godfrey became host of the Green Park Hotel. He won the Australian featherweight title fight in 1917, and earned £20,000 prize money during his boxing career. Out of 109 professional fights he won 79 (41 by knockout) and drew 12.
Godfrey had a short stay at the Green Park Hotel, and went on to host the Bald Faced Stag, Leichhardt, the Carrington at Petersham, and the Horse and Jockey at Homebush. He retired from business in 1957 and lived at Bronte. He died in 1965.
Betsey or Elizabeth Wangenheim died on August 8 1925, at the age of 91 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood Cemetery. The Blue Mountain Echo reported on Friday August 14 1925:
MRS. ELIZABETH WANGENHEIM.
On Saturday last there passed away an old and respected resident of Katoomba in the person of Mrs Elizabeth Wangenheim, of ‘Thorley,’ Lurline Street, at the ripe age of 90. The late Mrs. Wangenheim was a daughter of the late Mr. James Simmons, who was the first importer of general goods to Australia. He chartered a special fleet of ships for this purpose, and his enterprise was rewarded handsomely. Later Mr. Simmons went into the hotel business, and also dabbled greatly in land speculation. The present site of David Jones’ huge emporium at one time was occupied by the famous ‘Jerusalem Store’ of Mr. Simmons. In 1855 the late Mrs. Wangenheim married Mr. Gustavus Wangenhiem, who also was an hotel licensee. Subsequent, to his death, she continued in the hotel business, and displayed great business acumen. She retired from active business nearly half a century ago, and during the latter days of her life resided in her palatial home at Katoomba. The deceased lady left one son (Mr. Joseph Wangenheim), and three daughters, (Mrs. J. F. Gavin, now in America; Mrs. Fred Morris, Elizabeth Bay; and Mrs. J. R. Stewart, Tahmoor, near Picton). She also was the mother of the late Emma Wangenheim (Mrs. J. A. Carroll) well known in operatic circles, and the grandmother of Mrs. Cliff Hardaker. She was interred in the Jewish section of Rookwood Cemetery on Sunday last, the last rites being performed by Rev. M. Einfield.
At her death Elizabeth was considered to be the wealthiest woman in Sydney, with a probate of £164,376. Her son Joseph Moritz Wangenheim inherited the Green Park Hotel, which was to be held in trust after his death for the benefit of his children. However, it seems Joseph followed in his father’s foot steps, and not his mothers. The hotel was mortgaged to Tooth and Company during the late 1920s, and by 1930 the family had lost the freehold of the Green Park Hotel to the brewery giant.
Green Park Hotel, Darlinghurst 1949. Photo: ANU, Noel Butlin Archives.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the Green Park Hotel is to close for business in December 2020. The newspaper reported on November 24 2020:
“One of Sydney’s most historic inner city pubs will call last drinks this Christmas, before becoming a mental health clinic next year. The Green Park Hotel on Victoria Rd, Darlinghurst has been purchased by St Vincent’s Hospital as part of a planned expansion of its mental health and community outreach services. Affectionately known by locals as the ‘Greeny’, the hotel has been pulling beers for the past 127 years and has long been beloved by the LGBTQI community and a landmark venue for Mardi Gras celebrations. Hospitality group Solotel, which has owned the pub for more than 30 years, finalised the sale at between $5 to $10 million to the trustees of St Vincent’s Hospital on Monday, before staff were told on Tuesday morning.”
In the 56 years since Deirdre Cusack called the Green Park Hotel home, she has never forgotten the brown paper that covered the cellar windows.
It had been there ever since the Japanese tried to invade Sydney Harbour in 1942, carefully placed to block out lights across a city fearing submarine attack.
The image feels a world away from the vibrant inner city watering hole the “Greenie” has become in 2020. Today it is both a haven and a refuge for Sydney’s LGBTQI community – “more than just a bar,” as one columnist said.
On Sunday night the 127-year-old hotel will call last drinks, after it was sold to the surrounding St Vincent’s Hospital to become a mental health clinic.
It caught the eye of Mrs Cusack, who was just one year old when her parents Sam and Fay McIntyre leased the Darlinghurst pub from Tooth’s Brewery in 1941. She would live above the corner pub –through a side door, past the ladies’ parlour and up the stairs – for 23 years until she married in 1964.
Sydney felt different then. By law, publicans were not allowed to live off premises and the beer came in wooden barrels (the rum, too).
The pub closed at 6pm and never opened on Sundays. Across the road from the Green Park was a paper shop, a flower shop and a butcher with sawdust on the floor.
Darlinghurst was a place where everyone knew everyone,” Mrs Cusack said. “I can still remember the SP bookies. They had a place down in one of the terrace houses and you’d see this trail of men going to down to put a bet on the horses and coming back to the pub to have a beer.”
Until 1931 Australians were only allowed to bet on horse races with an on-course bookmaker, before radio and television gave rise to “starting price bookies”, who hung around the city’s pubs and clubs.
“I didn’t have any outside playing space, so I used to play out in the lane behind the pub and hit a tennis ball up against a brick wall with my friends,” Mrs Cusack said.
“Kings Cross then was not as bad as it became. My mother had no problem letting me and a girlfriend walk up to the Cross on Saturday night, when the [first-edition] papers would come out for Sunday.”
She still recalls the mouthwatering burgers she used to eye off at the Hasty Tasty diner under the Coca-Cola sign. “God, they looked delicious.”
When her father Sam died in 1952, Mrs Cusack said there was never any question that her mother would carry on managing the “drinking pub”.
“It didn’t have meals or anything like that. And the main bar was for men only, mainly doctors from the hospital.”
The ladies sat in the parlour. It was their meeting place, like going out for coffee, Mrs Cusack said. “One lady used to always wear a hat with a short veil over her face as she sipped her sherry. Another shelled her peas before going home to prepare dinner.”
And then there were the steel troughs under the beer taps, filled with gentian violet (a purple dye), “so when the beer overflowed, you couldn’t reuse it.”
Nothing stands out in Mrs Cusack’s memory quite as much as a 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II arriving in Sydney on the Royal tour of 1954; a trip five years in the planning and the first televised event in Australian history.
But never mind the telly. “Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip drove right past the hotel, decorated with all the flags. Every time there was a Royal visit everyone came out. To think they went past our place, it was very exciting.”
Less exciting were the years after Mrs Cusack returned from living in the UK, aged 20, and her mother put her to work in the pub, “a gruelling job”.
“I remember, she said to me one day, ‘for goodness sake. Go and get a job – the look on your face would turn the beer sour.'”
She didn’t wait a second, running out to grab the paper before finding a job in the office at Qantas.
From her home in Queensland, Mrs Cusack said it was sad to see the Green Park serve its final drinks, although she was glad the facade and features will be protected under heritage laws.
“In Australia they knock down too many buildings,” she said. “We go to Europe and we admire all the old buildings. In Australia, often all you’ve got is concrete and glass.
The Wall is the most infamous gay pickup strip in Sydney. There are probably others – but this 100m of convinct built sandstone wall has a unique synergy. It runs along the eastern boundary of the old Darlinghurst Gaol commencing at the rear of the Supreme Court of NSW. Street prostitution is illegal in Sydney, whether it be same sex or mixed.
The wall (all four legs of it) was designed and constructed under the aegis of Francis Greenway from 1820 to 1822 but he, being a convict, was removed from the project, no matter his architectural gifts to the colony under Governor Macquarie. Convict markings can be seen in the sandstone blocks all along The Wall. They were used to ensure that each man did his fair share and did not slack off. Progress was painfully slow, however, in 1841, existing prisoners were marched from the original Sydney Gaol near the corner of George & Alfred Streets (the site of the current Four Seasons Hotel) to the partially erected Darlinghurst Gaol on a hill overlooking the colony from the SE.
So, what is the graffiti? It is not actually on The Wall but just around the corner in Burton Street. It is tempting to see it as man and boy – but that is my flight of fancy. And note that the graffiti is on concrete “implants”. Maybe the man with the spray can valued the sandstone more than the government who contracted out repairs to this historic structure.
A Sad Story From The Wall
“Chapter closes on the sad story of a missing teenage prostitute
By Les Kennedy, Chief Police Reporter
April 16 2002”
Arron James Light ran away from his inner Sydney home when he was barely 15.
To support himself on the streets and have what police described as a “fun time”, he became a teenage prostitute working the infamous Wall at Darlinghurst.
But in 1997, aged 17, he disappeared without trace after turning key witness to a special police task force investigating pedophile rings in Sydney. The task force also went on to hunt down and extradite infamous pederast Robert “Dolly” Dunn from South America for successful prosecution.
For seven years, Arron’s disappearance remained a mystery. Then, four weeks ago, workmen clearing a bush-covered vacant block at Sydenham for use as a park unearthed skeletal remains in a shallow grave bordering the Alexandria canal.
Arron had been stabbed at least six times in the chest. His killer wrapped his body in a tarpaulin before burying it. Police who viewed the scene believe his body would never have been found had it not been for the workmen.
DNA tests yesterday confirmed Arron’s identity to Newtown detectives, who informed his parents of their worst fears since they reported their son missing in December 1997.
Detectives have reopened old case files from the now defunct Task Force Shad, which between 1995 and 1997 charged and prosecuted 30 alleged pedophiles operating in several child porn and sex networks in Sydney.
Before its disbandment, the task force uncovered 140 juvenile victims and laid more than 300 charges.
Detective Inspector Ian Lynch said yesterday that Arron was crucial to a prosecution brief being prepared at the time against alleged members of one of the rings and was also an alleged victim of pederasts.
He said charges against four men were dropped as a consequence of his sudden disappearance.
It is understood that Arron’s allegations related to a pedophile ring dubbed “Circle of Friends”. The group is also known to operate in Britain, where juveniles preyed on have also been murdered. Detective Inspector Lynch said that, while police had evidence to suggest that Arron was involved in drugs and that it was possible his lifestyle could have contributed to his death, the firmest lead police still had was that he had turned key witness.
Detective Inspector Lynch said his new investigation, code-named Operation Valley View, had spoken to associates of Arron and former officers involved in Task Force Shad, who were convinced his disappearance related to their investigations.
“Arron was known to frequent the Wall area of Darlinghurst and Darlinghurst Road as well as Kings Cross, Botany, Rosebery and Bourke Street, Darlinghurst, where he shared a place with a group of other people,” Detective Inspector Lynch said.
“Inquiries have revealed that he was last seen alive in August 1997 before he was formally reported missing in December that year by his family, whom he kept in regular touch with despite his lifestyle.”
Detective Inspector Lynch said Arron’s bank account was last used to make a cash withdrawal from a Commonwealth Bank teller machine in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, during business hours on Friday, September 12, 1997.
Green Park, in Darlinghurst Road, was named after Alderman James Green, who represented the district from 1869 to 1883, although it is often thought that the park was named after Alexander Green, one of Sydney’s most notorious hangmen, who lived in a whitewashed hut outside the eastern wall of nearby Darlinghurst Gaol, in what is now Green Park.
In the 1860s the site was set aside for ‘accommodation for aged and infirm females’ but when these plans fell through, the site was given to the City Council in 1875 for a ‘public recreation ground’. In the centre of the park is an ornate bandstand, erected in 1925 for concerts which were a common feature of the interwar years. A memorial to the surgeon Victor Chang, who performed Australia’s first heart transplant at nearby St Vincent’s Hospital in 1984, and died in a bungled extortion attempt in 1991, stood in the park for some years. It was later moved to the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute nearby.
The park has also had a long significance for Sydney’s gay community. The Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial – a pink triangle with black poles – sits on the western side of the park, commemorating those lesbians and gay men who were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Gay Fair Days have been held there; the AIDS Memorial Candlelight Rally has started there; political demonstrations have been called there; public meetings have been held there to discuss issues of concern for the local gay community. One of Sydney’s best-remembered gay restaurants, on Oxford Street, called itself the Green Park Diner so that it would attract a gay clientele. And one of the most sacred possessions of the Sydney chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is part of the urinal of the toilet that was located on the beat there, in Darlinghurst Road . Even though the toilet was demolished – and the urinal spirited away in the dark of night – the beat, as they say, goes on.
Sexual adventures have always been part of Green Park and its history. Part of this unusual history has to do with Green Park’s unique location; part of it has more to do with the social history of gay men’s need in general to ‘subvert’ public space for their own purposes. This is true of where and how gay men could meet, particularly in the period before decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1984. Denied the possibility of meeting other gay men openly at institutions commonly used by heterosexuals for such purposes – at work, at local churches or social clubs, at the P&C Association, at sporting or bridge clubs, for example – gay men found it necessary to use various public spaces to meet others. Thus parks, beaches, promenades, quiet bush walks, or open woodlands, known as beats in gay parlance, have all been used by gay men at some time or another as discreet places for meeting other gay men. Sexual access has often been an important purpose for such beats, but beats have always played an important role as mere meeting places for gay men, since legitimate commercial venues for meeting other gays have emerged only in the very recent past. And many such places were of dubious legality, and subject to police attention: we perhaps ought not enquire too closely about how they were able to continue to operate.
Thus, in Sydney, virtually any park (and in particular those in the inner-city area, where population densities are highest), has served, and in some cases, still does serve, as a beat. Green Park, and ‘The Wall’ – the stretch of Darlinghurst Road from Oxford Street to Burton Street – should be seen in this tradition. The location in Darlinghurst, between Kings Cross and Oxford Street, has meant that there have always been men walking back and forth between these two areas, both known for their nightlife. Indeed, it is this central location of the park, in a residential area with a high transient population, that has meant that Green Park has served as a focal point for men meeting men over much of the twentieth century.
The folliwing review appeared in “Lonely Planet”
Once the residence of Alexander Green, hangman of Darlinghurst Gaol, Green Park is a cheery space during the day, but as the many syringe-disposal bins attest, it’s best avoided nocturnally. At the top of the slope, the inverted pink triangular prism backed by black pillars is the Gay & Lesbian Holocaust Memorial.
The memorial was founded by the late Dr Kitty Fischer, who as a young Jewish girl in Auschwitz was kept alive by food smuggled to her by a gay inmate forced to wear the pink triangle. In a lower corner of the park is the Victor Chang Memorial – before he was murdered in 1991, he was a famed heart surgeon who worked at neighbouring St Vincent’s Hospital.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and “That!” Urinal
Addendum: There have been comments left with this article, regarding a beat in Boomerang Street, Woolloomooloo (near St Mary’s Cathedral) in the 1970s. It lost popularity due to bashings and robberies. Any stories or memories regarding this beat would be appreciated by the author.
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.
I am not a misogynist! This piece is set in a particular period in the late 80s/early 90s when anti-discrimination laws were being set in place that brought about irreconcilable changes to the gay scene as we knew it! The attitude to women invading what had – to then – been male spaces was real, angry and palpable. I hope my female readers don’t take it to heart.
It was always dim in The O – as The Oxford was affectionately known – irrespective of the time of day, though at times like this, it could be an advantage. The twilight lighting helped to cover up dark bags under the eyes, and always made people look a little bit younger than they actually were. The DJ was in cocktail-hour-mode, and James looked up to see who was playing as he passed the DJ box. Patti Labelle’s ‘Oh People’ was playing, and James winced slightly. This track always reminded him of funerals these days. He moved to a table near the Oxford Street window, where Stewart was already ensconced.
‘God, I still feel like shit!’ Stewart muttered as he got up and headed to the bar. James smiled at his mate as the schooners were placed down,
“Cheers!” Said James, and they clinked glasses, then taking a sip of the beer..
Stewart looked like shit, though he got away with it by being casually dressed in a pair of jeans and a white tee shirt. He had made an attempt to tidy his hair, but it really wasn’t working. A cow-lick stuck up at the back. He looked harried, and had that puffy look you tended to get after a night of drinking.
James, was still fuming from his mornings episode with his ex-partner-now-flatmate Tommy, and quietly hoped that Tommy’s body puffed up twice as much as everyone else. It would serve him bloody right! Did he think fucking money grew on trees!Stewart straddled a bar stool, and settled himself in by stacking his cigarettes and lighter in a pile next to the ashtray. Looking off into space, he waved his burning cigarette over the table, missed the ashtray, and blew the ash that had landed on the table into James lap.
James scowled, threw Stewart “a look” and lit his own cigarette. ‘Well, to be quite honest, you look like fuckin’ shit. I hope you at least managed to get yourself a fuck. Would be the only appeasement for all the suffering you seem to be going through this morning…again,” James smirked. He would have loved a dollar for overtime this happened!
‘Well, lets just say I wasn’t alone this morning when you rang.’ Stewart turned his eyes upward andrepositioned himself on the stool, turning to gaze towards the bar a couple of feet away from him. ‘If we had sex, I certainly can’t remember it. I don’t even remember taking him home! Wouldn’t have a clue what his name was. I just called him Darl all morning. I don’t think he remembered mine either. He called me mate, if he had to talk to me at all, and there wasn’t too much yak going on, I can tell you. Thankfully, I didn’t have to chew my arm off this morning to get away from him.’ A smile took the puffiness out of his face for an instant. ‘I’m going to be conceited enough to assume that I was great sex. I still show a bit of fuckin’ taste, even when I’m pissed.’ Stewart looked pleased with himself, and James smiled at him across the tiny metal disc that supposedly passed for a table in the bar.
‘Seeing him again, are we?’ James quizzed.
‘Shit no, Jimmy. No serious relationships for this girl. I mean, I’ve got you as an example of how to make all the bad mistakes with men, don’t I?’
‘Thanks for reminding me of that. Want a drink, or is that a stupid question?’
James smiled again, loving the way Stewart squirmed when he had to try to recollect nights out – any nights out – when he had lost the plot somewhere in the interim.
“Yeah, I’ll have a hair of the dog that bit me. Get me a Gordon’s and tonic, will you mate.’
‘Is that mate as in friend, or mate as in ex-fuck,’ James couldn’t help himself.
‘You should be so lucky,’ Stewart retorted, poking out his tongue at his friend. James pushed himself off the stool and wandered over to the bar, blowing out a plume of smoke as he went.
‘G’day Jerry, give me two Gordon’s and tonics will you. Bit sad in here at the moment, isn’t it?’ he said to the barman, who was topping up the glasses from the post mix. Jerry had been the bar manager here for a couple of years now, and had helped get James his job here as a DJ.
‘It’s a bit sad in here at the best of times!’ Jerry sniped back, then let out one of the donkey brays he called a laugh. ‘That’ll be $4.50. I won’t charge you for the lack of atmosphere”.
James smiled and turned to cruise the bar perimeter. Picking up the drinks he turned back to the table. It was always a bit sad in here early in the afternoon. Either people with hangovers from the night before, people coming down off their drugs, or desperados who never got a pick-up last night, and thought the hangover brigade may be easy pickings. God, queens were so desperate sometimes! It was situations like this that made James glad he had a couple of fuck buddies he could rely on if things got really desperate. He took a stiff drag on his smoke, coughed, and decided to ignore the disparaging ‘Fuckin’ smokers’ comment from the elderly guy standing next to him. Fucking old bores. Should be locked away in nursing homes. The thought of them chasing each other around nursing home gardens, trying desperately to pick each other up even though they couldn’t remember their own names, let alone get a hard-on, made him smile.
He looked back over his shoulder at Stella.
There was a time when Stewart almost ended up amongst the fuck buddy-brigade. The day he met Tommy was the day he thought he had finally lined Stewart up for a fuck. He had spent all afternoon working on him. Had him primed on alcohol and all! Jesus, how could he have swapped Stewart for fucking Tommy? Talk about making stupid mistakes. Stewart had been, and still was, quite a looker – well, at least he usually was if he wasn’t recovering from a night on the tiles – and he had this chatty way about him that James found appealing. A combination of brains, beauty and humour! That could do it for James every time. Well, whatever the attraction for Stewart had been, it had certainly been working that night, even if the lustre had worn off pretty quickly. Anyway, he and Stewart had ended up the best of mates, so something good had come out of what potentially had not been so great – meeting Tommy! James couldn’t count the number of times he had taken guys home, given them a good fucking, then been ignored by them in the bar the next day, like he didn’t even exist. Shallow pricks! Tommy had spoken to him the next day, which almost made him husband material, for starters
He finally picked up the drinks, and moved back to the table at the window nearest the main street. He and Stella (Stewart was called Stella more often than by his real name) would often sit here for hours. They just gossiped away, and watched the passing parade, laughing at the dero’s passing by and trying to get money off people, the really badly dressed queens who thought they were so cool, and the hunky guys running around the street in singlet and shorts, the bulges of their cocks making an obvious show to all and sundry. It was a good way to pass an easy afternoon, no hassles, and a lot of laughs.
‘Well, what are you going to do about friggin’ Tommy? This is becoming a bit of a fucking habit with him, isn’t it?’ Stewart said, taking a sip out of his drink, clicking his teeth against the rim of the glass in an annoying way. ‘It’s not as if he could still be lovesick for you or anything. God, Who would get lovesick over you! You know what I reckon? I think he just likes to give you the shits. He knows he can get a rise out of you, so he does these fucked up things and doesn’t count the bloody cost.’ There was a brief pause for another sip. ‘Does he still reckon he’s in love with Mark? I got so sick of hearing him go on about it, I just avoid him when I see him now.’ Stella stared at James, as if to make sure he was still listening. James tended to tune out when Tommy’s name came up in conversation. ‘If Trevor ever gets wind of it, there will be hell to pay. I don’t think they’re fucking, though Tommy likes to make out they are – but I don’t think Mark is stupid enough to fuck up his relationship. Shit, he and Trevor have been together for years! Almost enough to make a girl jealous! But only almost! I reckon Tommy just has a very fertile imagination, which is going to get him into big fucking trouble if he’s not careful.’ Stella picked up his drink again, and started to slowly spin the glass between his fingers, swirling the ice, which clinked as it churned around.
‘Yeah, exactly my thoughts Stella. I’m sure Trevor must have heard all the gossip by now. Shit, it’s all Tommy talks about when he’s sober. I don’t know what to fucking do about him. He’s not even a good flatmate! He never does any cooking, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lift a duster. He reckons he doesn’t want to break any of my stuff! So what’s he bloody do instead? He has a night on the bloody piss and does a rampage right through the apartment. All my Ching dynasty china is gone now, after last nights little episode. He’s too fucking expensive to keep, and too fucking expensive to get rid of, if you know what I mean! I guess in some ways, he’s almost too perfect. He pays his rent and bills on time, so he’s good like that. I don’t know! I guess the question is, can I be bothered with all the hassle involved in getting someone reliable to replace him, if I tell him to piss off.’ James stared back out the window, noticing the streaks that the window washer had left when cleaning them. Because of the dark, tinted glass they stuck out like a dog’s balls.
‘Ummm! A bit of a problem, isn’t it.’ Stella said, also looking out the window. ‘If John wasn’t still staying with me, you could tell Tommy to take over the apartment, and move in with me. We could do the sisters-together thing! We’ve always got along okay, and I already know you’re a fuckin’ pain in the arse, so I know what to bloody well expect.’
‘Thanks, I think! But I guess I’ll try to work things through with Tommy before I jump into the fire. He really needs to see a very patient counsellor, but I can’t bleeding well force him to do that.’ James lit another cigarette, and there was a few minutes silence while they both puffed away. James rhythmically kicked the table support with his foot, causing the table to vibrate slowly. ‘I mean, this whole thing with Mark is just psychotic! Tommy follows the poor prick everywhere. He waits until he hears or sees him leaving the building, then he’s out the front door like a fucking shot. Then he just has to come home and give me endless tirades about where Mark has been, who he’s been talking too, every single bloody word of conversation that goes on between the two of them. As if I fucking care!’ Another plume of smoke drifted out of his mouth. ‘Shit, I have enough hassles keeping my own life together, let alone worrying about anyone else.’
They both picked up their drinks and coasters as a bar useful wiped down the table and emptied the ashtray. They both cruised the shirtless, young hunk leaning over their table. They both checked out his tight arse as he moved to the next table. Stewart looked up and James felt him staring. He looked up quickly, in time to catch Stewart’s intense stare.
‘You’re looking really stressed, girlfriend. Is everything okay at work? You mentioned something last week about getting the shits with it.’ Stewart looked genuinely concerned.
James nodded his head. He managed a store on the strip, and DJ,d in his spare time. ‘The job’s really starting to shit me now. You know that fucking shop is my pride and joy.’ A look of exasperation crossed his face. ‘I’ve worked so bloody hard to get it where it is, and what happens? They send in new guys. That new area manager is a real cunt. We hated each other from first sight, and it’s just gotten worse from that point.’ James said, gazing out the window to the passing parade
James and the area manager had clashed from day one. James was used to really good rapport with his superiors, and the last area manager had been well aware that a store in Darlinghurst benefitted from having a gay manager, and had always been very supportive. But this new guy…big-time trouble! He didn’t like queens, and had made that really obvious. When he found out that James was a HIV+ boy, he really turned the heat up. Even took James aside for a ‘quiet coffee’ and told him that perhaps he should consider leaving the job – only for the sake of his health, of course! Prick! He had been on James’ back ever since, picking on every little thing, and generally making life as difficult, and as uncomfortable, as possible. James was fucking over it!
‘I’ll see how it goes. I might quit if things don’t improve, which doesn’t seem likely at this time. I wish I had a bloody witness for some of the things the pious prick has said to me. I’d sue the fucking bastards for every cent I could get.’ James drummed his fingers on the table top, then loudly slapped his palm down, causing Stewart to jump. ‘You want to know what really worries me, girlfriend? All the stress! It’s starting to knock my health around. Anyway, thanks for the thought, but that’s enough about my problems. How’s the bar job at Barracks going?’
‘Pretty bloody good, actually. I think they’re about to give me a few more shifts. Hell, the fucking extra money certainly wouldn’t go astray.’ Stella rubbed his hands together. ‘By the way, before I forget to tell you – as if I’d dare – it’s John’s birthday next weekend. I’m throwing a bit of a shindig for him at home. I have a little surprise lined up, so don’t make any plans. Get there late afternoonish, if you can. I could do with an extra set of hands.’ Stella pouted his lips and threw James a kiss across the table, ‘You know what my parties are like. It will probably still be going on Sunday night.’
Stella had a reputation for really over-the-top parties, and relished the reputation. ‘I’m setting up the porn room again. It worked really well at the last party, as I’m sure you’d remember. Slut! Never know, you might meet the next great love of your life – again!’ He threw James another smirk.
James didn’t take the bait. ‘Right! I’m sure my mother would love to meet a boyfriend I met in a porn room at a party. I can just see me trying to explain that situation to her. Shit! She’s a fucking romantic. She’d never understand this.’ A young twink wandered past the window. Obviously on his way home from the gym, he stopping to admire himself in the glass, little knowing that he was being observed from the other side of the glass. He distracted James for a second. ‘She has enough problems with the gay thing as it is. I think she actually gets off on the breast-beating and guilt trip. You know, mea culpa, mea culpa!’ James struck his chest three times. ‘Sometimes I wish my curiosity, to know what happened to her after she pissed off and left my brother and myself with my old man, had just stayed as curiosity.’ James looked serious for a moment, then turned back to the window. The twink had gone.
James and his mother had a very tenuous relationship. She had walked out on his old man when James was 11, and Kevin, his brother, was 6. They had got home from school one day, and she just wasn’t there. There had been no explanation forthcoming from their father, though he did issue an edict that, as far as everyone was concerned, she was dead. Fucking families, James thought. She had remarried in the early 70’s, and James had a half sister from that marriage. He tended not to have much to do with his step-family. Ray, his step-father, was a homophobe, and with an eighteen-year gap between him and his half-sister, they didn’t really share anything in common, other than the same mother. She had never been able to handle him being gay. And thought it was all her fault that James was “that way”, that if she hadn’t left home, it may have been different. He let her live with this delusion. James had never been game to tell her he was HIV+. She carried enough guilt already. He didn’t want to be responsible for adding to it. So he kept it a quiet lie. Fortunately, his mother lived with such a huge amount of denial that there was little chance that she would ever talk about HIV anyway.
‘I’ll be at the party with bells on.’ James replied. ‘Want me to bring Tommy, ha! ha! He can fill everyone in on the saga with Mark. I’m sure everyone’s hanging out for the next installment.’
‘You bring him, and I’ll castrate you, boyo, sister or not! Want another drink?’ Stewart got up from the stool, then leaned down on the table, putting his head in his hands. ‘Might take a couple of hairs to get back to normal, I reckon. Back in a sec.’ He headed toward the bar. James, unconsciously, noticed that he still had a great butt. He shook his head, and looked back out the window. A druggie girl with a baby in her arms was attempting to elicit money off a passer-by, all to no affect. The baby wasn’t pulling its weight today! James briefly wondered what sort of life the baby would have. Her boyfriend – who looked like he needed a good feed, and sported a stained singlet, rat’s tail, and cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth – stood nearby with a battered stroller. James could hear a muffled string of abuse from the girlfriend as those passing by picked up speed and ignored both her and baby. She thrust the baby into the boyfriends arms. James noted that she was probably about 25, but looked 70. She stormed off down the street still hurling abuse. The boyfriend hurriedly stuffed the baby into the stroller and headed off after her. James shook his head. Stewart returned, plonking the drink onto the coaster in front of him
‘Thanks for the gin, Stella.’ He peered intently over Stewart’s shoulder. ‘That’s a bit of a cutie sitting over there. I might come back later tonight and see if he’s still around.’ James flicked his thumb toward a young guy sitting near the front doors of the bar, looking somewhat furtively around the bar. Too cute to be a desperado. Wonder what his story is? James mulled to himself.
‘Fuck me! You got a fuck from Paul (a fuck buddy) last night, and already you’re chasing the next bit of arse. What if Paul turns up tonight, eh? I’ll betcha I know what’d happen, and the cutie would be on the fucking losing end of the deal, wouldn’t he, sweetheart!’
‘Nah, Paul won’t be out tonight. He’s throwing a dinner party with that girl he flats with – Vicki, or Nicki or something. He has very unhealthy relationships with the female sex, have you noticed! He’s got more female friends than he has male!’Something strange about that!’ James screwed up his face as he looked at Stewart. ‘That’s another reason why I have had second thought about actually getting seriously involved with him. I don’t know that I want my social life dominated by women. They’re okay in small doses, but that’s as much as I can handle.’ The screwed up face took on a more sinister aspect. ‘Look at how they have managed to fuck up all the local nightclubs. They bring in their straight wanker boyfriends, and the next thing you know, it’s straight city!! Those fucking young queens who spend half their lives dragging fag-hags around are going to have a lot to answer for, one of these days.’ James was spitting venom by this stage. ‘They’re fucking it up for everyone. Why can’t us guys have spaces for ourselves? The bloody lezzo’s are allowed to have them. Those new bleeding anti-discrimination laws are fucked,’ James snarled.
Stewart sat quietly, lost in a world of his own. James, feeling pleasantly calmed by his little outburst plus a couple of gins, started some serious cruising with the guy he had noticed earlier. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but there was a something about him that drew James attention. Maybe it was his eyes, or the non-gay way he was dressed. Almost as if he didn’t realise he was in a gay bar. James shivered! Déjà vu, he thought to himself. This was the sort of naïve thing Tommy did when he wanted to attract attention, and which he had used to hook James on the night they met. That was exactly the sort of look that had sucked him in that night, and James certainly didn’t want that episode repeated. Yet, despite the similarity in appeal, this guy looked more together than Tommy had.
‘How’s Don going?’ Stella broke into James reverie. ‘Is he out of hospital yet?’
‘Yeah, he got out two days ago. He’s not telling the whole story, you know! He’s fucking sicker than he lets on. I’m not silly. I know when someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes.’ James looked at Stella across the table, a concerned frown on his face.
‘Mmm. I thought he’d tell you what the problem is. You two have been mates for yonks.’ Stella tapped his fingers on the table, then stuck a finger in his mouth and started to chew on a fingernail. ‘He’s lost so much weight, and he’s takin’ a lot of time off work. Do you think he’s got the dreaded lergy?’ Stella asked, a slight grimace crossing his face.
‘Well, that’s what I originally thought, but I can’t work out why he’d be quiet about it. It’s not as if it’s such a rare thing these days, and he knows so many others with this fucking virus,’ James said, chewing on a piece of ice that had not melted in the glass. ‘I don’t think he’d keep it to himself if he had it.’ He appeared to think about it for a few seconds. ‘Naw! It’s something else. He’ll tell me in his own good time,’ James replied, unable to hide his concern. He was really worried about his mate, but didn’t want others to know how serious he thought Don’s illness was.
‘Well, I hope he fuckin’ does. There’s enough guys dropping off the perch as it is!’ Stella threw his own concerned look across the table.
Another couple of minutes passed in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. James looked back across the bar, and caught the cutie looking across at him, then quickly looking away.
‘Catch as catch can,’ James smiled at Stella across the table, pointing his chin in the general direction that he was looking in. Stella turned his head and looked back over his shoulder.
‘Umm! Lining things up for tonight already, are we?’ Stewart exclaimed as he thumped his glass down on the table. ‘I can see where your priorities lie at the moment, trash bag!’
‘Yeah. That guy is acting a bit like how Tommy was acting on the night we met. A bit spooky, actually.’
‘Fuck, don’t want a repeat of that, do we? We never did get to fuck. That night screwed that up, didn’t it?’ James threw a quizzical look across the table. ‘Don’t look at me like that! I knew you were trying to get me into the sack that night.’ Stella returned his look. ‘I shouldn’t tell you this, but I would have been in it, if Tommy hadn’t fuckin’ well shown up!’ Stella had one of those looks on his face that made it possible to believe that he wasn’t being serious, but then again he might be! James hated those looks! You never knew where you fucking well stood. ‘Well, look on the bright side of it – I would probably never have respected you again – as if I ever did – so it’s probably just as well it never happened. I think you make a better fucking sister.’
‘You’ve known that for four bloody years, and never said a word to me! How fucking rude are you! Sisters are never supposed to know that you wanted to lay them. Some things are supposed to be sacred, you know!’
‘Oh, I guess I’m only slightly miffed about that situation. You’ve been one of the best friends I’ve ever had in this city. Look at how I trash myself, and slut around, and you never ever criticise me for it, though I sometimes wish you fucking would! Might pull me into line a bit,’ Stella laughed.
‘Wouldn’t do me much damn good anyway. You’re just a lost cause. Anyway, I don’t know if I’d like you to be pulled into line. I love you the way you are.’
James blew him a kiss across the table. ‘Take the good with the bad, I reckon. Finish your bloody drink and your fag so I can go home for some dinner. With any luck, Tommy will still be in bed. I’ll meet you here about ten o’clock.’ James stood up to go, rocking the table as he learnt on it.
‘Okay gorgeous. Hold your horses for a sec.’ Stella drained the remains of the gin in one gulp. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit chancy leaving me with the potential trade?’
‘That’s exactly why I don’t intend to leave until you do. AND I’ll ring you when I get home, just to make sure you haven’t snuck back.’ They both headed towards the door. Stella put his hand on James shoulder, and pushed him out the door.
‘That’s the problem with sisters. They know you too fucking well!’ he quipped, planting a kiss on James’s cheek before heading up the street.
In 2001, while doing my writing degree at UTS, I submitted a 13,000 word tome for evaluation, titled “Cleo’s Reflection” – my recollections of my past to my hairdresser as he did up my wig for my final drag appearance. My tutor, a tiny Asian fag-hag (love or hate the phrase), was ecstatic about it, and on questioning the class on what the story represented, and getting the usual crap replies that you would expect from 20-year-olds, enlightened them to it being ” A Sydney story!”, which actually gave me goosebumps.
I have done a couple of edits over the years, but recently decided it was time to get to the bare bones of what “Cleo’s Reflection was really all about. I do intend to publish the full-length tome, but it has bern sitting around for 13 years now, and I imagine a few more won’t matter much. So, here in a nutshell – sort of – is the chopped down version of “Cleo’s Reflection”…”The Evolution/Devolution of Cleo”.
My writing tutor at UTS called this a “Sydney story”, but as I got right to the root of what Cleo was (escapism, flipping the coin, daring) I realised more and more just what a “gay” story it was, and perhaps more importantly – for Cleo was born at the very beginning of the HIV era, and bowed out at its height – that it is a “HIV” story, and of its time..
Cleo’s persona was born, so I like to say, out of pure curiosity. In late 1983, ‘she’ made ‘her’ first public appearance at one of Sydney’s annual parties, called Sleaze Ball, put on annually by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian community. It was a daring move for me, and a move into unexplored territory.
I have had a fascination with ‘gutter drag’ since coming out in 1980. Drag has always been synonymous with the gay community here, though usually more in a serious vein than as send-up or parody. ‘The Oxford Hotel’ opened in 1983 on Sydney’s gay ghetto of Oxford Street, and become an instant hangout for the city’s clone brigade. Simultaneous to the growth of the clone phenomenon was the growth in popularity of gutter drag, and several troupes routinely plied their talents between bars along the gay strip. Most famous of these were ‘The Planet Sluts’, and many a Saturday night out was brightened up by their sudden appearance in ‘The Oxford’.
They had a look that I was always slightly envious of, in that they were cocks in frocks, an over-exaggerating of the femaleness of drag without losing the masculine aspects. It was a phenomena that could only have happened in the gay community and though there were mixed reactions, permission was granted for its continuance. It was a look that I wanted to try – badly!
One minute I would be having a quiet drink with friends in the bar, and a bit of a bop to the music, and the next thing I knew, all hell had broken loose. These four guys would barge in from the street. They would have wigs backcombed to within an inch of their lives and absolutely huge; totally over the top make-up; and frocks that would have been the envy of even serious drag queens (sort of!) – tulle for days, and totally outrageous. But what really made it for me was the fact that they shaved neither faces, chests nor arms and legs, and that was what gave gutter drag not only its name, but also its appeal.
So Sleaze Ball 1983 was the first time I decided to attempt to emulate this form of drag. I have to admit it wasn’t terribly successful! My flatmate (who was also my lover at that time) had done a bit of drag during the 70’s. I didn’t really want to spend a lot of money on this one particular occasion, and asked him if he would do the wig up for me. Mistake number one! The poor wig ended up looking like a poor relation to Dusty Springfield, but he had done his best, and I felt it was unwarranted to criticise his efforts. Mistake number two! Choice of frock. It was a Marilyn Monroe crepe Halston style rip-off, and by the time the whole outfit came together, I looked like a bloody society matron heading off for a Sunday luncheon. It also didn’t go down well at the party, especially considering the look was nowhere near the Planet Slut look that I wanted to achieve.
The Sydney parties in those days were small affairs (5,000 – 6,000 gay guys), not the huge extravaganza’s they are now, and needless to say, I would have slutted around and slept with at least half the party-goers. My reputation as an aggressive little bottom was ruined, and the message columns in the local gay rags ran hot with malicious gossip about me for the next couple of issues. Undaunted, I decided to forge on!
That night, Cleo was born. She may only have been a name, but the seeds of creation were planted.
My next attempt was in the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras parade in 1984 – it had not become The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras at that stage – and it wasn’t much better than my first attempt, except that I did myself up so that nobody would recognise me this time around. The floats in the parade were all pretty tragic. The Mardi Gras organisation had not set up workshops in these early days, so organisations and businesses just put floats together as best they could, with little taste, and no artistic direction. The one I was on was exceptionally tacky, with everyone on the float being workers for one of the local sex shops, (Numbers Bookshop), and the owner giving us a zero budget to work with. The back of the truck was covered in aluminium foil – very flashy indeed, with a sound system that only worked when the mood took it, which wasn’t very often. The manager of the store, who went under the drag persona of Miss Phoenix had a fairly over the top drag style, though a bit too serious to be gutter drag. Still, he managed to outshine the rest of us on the night, who looked like aliens out of the early days of Dr Who, and I was rather thankful for the anonymity that It afforded me. No photographs exist of that tragic episode in history…I am so glad to say!
In late 1984 I met my next lover, Damien. Frank, the one who had been the creator of the first Cleo wig had been very unceremoniously dumped. Damien was a pretty boy, and a bit of a devil, and liked to think that I didn’t know about him trashing around behind my back. His longevity as a partner was terminated after he faked a suicide attempt. However, before I pissed him off, he talked me into doing drag with him on two occasions, and still I could not get the look together. In fact, the first time I went out with him in drag, I was mistaken for his mother! Really! Not impressed! What was I doing wrong, I asked myself? I knew how I wanted to look. I had the mustache and hairy chest and legs, but somehow my image kept coming across a little bit too seriously. The realisation slowly dawned that I had to stop myself from holding back, that I just had to let my head go, and revel in the whole concept of being a cock-in-a-frock, instead of trying to look like a man dressed as a woman.
In 1985, I met Stella, a.k.a. Stuart. I also met my next lover Tony. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning for a new relationship, as I was trying, as I had been trying for many months, to get Stuart into the sack. On this particular afternoon, success was within reach, with Stuart in an apt state of inebriation for seduction, and me moving in for the kill. Well, almost moving in for the kill! Tony sort of got in the way. He had been eyeing me off for most of the afternoon, and I had already gathered that he was a new boy in town – the spider moving in on the fly. He proceeded to start talking with me in the middle of the Stuart seduction, and came over so cute and naïve that by the time night settled in, I had him at home instead of my original quarry.
In some respects, I don’t regret that it happened that way. Tony ended up as my lover for the next four years – and was the main reason for my getting tested for HIV in 1985, and coming up positive (which had nothing to do with Tony) – and though he thought it was the perfect relationship, he was the only one who ever saw it through rose tinted glasses. This time, it was me who plated up…and got caught out! As for Stuart and I, well we ended up good friends, and became drag buddies after Don died – but I am getting ahead of myself here. I will introduce you to Don shortly, and more on Stuart a bit later.
By Mardi Gras 1986, Cleo’s evolution had started. I hunted around the second-hand stores, and eventually managed to find the perfect wig. It was as white-as-white, and it could be hammered into just about any style that you wanted. The wig quickly became my signature, and many years later when I gave up gutter drag, many people would not believe I had stopped until I told them I had given ‘Cleo’ – as the wig also came to be called – away.
I made a huge fishtail frock for that Mardi Gras, in the most gorgeous Thai-silk green fabric, and for the first time – though not the last – got a hairdresser friend in to style the wig. He loved working with it, and had it pulled and stretched into this fantastic wild, white storm. The frock looked great, and there were huge plumes of emerald green ostrich feathers pouring out the back of it. I did the make-up myself, and though in the transitionary phase, it looked better than it ever had before. Add a profusion of diamante jewellery, stiletto shoes, and fishnet stockings, and it was all starting to happen.
Unfortunately, the one thing I hadn’t counted on that year was rain. Mardi Gras night has traditionally been a night when you are never quite sure what the weather is going to do, and this one was no exception. Half way through the parade, the rain poured down. I decided to go home and get out of the sopping wet frock and into something dry before going on to the party. Well, my lovely emerald green ostrich feathers decided to run, didn’t they! I had skin in the most subtle shade of green. It took hours to scrub it off. I gave up feathers after that. Much too risky!
Later that year, a DJ mate of mine who worked at ‘The Oxford’ invited me to his annual colour-themed party. That year, it was ‘Green with Envy’. The object of these parties were that if you decided to go, you had to wear the specified colour, and you had to wear drag. A little leather mate of mine called Andrew was also given an invite. We all got quite a laugh out of this, as Andrew was a leather munchkin – through and through. None of us could ever have envisioned him in drag. But he wanted to go to the party. Andrew. was one of the first in my circle of friends to contract AIDS, and he spent most of his time then going in and out of hospital – more in than out. He told me he had never done drag, and he didn’t want to exit this world feeling that there was one experience that he had missed. However, he didn’t want to do it seriously, and I had to couple with him. I agreed, and together we put together this rather macho little drag number, with green wig, and army boots, and this tacky little skirt. He looked a hoot, and had the time of his life. I’m glad I spent that night with him, and I’m glad I helped him get that whole ‘thing’ together, even if my own outfit was an abomination. I hated wearing green, and decided most definitely, that if Andrew was going to look bad, I was going to look worse. I succeeded beyond all expectation! He ended up back in hospital shortly after that party, and he didn’t come back out this time. He died on Boxing Day (December 26th) that year, and I’m sad to say that he was just the first of many.
Cleo was defined by the time Sleaze Ball 1986 rolled around. She had come into her own. A persona – and for many years an icon (Yeah! Right!) – was born. Surprisingly, I didn’t wear Cleo for this event, opting instead for a no.2 buzz cut, jelled straight up into the air, and sprayed bright red. The make-up matched, with lots of red, and very unsubtle use of other bright colours. But the outfit was the defining point, and was to be how Cleo was to be seen up to the day I finally decided to hang up the heels. I spent a fortune on a leather corse – not an easy item to obtain in Sydney back in those days – and teamed it with a leather garter belt, fishnet stockings and stilettos. The jewellery was all huge and red, and over all, the effect was beyond even my expectations. That year, I was photographed at every turn, and ended up in a Sleaze Ball montage in one of the gay rags. My boss was so smitten with this sleazy, slutty, trashy look that he used the pictures in the shop’s advertising the following year. Three ‘British Airways’ boys whom I had regular threesomes with when they were in town fell in love with the ‘new’ Cleo, and proceeded to not only give her picture pride of place in a return flight to Britain, but proceeded to stick her photo up on lightpoles from one end of England to the other. This was notoriety, and I relished it!
Needless to say, for the next couple of years, I took every opportunity to put the new Cleo on show, and she created her own demand!
I was not to be a solo act for very long. The story of how Don and I came to be partnered is odd, and was a lesson for me in how easy it is to misjudge people. He was a friend of another couple I knew, Steve and Geoff. Every year, they held a large party in their Glebe terrace called ‘The Annual Port and Cheese Party’. It was a much looked-forward to event, and to get an invitation was to be ‘in the right group’,though not in a snobby way. I had met Don at ‘The Oxford’ on several occasions, and he was one of those people who on a first meeting , comes across as loud mouthed, and rather crass. It was for these reasons that I had spent a considerable amount of time avoiding him. He was one of the privileged who got an invite to the ‘Port and Cheese’, and he wanted to go in drag, so Geoff rang me up and asked me if I would make a frock for him. Now, I should point out that Geoff was someone who it was very difficult, if not impossible, to say NO to. He was one of Gods true gentlemen, and a kinder, gentler, more generous man I have never met to this day. What could I do? I gritted my teeth, and said yes!
So a couple of nights later, Don showed up on my doorstep with an armload of gold lame. As I was to find out over the next couple of nights, he was not the loudmouth that I had originally imagined him to be. Sure, he was loud, but he had a heart of gold, and a great sense of humour. He was also a bastard to fit with a frock, as I soon found out. He wanted to look really elegant, but he had this damn gut, and trying to fit him into even my largest pattern just wasn’t going to happen. I ended up making the frock to the pattern, then inserting this huge gusset into the back of the frock to get it around his stomach. I told him he might have to wear either a corset, or a longline bra. He just laughed. I also told him that I had this great hairdresser,and offered to lend him some jewellery (this was his first time in drag, after all!), but he insisted that he knew what he was doing, and he had the rest of the outfit at home. I should have argued a bit harder! He turned up at the party looking great in the frock, but the wig looked like one of his mothers rejects after a wind storm, and he wore – wait for it – plastic jewellery! I never let him live that down. Plastic jewellery on a drag queen! I mean tawdry is tawdry, but plastic is stooping too low even for gutter drag. He accessorised a lot more carefully after that party. This was also the night that I was photographed in The Oxford…and made the cover of The Star Observer!
He and I did a few drag outings together after that. There was one occasion when I stupidly allowed him to make his own frock. I never let him do that again either. It was hideous! And it was all everyone at the party we attended could do to not tell him to his face. Oh sure, they had the time of their lives behind his back, but not even an under-the-breath-mutter to his face. I have to admire queens sometimes. They’re not always bitchy! I think the most memorable of our outings was ‘The Oxford’s’ 5th birthday party in 1987. They had a themed party every year for their birthday, and that year they chose Egyptian. If you were one of the ‘regulars’ at the hotel, which meant pretty much drinking there every day and night of the week – which we did then – you were invited to a private reception with free cocktails at 2.00pm. The pub was officially opened to the general public at 3.00pm, so you made sure you got there at dead on 2.00, and got as many drinks in as you could before you had to start paying. Don and I decided to do Egyptian drag, and spent the whole night before the party putting together these fabulous Egyptian outfits from gold lurex, with lots of gold fringing and braid, and got the hairdresser over in the after noon to do the wigs up, complete with intertwined gold serpents. We really looked great, and made quite a spectacle walking from Don’s place in Darlinghurst to the pub. Nothing like a bit of street theatre in broad daylight! The look was almost perfect. Almost! Nobody warned me about the non-photogenic aspects of gold grease paint, which I had covered my entire face in. It looks green in photographs, and you can imagine my horror when the first photos appeared after the event. I looked like I had green fungus growing all over my face. Tony never let me live that little mistake down. I’m so glad he had a raging hangover the next morning. Little prick!
Don and I did a disastrous cocktail party at a serious-type drag queens place shortly after that. Same party was seriously marred by some stupid queens passing around spiked joints without checking what they were spiking them with. The party came to a very abrupt end after everyone either tried to cram into the very small toilet to throw-up, or passed out on the hostesses bed. Ah, good old 80s parties. Nothing like them for disaster, and humiliation. We were so out if it that we were caught not looking glamorous at one stage. I know! Unbelievable!
By far the best night out that Don and I did was Anzac Day ’87! We both decided to go out as Army Strumpets. So this involved mini skirts, with belted army shirts, fishnet stockings, leopard print socks and gloves, stiletto’s, and our trademark wigs with forces caps. For my part, I decided to wear a set of blue plastic inflatable tits under my shirt to make sure the boys had something to look at. Thankfully, I crammed the pump into my handbag! The night started very quietly in The Oxford…not! We both got stuck into the shots. By the time we teamed up with the rest of our battalion – my flatmate, Steve & Geoff, and another friend James we were strumpeting along nicely. It was around about this stage that I realised my tits were not going to stay fully inflated for the entirety of our bivouac. Geoff jumped in, took control of the pump, and made himself official titty pumper for the night. So just before we were about to enter any venue, we would stop outside, I would unbutton my army shirt, flop the saggy blue plastics out, and Geoff would pump them up, shirt would be rebuttoned…and we would enter said venue. And it was a long march…The Flinders, The Albury, The Unicorn, and The Paddo Green – who definitely weren’t pleased to see us due to the “macho” image of the pub…though I was mates with the owner, so a wink was exchanged, and it was “fuck you boys…we’re out for fun!”. We returned to The Oxford at some stage, in some condition only to be told that The Flinders had been looking for us as we had won a costume prize there! We never did claim it, but it went down as one of the best nights out I have ever had in Sydney.
Don only did one solo drag outing after that. I suspected that he was ill, but he was a lot worse than he let on to any of us. For once, it wasn’t HIV, which in a very perverse way a lot of us were glad about – a reality-check that people were still dying from ordinary, everyday diseases, instead of the dreaded lergy. Don was dying from stomach cancer. We worked together in the sex shop at this stage, and I often filled in his shifts when he was too ill to get in to work. I finally managed, after getting a very frightening phone call from him one night, to get him to admit himself to hospital. Most of us thought it would be a long period of palliative care for him, but as I was about to go and visit him the following night, I ran into a friend coming back from the hospital. Don had just died. I was quite devastated, as we had become quite close over the short time we had spent together, and we had so much fun doing our gutter drag together. I suddenly felt very lonely. We gave him a fitting, gay send-off, and I and another friend scattered his ashes in the Mardi Gras parade that year. We sieved all the chunky bits out, and mixed him with glitter. Nobody was aware of what was going on, but Don would have loved the thought of being sprinkled over people in the parade. He had always been a real party boy. My only misgiving was coming home from the party the next morning. I was wandering down Oxford Street, and suddenly saw the street sweepers going up the parade route. I thought to myself, with a sudden feeling of horror “My God, poor Don’s ended up in a bloody street sweeping machine!” Fortunately, and to their merit, everyone saw the funny side of it. I regaled many a dinner party with THAT story.
Stuart – or Stella to most – and I buddied up shortly after that event. Seeing as we both worked in the sex industry, we decided to throw a sex toy party at my apartment in Darlinghurst, using stock from the store to put together what might be called a deviates version of a ‘Tupperware’ party. About 200 invites went out, but with it being held on a Saturday night, we thought everyone would be too busy doing other things to turn up. Wrong! About 108 people crammed themselves into my apartment. Drag shows that we had planned – we both wore drag, naturally – had to be cancelled due to a lack of space, and we didn’t even have a table available to be able to do the dildo and vibrator demonstrations that we had planned. People flocked in from near and far to purchase sex toys of every shape and size, blow-up dolls, leather goods of every description from the shortest cockrings to the longest stock whip, S/M & B/D gear and devices, and lubes and condoms in every size, shape and flavour imaginable. We made a small fortune out of the night, and it was a good way to show the boss how good merchandising can really work.
At the end of ’88 I did a ‘Port and Cheese’ party in a Cleo-goes-punk type outfit. I had made a corset for a friend out of some black vinyl, and as payment for the job, which wasn’t difficult, he told me to keep the leftover vinyl. I made a full circle skirt with a plunging neckline corset top out of it, with a matching collar attached to the frock with chains. I spent about a week at work studding the damn thing, and I have to say it looked great, and was a huge smash at the party.
Toward the end of that year, Stella and I attended a charity party for The Far West Children’s Home at a friend’s apartment in Bondi. On a dare from another friend, we performed live, doing both a Christmas carol, and the Pointer Sisters ‘Dare Me’. Well, we brought the house down, and I don’t think many of us had laughed so much for quite a while. HIV had really taken a heavy toll on most of our lives, and many, including myself, found it best to hide all the sadness under a veneer of happiness, and a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol. That at least made it bearable. Stella borrowed my punk frock for that party, and I never did get it back off her. Bitch! She wore it everywhere for a while after that, and I’m glad she got so much enjoyment out of it. She deserved the good times.
Our last outing together was in mid ’89. I made Stella this fabby frock out of royal blue velvet and taffeta with these huge jewelled shoulder pads. I had a mile of red loose-thread Lurex at home, and made myself this huge bubble frock with a silver and black Lurex top. We got made-up in my apartment, and as we waddled our way over to The Oxford for a drink before going on to a party, two lesbians followed us down the street, flattering us with compliments about how great we looked, that real women could never get it together to look as good as drag queens, and how well we walked in heels (it’s a weight thing, I swear!). Well, if that didn’t put the night off to a great start! Who would ever have thought that lesbians liked to see men dressed as women? Gives you something to think about, doesn’t it? Anyway, after this old guy chased me around the bar for about an hour, harassing me to go home with him for a fuck (there always has to be one, doesn’t there! I mean, if I was half ways attractive in gutter drag, I could understand it, but…) we decided to leave for the party. Halfway down Oxford Street, the next thrill for the night is about to happen, apart from dancing briefly with two police men who were silly enough to smile at us as we giggled and staggered about. Yes, the ultimate drag queen delight – a tour bus full of Japanese tourists! I don’t know who was more thrilled – the driver, or the tourists. Everyone knows that Sydney’s Oxford Street is the home of gaydom, but you just can’t expect to drive up the street, and see two drag queens coming toward you. Well let me tell you, didn’t Stella and I put on a pose-and-vogue show for all those clicking cameras. Just to think, drag photos of me not just in Britain, but in Japan as well. My image has traveled further than I have, for Gods sake! Well, we did make it to the party, but it seemed a bit of a let down after all the other events of that evening.
I have photos of Stella from that evening. The ones taken at the party show a happy, fun-loving, carefree boy. The ones at home as he is getting changed show something else entirely. I think Stella knew that night that he would never be doing this sort of thing again, and for just one instant in time, the camera caught the look that said it.
About two weeks later, Stella was admitted to the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst. I went to visit him just before the end. He was really doped up, but was really glad to see me, and I sat on the bed and held his hand, and we reminisced about all the good times we had together. As I left his room and headed towards the elevator, I had this sudden urge to turn around. Stella was sitting up in bed, watching me leave. Our eyes locked for a second, and I knew that I would never see him again. I cried all the way home. He died the following night.
His death absolutely tore the heart out of me. First Don, now Stuart. I felt as if everything was falling apart around me. I attended two functions in drag after that, but the fun was sort of missing without a mate to share it with. Don’t get me wrong…I had a great time…after all, I was with friends. A progressive dinner with three couples – 3 in drag, 3 in dinner suits was a welcome panacea after all that had gone on. The itinerary for the night was cocktails in Glebe, entree in North Bondi, main in Bourke St Darlinghurst, and dessert in Goulburn St, Darlinghurst. The first signs of the night going down hill rapidly occurred when one of the drag artistes – for some unknown reason – decided that in the absence of hairspray, they would spray there wig with hobby glue. Naturally, the fumes from said glue caused the artistes eyes to run copiously…which resulted in make-up running everywhere. So there were frequent stops in bathrooms to repair damage…only to hav.e it happen again et al. I had not stopped to think of how hard it would be to prepare a main with nails on. I admire anyone who can, so that took forever. Heedless to say, ,copious amounts of alcohol were consumed at every stop, so by the time we got to dessert in Darlington Towers we were totally sloshed. Evidently we made so much noise that someone in the building called the police! All us girls screamed, and disappeared into the bathroom giggling drunkenly, leaving the butch (not!) boys to handle the cops.
The final party I attended with “the group” was in Glebe, and was a 50s party. Two of my ex’s decided to stir me up by both attending together in drag. That was a laugh. A friend attended as “an orphan baby dumped on the doorstep”…literally. I’m glad I went. I had a great time but there was a sadness in the air, a feeling of something completing its course and coming to an end. Geoff died not long after this, so life as we had known it at Glebe ceased.
My 36th birthday was in early 1990. I decided to throw a party to sell off all the drag and costumes that I had accumulated over the years. My health wasn’t the best at the time, perhaps because I smoked 100 cigarettes a day and drank myself into oblivion every night, or perhaps because HIV had decided that it was my turn. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t maintain my weight, and my energy would give out very quickly. I hoped that I would see my 40th birthday (at that time, 50 definitely seemed out of the question), but even that hope was in doubt. I dressed myself in drag for the last time, using all borrowed items except for the famous wig. By the time the last person left my apartment that night, there would not be a scrap of drag, a single accessory, shoe, bag, piece of jewellery, fragment of fabric or a pair of laddered pantyhose left in the place. A friend called Philip (or Phyllis, as he preferred to be called) was the last to leave, and as he went out the door, I yelled at him to come back for a second. As he turned around, I pulled Cleo off my head, and threw her to him, saying simply “Give her a good time. She deserves it”.
So Cleo hung up her heels. It was time to exorcise some of the past, and move on. I had spent too much time feeling disempowered. It was time to empower myself, and get my life back into some order. There was a group of eighteen of us that used to hang out in one corner of ‘The Oxford’. It was our corner, and if we were around, nobody else would come near it. Well, there were only six of us left at that stage. Fucking virus! It was a sure means of depleting your social circle. There were still times when I wished I didn’t have to remember people and things, that memories were more like a curse. I wished I could just leave everything in the past where it belonged. Life just didn’t happen that way. Then I thought it was maybe my gift to remember them, to tell all their stories and keep their memories alive in some way. You see, none of them ended up with headstones, and none had books written about them. This was perhaps the only testament to their lives. I think those memories were my tribute to their fun, their love of life, and their bravery. Without them, I would never have been the person I was, and I would never have experienced life the way I did. I realised then that none of us is the sum of our whole existence; we were the sum of a whole lot of people who floated into our lives, and floated out, and profoundly changed things forever. If I had ever been afraid to die, I no longer was. Through dying, I would have been meeting up with them again, having a good old gossip, and discussing what frocks we were going to wear to the next party. I firmly believed that. I believed that after you died, you were reunited with everyone and everything you had ever loved. At least I had that hope to hang onto.
Fuck, I needed it!
And now I need a fucking drink!
FOOTNOTE: It is now mid 2001, and I am still alive. I have seen my 40th birthday (just!), and am only three years away from 50. It hasn’t been an easy time. I have been disabled by AIDS, and was whisked (literally) from the arms of death in 1996 when they started me on the then new combination therapy. I have never done drag since that final party, and I don’t think the peripheral neuropathy in my feet would take too kindly to me levering my poor toes into stilettos these days. But I have all the photos (and all the memories) from those days, and I often look through them for both a laugh and a cry. I am attending The University of Technology in Sydney at the moment, hoping to finish my Graduate Diploma in Writing around my 51st birthday. Part of my writing has been to put the memories of these people onto paper. They were wonderful friends, and a true inspiration, and I want their memories to live on. This is my tribute to them.
And as much as I hate to admit it, there is in the life of every gutter drag quean those rare occasions where errors of taste and sins of design occur. Not one to want you all to think it was a life of glamour – I offer you Cleo’s blooper reel * Cringes and hangs head in shame*.
I don’t know if somebody snuck into my bedroom while I slept and stole it, or if I have just forgotten where I put it! Checked the spare room. Not there! Checked under the house. Not there! Even checked the dog kennel, but no, not there either! One day here, the next day – gone! And just what is this mystery that I am running around, trying to find? well, I hate to admit it, but somewhere along the line I have lost G-A-Y. I’m really missing it, so if you do happen to see it, PLEASE grab it for me, and bring it back. I spent the majority of my life putting G-A-Y together, making it a thing that I showed off with immense pride. Indeed, some said I flaunted it. And as quickly as it was gained, so it has disappeared.
Just as an example of how serious losing G-A-Y is, I tried this morning to do a very G-A-Y thing – swish my hips. Now, this used to happen naturally. I’d take a step – swish! Take another step – swish! Do a little mincey run – swish-swish-swish-swish. Didn’t have to ponder it. It just was! But today….they wouldn’t swish! To be honest, it looked as though something very uncomfortable was stuck up my bum! Like that horrible bum-creep you get from badly cut undies. In fact I couldn’t even get them to do a jiggle. But as much as this was bad, worse was to come. I tried to limp my wrist. I even hunted down a photo of both Boy George and Quentin Crisp to make sure I was doing it right – now how fucking bad is that. Even thinking I need to learn it is really serious shit! Now, you know the limp I am talking about; that flourishy thing that true queens are really good at! Well, it just didn’t happen. It just looked as though I had a broken wrist, or worse still that I had just dropped a handful of small change. And let’s not forget the lisp, something that even Ita has never lost. That slight but obvious distortion of the S sound, making it more like STH, as in sthweetie. Yes, I know, I know – I never had a lisp. My plum-in-the-mouth way of speaking was the result of a private education – absolutely nothing to do with the G-A-Y gene!. But I should at least have been able to fake a lisp! FFS I’m G-A-Y!
I was distraught! How could this had happened, how could it have snuck up on me so quickly, like an unwanted dose of the flu. It was bad enough that I attended a nightclub a couple of weekends ago, and thought the constant thump of instrumental music was abysmal. “Whatever happened to vocals!”, I screamed at my partner over the bass. Well, whatever happened to handbag when it comes to that! We did try to dance; Even my father could have done better. Fuck, now I’m doing dad dancing. Very sad! But then you can’t outrightly dismiss things. You have to give them a go. But a shuffle isn’t a dance. On top of all this we had taken an ‘E’ that had very much decided that it was not going to kick in – well, not this week anyway. We wandered back to the balconies.
To make things worse, there were some very sexy men roaming around without their shirts on. Now I have to admit to a twinge of jealousy in having to acknowledge, to myself, that there was not even a remote hope in hell that one of them would even throw me a glance,, let alone try to pick me up. That’s one sure way for an ageing queen to feel really unG-A-Y.. It’s not that I’ve lost the ability to be a slut – hell, that comes naturally to all of us – it’s more a matter of never being caught up in the gym culture, and though certainly not overweight, I’m definitely not a six-pack on legs.. And watching them, one has to wonder just what significance do brains have for these torqued bodies anyway? Are they taking each other home to solve “Scrabble” grids, or watch Q&A on the ABC? I think not! Who needs brains when you have a body.
I had a lot of G-A-Y in my younger days. I’m sure there are those who would say perhaps too much. I was both singularly and plurally – a nightclub pig; a minor druggie – though more so if there was good acid around; a big slut; no, a very big slut; a party animal; a clone; a pseudo leatherman; – and would take any opportunity to dress G-A-Y; speak G-A-Y; act G-A-Y; eat G-A-Y and just generally be…G-A-Y.
I would attend protest rallies for all things G-A-Y – though as often as not be there just to cruise (refer to my note on being a big slut). I would attend any group or party, and read any paper that was said to support anything G-A-Y. I have done gutter drag. I have supported and done my fair share for all things HIV/AIDS…and herein, perhaps, lies the crux of the matter, pointing the way to where G-A-Y disappeared to.
Twenty years of – being; living; fighting; writing; reading; talking and surviving – and don’t you dare rob me of the use of that word – HIV/AIDS has in some part stolen that iota of me that was G-A-Y. Let’s be honest about HIV/AIDS – it wore us all out. It was at our throats day and night. We lived it, and breathed it, day in and day out 24/7. We nursed it, cajoled it, hated it, and then hated it even more as we buried it. And Instead of being G-A-Y males who just happened to be HIV+, we became HIV+ males who just happened to be G-A-Y.
So back on track in my search for G-A-Y. Oh sure, I still read the papers – takes me all of five minutes these days – and if the parties were still even basically G-A-Y I might, at least on occasion, attend one or two. But they are not, nor ever will be again. The days of la grande party are over. Just as our streets and clubs have been sacrificed to the straight community in the name of political correctness and assimilation, so the community has slowly sold itself out to other, less G-A-Y concerns. Some say the day of the G-A-Y ghetto are over, and I’m not going to argue that, as all things mature and evolve. But did we really need to annihilate it!
Even if I wanted to revert to the G-A-Y stereotype of old – not that I object to that stereotype – I doubt anyone would recognise what I was attempting to do. A sad attempt to regain that which I had had, and lost in the wake of a greater cause. The only way I can really try to regain the G-A-Y in my life these days is to have a fashionable home – seen only be close friends; dress a little bit twink – I just get away with it; have my hair spiked – yes, I still have it all and it is not dyed; and throw dinner parties – again, which only close friends attend. As far as everything else goes – well, now it takes me a week to recover from a night out on a single ‘E’; I love modern dance music – especially Trance – just don’t ask me who the artist is, I can enjoy bars still – if I can get past the bouncer on the door; I get cranky at Mardi Gras trying to be ‘big business’; I’m sick of the sight of standoffish six-packs on roids; and I want to go to bed at midnight. What sort of G-A-Y person does that!
Perhaps the secret is not to get G-A-Y back. Perhaps the memories and my few remaining friends should be enough to reminisce with about what G-A-Y used to be like. Perhaps once having lost G-A-Y you can never get it back! Fuck, now there is a terrifying thought! Or perhaps I just heed to step back from it all for a while. Ruminate on where I fit into it all now. One thing I do know for sure…having been spewed out of the arse-end of HIV, I no longer view it all through rose-coloured glasses.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t hate G-A-Y. But neither does it hold the great fascination that it once enthralled me with. I don’t want to be a 50-year-old G-A-Y man trying to look – and fit into – a 20-year-olds world. That would be just fooling myself. I want to be able to be just who I am; with those who think like me and act like me and are also now…old and G-A-Y. I hate feeling cut off and alienated, and that is not a road I am walking alone. The truth is that G-A-Y has not been lost. G-A-Y has in fact been found. G-A-Y has metamorphosed.
G-A-Y has come home
So perhaps the best I can hope for is – NOT to end up like my parents! Now that would be reclaiming G-A-Y!
The challenge of writing about 33 years of living with HIV/AIDS isn’t so much to write tomes about what actually was witnessed over that period. That is easy to do, and I could ramble on forever about it. The challenge lies in being objective and succinct, to tone down the schmaltz and sentimentality and cut to the chase. Not as easy as one may think, as these were the most challenging, relentlessly ruthless and heartbreaking period of my life. But if survival is the gauge of ones strength and tenacity, then I have come out at this end of it with flying colours. Indeed, the cup is half full!
So what was it really like in 1982 to be reading snippets in our local gay press about this mysterious illness in The States that seemed to be targeting gay men who frequented the saunas, and quickly killing them? Well, cynicism and disbelief to start with, and the surety that within a short period of time they would find an antibiotic to clear up yet another STD. Soon the snippets were to become columns, then pages as the mysterious and deadly illness leapt from the shores of America and found its way here.
Our response was mixed. The first recorded case of HIV at home was 1982, and the first death in 1983. We had our usual ratbags who yelled and screamed about God’s vengeance on the evil, sick and perverted gay lifestyle (obviously a different God to the compassionate, all-forgiving one that I had heard about), the advocates of hate who demanded quarantine for all infected persons, and those who either quietly or vocally wished that we would all die or just go away. Not that easy folks! Thankfully, common sense prevailed and both the government and the grassroots gay community combined to put both AIDS Councils and NGO programs in place. Our quick response was instrumental in Australia always being at the forefront of HIV/AIDS care. Within 2 years every state had an AIDS Council under the national umbrella of NAPWA (National Association of People with AIDS), and the formation of support organisations such as The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Community Support Network (CSN) and Ankali. Without these organisations life would have been grim for those infected. In 1985 testing was introduced. It was a bit of a strange affair in the early days. Due to hysteria and discrimination no one wanted their personal details on a database, so you chose a name, and Albion Street Centre issued you with a number that then became your ID. You had a blood test, and waited for two weeks – talk about high anxiety – to get your result. I had a mystery illness in 1982, a flu-type illness that wasn’t the flu, and already suspected that I had sero-converted and was going to come up HIV+. I was right. Counseling? Oh yeah, we had a lot of that back then. “You’ve got about 2 years to live”. Shrug shoulders “Okay”. And off we went knowing the inevitable was rapidly approaching, and it was time to PARTY!!! What else could you do? However there were horror stories. The disgusting treatment of young Eve Van Grafhorst is something for all Australians to be ashamed of. Born in 1982, she was infected with HIV via a blood transfusion. When she attempted to enrol in her Kincumber pre-school in 1985, parents threatened to withdraw their children due to the (supposed) risk of infection. The family was literally hunted out of town, and forced to leave the country and go to NZ. I will never forget the sight of this poor, frail girl on her way to the airport. I, like many others, was horrified that this could happen in Australia. Thankfully, her NZ experience was quite the opposite, and she lived a relatively normal life until her death in 1993 at 11 years of age. Her parents received a letter from Lady Di praising her courage.
Meanwhile, the Australian nightmare was well and truly hitting home. My first close friend, Andrew Todd, died in 1986. At that time there was no dedicated AIDS ward, and Andrew was shifted between wards as beds were needed for other cases. He died on Boxing Day in A&E at St, Vincent’s. I had the sad duty of ringing all my friends at a party to tell them the sad news. Party pooper recognition acknowledged! Ward 17 at St Vincent’s eventually became the dedicated AIDS ward, and for the next 10 years was never empty. Palliative care was through The Sacred Heart Hospice. Hospitals such as Westmead hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons; full contamination clothing for those working with HIV people, rooms not being cleaned, meals left outside doors. Even the poor old mosquito copped a hiding as a means of contamination, along with toothbrushes, glasses, cutlery and crockery. An advertising campaign featuring the Grim Reaper bowling down poor people created an apocalyptic vision of HIV that scared the life out of everyone. It was quickly withdrawn. In the interim, my 2 years became 4, which became 6 followed by 8. My life became a haze of alcohol and cigarettes, not shared alone.
In the 80’s I held a lot of parties with anywhere from 40- 60 friends attending. By 1996, if I had tried to hold a party I would have been lucky to have dug up 10 friends to attend. In the blink of an eye my social circle was effectively wiped off the face of the earth. Hospitals, hospices, funerals and wakes became the dreaded regular events. It was death on a relentless and unforgiving scale. The Quilt Project became the focus of our sorrow, and it’s regular unfoldings and name readings were tear-filled times of remembrance and reminiscence, along with the yearly Candlelight Rally. I attended until I became so empty that I could no longer bear it. I submitted my names but no longer attended. In the early 90’s four friends died close together – two from AIDS, one a heart attack and one cancer. This was a particularly heavy blow as two of these friends had been regular “gutter drag” partners, and that part of my life effectively ended. In a perverse way, it seemed strange that the Big A wasn’t the only thing stalking our lives.
Despite its reputation for being human Ratsac (the Concorde Study in France named it such, after conducting an unethical trial; turns out they were correct!) I started taking AZT when my CD4 count started to take a dive. Hard work, long hours, heavy drinking, chain smoking, a shit diet and emotional turmoil didn’t help. Pub culture became lifestyle. Did several drug trials – D4T, which was sort of successful, though the same class of drug as AZT. Also p24 VLP (Very Light Protein) which proposed that stimulating the p24 antigen may help control HIV. Total waste of my time. It did nothing. We started alternating drugs – 6 months on AZT, 6 on D4T, 6 on DDI, 6 on DDC. Perversely it seemed to keep the wolf from the door. Dosage was huge. Everyone on it ended up with kidney problems and peripheral neuropathy. Prophylactics added to the drug burden. In the meantime there was no HIV dental service and our teeth rotted or fell out due to bouts of candida. I left work in 1993 after being seriously knocked around by viral pneumonia which should have killed me…but didn’t. I was shuffled onto the pension, and given rent subsidised housing by DOH. The subsidy seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, weren’t we all eventually going to be killed by the Big H, so no one would be on it for that long? Famous last words! My alcohol consumption and chain smoking increased, if that was possible! Was losing weight at an alarming rate, and naturally no one noticed because I took to wearing baggy clothes to disguise it. Nothing quite like being delusional. Moved from Darlinghurst to Bondi. Nothing like moving away from the scene to help your health…not! Collapsed in the street, and admitted to St Vincent’s not with PCP as suspected but a collapsed lung. Two weeks later and a change of female GP’s saw me back in the doctor’s rooms while she read my hospital discharge report. Had they tested me for CMV retinitis? No! Was I having trouble with my vision? Yes, but I do wear glasses. Guess what? We’re sending you for a little holiday at Prince Henry Hospital (now closed). I was a little bit sick. Chronic CMV retinitis, chronic candida, chronic anemia, had 10 CD4 cells and weighed 48 kgs. Mmm, prognosis was not good. Well, it had been a good life. I was certainly joining a band of party people. But no! Life hadn’t finished with me yet. Protease Inhibitors had come along at an auspicious time, and within a fortnight I had been stolen from the arms of death. Mind you, that fortnight had been no picnic. Ganciclovir injections into the eye, Deca-Durabolin injections to help put weight back on, blood transfusions, and enough finger prick blood readings to last me the rest of my life. And the problems had just started for this return-to-lifer. Not dying when you are supposed to really fucks up your head space.
So started the next round of therapies. Peer Support groups; counselors; Caleo (a treatment management group who help you maintain the impetus to take the billion pills a day we were taking); clinics; dental care (now up and running); volunteer work (to keep one sane). What started out as volunteer work at the then PLWHA (NSW) Inc (now Positive Life) turned into paid employment as a research assistant. I started writing for “Talkabout” magazine, joined the Positive Speakers. Bureau, and learnt to use a computer. A couple of stints back in full-time employment made me realise that big changes needed to be made with my life. By this time my health was pretty well back together. A couple of nights out pushed home just how few people I knew, however did lead to meeting my current (now ex) partner. A brief encounter with Indinivir sludge in my kidneys (which involved having a stent inserted then removed) also made me aware that for HIV+ people the unexpected can happen at any time. Yet another change of doctor. Self-empowerment had become an important issue, and I wanted a say in my health management, as distinct from being dictated to. Big changes were about to happen.
In 2000 David and I did a big (and expensive) holiday to the Red Centre. It was an amazing experience. Before leaving Sydney I had applied to the University of Technology in Sydney to do my degree in writing. Shortly after arriving back home I was informed that I had been accepted. Ah, the advantages of mature age AND disability. So spent three years doing my Graduate Certificate in Writing, was office- bearer for the Special Needs Collective…in fact I WAS the Special Needs Collective, and discovered I hated having to deal with the moronic “radicals” who called themselves the Student Association and did nothing except rant and rave, and waste student money. I was glad to leave uni. Towards the end of 2004 I decided to get my chef’s credentials from East Sydney TAFE, and crammed a 12-month course into 6 months. As much as I hated uni, I really loved TAFE and found it more grassroots and honest. David and I started Alderman Catering, a top-end catering business though it only lasted about 2 years as I found it very exhausting. I then sort of returned to my retail roots by opening a web site called Alderman Providore to sell Australian made gourmet grocery items. The site proved successful, and within 4 years I was opening my second site, this time specialising in tea, coffee and chocolate products. I got involved in a trial using Goat’s Serum to treat HIV, but again another waste of time. I did manage to get a skin rash from it, and managed to score a $1,000 for participating. In late 2009 the GFC hit, and online shopping took a major hit. After a disastrous Christmas that left me severely out if pocket, I decided to sell the business and put it behind me.
More eye problems followed, this time involving my blind eye. Back to the regular rounds at the Sydney Eye Hospital, and an injection of Avastin into the blind eye to stop it creating new blood supplies to an eye that couldn’t see. By this time, the interior of the bad eye was collapsing, and it took on an unnatural colour. Before this I hadn’t looked blind. Now I did!
The next step, which sort of brings us up to date, was a major move. Plans to move north had been on the agenda for 10 years – in 2011 it finally happened, though we did jump the border which wasn’t in the original plan. Recently my retina detached in my one seeing eye…or rather was pushed off by all the scar tissue present from my original CMV infection. An emergency operation to scrape down the scar tissue, and replace the retina and fluid (called a vitrectomy) has seen my sight degenerate even further and I am now the proud owner of a white cane curtesy of Guide Dogs Queensland. It has become obvious that our two Jack Russell’s are not, despite their best of intentions, good seeing-eye dogs. I can see, though very poorly. A lot of life is a blur these days.
However, I am not going to complain. I have always enjoyed a challenge, and this presents yet another one. I gave up smoking 15 years ago, and drink only lightly and socially these days. My partner and I both adopted a healthy diet and exercise program 8 years ago when we both started getting unattractively over-weight and inactive. We have both turned our lives around by adopting this course of action. In 2013, I obtained my Certificate III in Fitness from Southbank TAFE. It proved both a challenge for me, and for the TAFE, as they had never had a student with severe visual impairment do the course before. And finally, at the beginning if this year, I had my troublesome blind eye removed. I now have a very life-like prosthetic that I dan do drunken party tricks with.
33 years eh! OMG where have those years gone? Despite all the discrimination, stress, anxiety, illness, deaths, survivor guilt and despair, there have been moments of great introspection, illumination, strength and enlightenment. That over-used word “empowerment” springs to mind and that is perhaps the one word that sums all those years up. Victim? No way! Survivor? Not in my words! And I have never been one to wallow in self pity. You just need to grab life by the balls, and get on with it. I trust that is what I have done.
“What an irrational, ecstatic, erotic, silly, FUN thing dancing is.”1
In 1977, I wandered into a record store in Granville, and discovered, hidden to one side of the female vocalist long-plays, a small selection of the, until then, unheard of 12” singles. I walked out of the store with a copy of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” – at the exorbitant price of $2.99 – under my arm, and thus started what has been for me, a continuing love of dance music.
Around the same time, I started to frequent the city’s discos, usually starting my night out at “Downunder” in the Hyatt Kingsgate in King’s Cross. Then, if I was feeling adventurous, I would wander down to “The Zoo” in William Street or over to “Jools” in Crown Street. On odd occasions I wandered down Darlinghurst Road in the Cross and passed by a gay disco called “Zig Zag”. How I longed to enter that glitzy, glittery doorway, complete with camp spruiker, but fear always stopped me just short of a grand entrance. A lesbian friend of mine, who my father thought was my girlfriend – and he hoped that I would marry – had taken me to Oxford Street on a number of ‘dates’. Even though we never went into any of the discos situated there (a gay friend of hers owned a coffee bar in Bourke Street called “Nana’s”, and she went there primarily to socialise with Nana, and his friend, Cupcake). I can still remember all the exotic names. There was “Patchs”, “Flo’s Palace”, “Tropicana”, “The Barrel Inn”, “Tina’s Bar” and “Capriccio’s”, not to mention a street teeming with male sexuality – at least, as sexual as the 70’s were able to get.! I would wander back home on my own at 6.00 in the morning, depressed and with the dread that I was, eventually, going to die a virgin. Fortunately, my luck was about to change.
In late 1978, my father killed himself. This act on its own would not have been enough to prompt my ‘coming out’, despite him being the main cause of all my sexual repression, but it did imbue me with an immense feeling of freedom. A national retail company that I worked for at the time asked me, in late 1979, if I would like to spend some time in Melbourne to troubleshoot their two retail stores there. Two days after they asked, I found myself on a plane to Melbourne. I also found myself, blessedly, far from friends and family. No observers, no critics. I was answerable to nobody but myself. I ‘came out’ – definitely with a bang, not with a whimper! As a means to an end – in that it would give me contacts on the gay scene – I joined a collective of gay Catholics, becoming a member of a group called “Acceptance” and after that there was no holding me back. I was 25 and damned horny, and any male that was half decent looking and capable of walking was my prey. I was free at last!
The first gay disco I attended which taught me the meaning of ‘cruising’ – and that you had on occasions to say no to someone’ – was also the place I picked up my first man. Or more correctly, he picked me up – and I discovered that I liked older men of a certain type – he wasn’t the type. No worries, there were plenty more nights, and plenty more men, to come. I also discovered around the early 80’s a huge discrepancy in the way 70’s music was being historically treated. All of the music documentaries I saw that covered that period stated that disco music had died in 1978, with the temporary closure of ‘Studio 54’ – it rather unsuccessfully continued its existence until 1986 – and with the advent of ‘New Wave’ music. How misinformed they were! Disco music never died. It did, however, undergo a huge shift in sound to Hi-Energy, and style (the advancement of drum machines guaranteed a continuous, accurate beat, and provided a heavy drum/percussion background to modern dance music), then moved itself underground to the care of the sector of the community who could love and cherish it the way it deserved. It became a gay icon!
So started my life as a gay male. Like Sydney, Melbourne had its own underground gay press, and its underground gay scene. It wasn’t hard to get the local gay rags, you just had to know where to go. It was often a bit more difficult, however, finding the gay venues. The people may have been ‘out’, but the venues weren’t. Through the press, I started reading about a disco in St. Kilda called “Mandate”. Deciding that I liked the sound of any disco with the word ‘man’ in it, I decided on a night out there. Friends had already introduced me to places like “The University Club” in Collins Street in the city, where after 3am all the gay cabbies were on the prowl, and only too willing to give you a free ride home in return for a ‘favour’. There was also the young trendy “Smarties” in North Melbourne, the very butch “The Laird” hotel in Collingwood, “Ryders” in Fitzroy, and the drag queen haven of “Pokies” in St. Kilda. But they were nothing compared to “Mandate”! The gay scene was spread over a wide area in Melbourne, unlike the gay ghetto that eventuated in Sydney – and I now think it may be the one reason why the gay scene remained ‘gay’ in Melbourne, long after it started turning straight in Sydney. I was often less afraid to go to gay venues in the southern city, because if the straight boys wanted to go ‘poofter baiting’, it would have cost them a fortune in petrol, and it was too much of a hassle to drive from suburb to suburb, so one usually went unmolested, no matter which venue you went to.
The first time I went to Mandate, I walked past the entry door about six times. It’s not that a door wasn’t there, it’s just that it wasn’t wide open and there was no sign telling me to knock. I suddenly realised, after watching others enter, that I had to announce to the ‘door bitch’ that I wished to enter after being ‘checked out’ through a small covered window in the door. If I passed muster, which wasn’t a problem, being young and pretty, I got straight in. And I walked into another world! There was a small ticket office at the bottom of a flight of stairs. After paying the couple of dollars it cost to get in, I climbed the stairs, ignoring the sexual exploits going on under my feet. I then entered male paradise! The bar was set up directly to the left of the entrance door. If I turned to the right, I headed toward a huge cruising area, with a dance floor at the far end. There was a narrow, ‘L’ shaped area running around the dance floor filled in with metal bars, and it was in the cruise area behind these bars that I had my first experience with public sex. And enjoyed it! But that really wasn’t why I was there. It was the copper dance floor spread with a layer of talcum powder – to give it slip; the incredible light show; the constant, primitive driving beat of dance music that kept me riveted there; boys stripped down to the waist, covered in sweat; the ever-circling amyl bottle, and the blast of whistles to tracks like “Rock Your Body” by 202 Machine, “Hills of Katmandu” by Tantra, “Don’t Stop the Train” by Phyllis Nelson, “You Can” by Madleen Kane and “Hit ‘n Run Lover” by Carol Jiani. I would take a huge whack of amyl up my nose, spinning out on the floor for a few seconds. I would inevitably end the night in somebody’s bed, usually not my own. If I was lucky, they might speak to me again and if I was really lucky, I might fall in love for two weeks. That’s all it was about! The lights; the dancing; the naked flesh; the sweat and the sex. It was intoxicating! I became a clone and revelled in the tribal symbolism of ‘belonging’.
The Aussie gay clone could not have happened anywhere else except in the sub-cultures of the gay community. No.1 or no.2 haircuts, handlebar moustaches, ‘Bonds’ tee shirts or singlets, flannelette shirts, Levi ‘501’ Red Tab jeans and boots, “King Gee” shorts. It was a uniform, and it was gay. After years of stereotyping gay men as effete, arty, and poncey, we fought back with a macho extreme. By day, I was a mild, well-mannered retail manager, with a somewhat extreme haircut, and a pierced ear – its extremism reaching even the upper echelons of power in Sydney and almost costing me my job. But by night, I came into my own as a nightclub clone – the term nightclub was preferred to disco by this time. Many adopted the ‘Village People’ look of hardhats or ‘Akubra’s’, and as far as most of us were concerned in the nightclubs, all this type of regalia was totally acceptable and part of the clone persona. The gay elite – read: old and conservative – were aghast at this new, unabashed sexuality, writing tomes into the gay rags about how we were adopting straight stereotypes to exhibit our own lack of masculinity. I wrote a letter into “Campaign” newspaper – it had not achieved magazine status at this time – accusing them of being ‘cloneophobes’, sadly locked in their tired, conservative, in-the-closet- sexuality, listening to their Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand records, unable to express themselves as gay men, as the new, younger generation were doing. This new generation of gay was no longer content to have circuit dinner parties, or arrange nights at the theatre or the opera. They had a new freedom, which was being expressed, with revelry, through our nightclubs. Nobody wrote back to argue with me. The battle for the rights of clones was won!
In early 1982, news from overseas was filtering through via the gay press that rare forms of pneumonia – called PCP – and a cancer called Karposi’s Sarcoma, were killing gay men – seemingly very selective diseases, only picking on a minority group who were sexually ‘different’ – who frequented the baths and backrooms in San Francisco. Like everyone else at this time, I thought “Oh yeah, another STD to worry about. Can’t be any worse than the crabs, or a dose of the clap. They’ll find a pill for it”. It didn’t turn out quite that way. At the same time, I decided I had had enough of Melbourne. I couldn’t have coped with another winter down there. I was homesick for the beautiful harbour. News from the Sydney gay community was of boom times, a scene very much tied into what was happening in Melbourne. ‘Capriccio’s’ caught fire, ‘Patchs’ caught fire, and ‘Tropicana’ caught fire. Sydney was literally burning. It didn’t sound like a thriving scene if one relied on reports in the ‘Sydney Star’ newspaper, but visitors from Sydney raved about the new venues replacing those that had been incinerated, especially the ‘Midnight Shift’, which had risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of ‘Tropicana’.
I yearned for my birth city. I fell in love with a ‘bear’ from Waverton who was visiting Melbourne, and decided to move back north. The bear turned out to be a psychotic, but that’s another story. I fucked him off, moved into a unit – with harbour views – in Neutral Bay, flatting with a radio announcer from 2SM a a plutonic relationship, I can assure you – and proceeded to get on with life. I joined the soon to be defunct Gay Rights Lobby – defunct because we obtained gay rights. We gained the right to have sex with another man without being arrested, and anti-discrimination laws were set in place. I decided to be apolitical from then on – until HIV came along anyway. The gay ghetto of Oxford St – ‘The Golden Mile”, or “Vaseline Alley”, depending on who you were talking to – was a seething mass of depravity, deviancy and sexuality. I automatically felt at home, joining in with gusto. It was also wall-to-wall clones. I felt doubly at home. Like most people in Sydney, I had my regular haunts. Not for me were wasted hours of hot, steamy sex in the baths, or the cravings for anonymous sex in the gloryholed back-rooms and sex clubs like Club 80, that many frequented. I had only visited the baths once, and that was to get off with a friend of the ‘bear’s’, who I met while I was still living with him. Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted for sex! But more on that later.
Until The Oxford hotel opened in 1982, my Saturday night out always started at The Albury. In some respects, The Albury has never changed. Clientele would be spilling out onto the footpath by 10 PM, and drag shows are synonymous with the place. If you were into the leather scene, your haunt would be The Beresford, but a fire in that hotel around ’84 changed its character forever, and the leather brigade moved on. I met my third long-term lover at The Albury, really a substitute for the guy I was actually after – his flatmate John. I hoped that by having a ‘thing’ with Frank, perhaps, by some perverse stroke of luck, I might eventually be screwed by John. It never happened, though John and I ended up good friends. However, Frank’s reign as my partner was only to last until I realised that there was a world of men out there for the taking. I was missing out on too many opportunities and his bleached hair and tinted eyelashes became too artificial for my liking. I dumped him!
So, as I said, The Oxford opened in late 1982. It became a clone haven overnight, and was my regular watering hole for the next fifteen years. I survived two of its reincarnations, but the third was just too much, a little too trendy for its old clientele. But in 1982, it was heaven, a paradise of the latest dance music, and the hottest, sweatiest men. One thing I will always say about gay men – it doesn’t take much encouragement to get them to start removing their gear. It was also home to several Oxford Street institutions – well, institutions at the time, anyway. Dexter was an idea stolen by one of the pub managers after visiting the States. It was an electronically controlled penis that sat on a trapeze hung from the ceiling toward the back of the pub. Underneath the ‘head’ was a mouth, the entire apparatus being controlled from the dj’s box, tucked away against the west wall of the main bar. At designated times during the night, some popular dance track like “Maybe This Time” by Norma Lewis would start playing, the trapeze would start swinging, and Dexter would go into a full mime routine. Very camp. Dexter’s demise came about after some Yank visitors to our fair city went back to the States and dobbed us into the copyright owners. They threatened to sue if Dexter didn’t hang up his balls, so the next thing we knew, he was gone. As far as I know, he is still packed away with a heap of other props in the roof of The Oxford.
Regular Saturday night visitors to The Oxford were ‘The Planet Sluts’. These guys were really over the top as far as gutter drag goes, being the models that I eventually used to put Cleo, my own gutter persona, together. They would appear from nowhere, often accompanied by the blessed Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. There would be frocks for days, wigs backcombed to within an inch of their life, make-up and moustaches that were totally over the top. They would barge their way through the front door, climb up onto the bar, and mime to whatever dance number happened to be going at that time. I always wanted to be a member of that troupe, but as with all these groups, it was all very cliquey. I did have the privilege of fucking with Carl, out of ‘Carla and the Cosmetics’; a drag trio who used to perform at ‘The Honest Irishman’ at Camperdown. It is a claim to fame that probably only I and Carl remain alive to remember. So that would be how most nights started out.
However, this wasn’t just how things started out on a Saturday night, or Saturday and Sunday night for that matter! In those bad, bad old days, I went out every night of the week. I didn’t work to live, and I certainly didn’t live to work. I worked to earn enough money to dance, party, and play the game hard. I went out seven nights a week, often not getting home until 3-4am, getting up at 7am to get to work, then going back out again at 10pm to repeat the cycle. There were many mornings that I turned up at work straight from some piece of trades home. But every night, the pub was just a prelude to what was to follow at The Midnight Shift. If I had enough sense, I’d leave The Oxford at 11pm to go to The Midnight Shift. I would always walk down the left-hand side of Oxford Street, as walking down the right-hand side meant I had to pass “Frenchs”, which was a skinhead hangout. They had a reputation for harassing gays passing by on their own, so I avoided it as much as possible. Being an observer to a number of punch-ups right outside its doors, I had no desire to have my night ruined by any such carry-on. The Shift, as it was affectionately known, had been a pinball parlour in the early 70s, became Club 85 (its street address) in the mid 70s, then Tropicana from the mid 70s up till the fire in ’82, soon after becoming what it still is – The Midnight Shift. It was the nightclub of the clone/macho set.
If I arrived at 11pm, I’d be able to walk straight in. If I left it any longer, which I often did if the alcohol was kicking in early, or the DJ was playing a string of favourites, I queued. Not that queuing was a problem. It gave me a chance to start the night’s cruising, the street being a good place to get in the mood to party. Standing in line with the others, usually with friends, we’d stare blankly into the display window of the manchester store, situated at the left of The Shift’s staircase. The queue more often than not would go back as far as Crown Street. To the right of the staircase was a supermarket, and from 11pm onwards, you could hear its glass doors rattling from the bass of the music upstairs. Like everybody else, I would eventually find myself climbing the long, steep staircase, my senses being assaulted by the music pounding through the walls. Then I would be at the top, ready to pay the entry fee, and enter the inner sanctum. The Shift had a very strict dress code – you either looked macho, or like a clone, or you were banned from entry. We had fought so hard for acceptance of this image, even from our own peer group, that we basically encouraged this sort of stereotyping of The Shifts clientele to maintain the image. This was no world for the well-dressed businessman or the city trendy in Hawaiian shirt and pleated pants. People only got in wearing denim jeans – preferably 501’s – “Bonds” singlets or tee shirts, or flannelette shirts. This and leather! Nothing else was appropriate. We all had the obligatory no.1 (street hardened boys who worked and lived in the ghetto), or no. 2 (guys who had to work, and couldn’t risk being too out) haircuts, nearly everyone having a moustache of one description or another. Back pockets of jeans usually carried a bunch of keys; in the left pocket if you liked to fuck guys (active) or; in the right pocket if you liked to be fucked (passive). Preference was often for a coloured handkerchief or bandana in the respective pocket, the colour giving others a coded invitation as to what you were into – Navy blue-straight sex; red-fist fucking; yellow-water sports; black-S&M; grey-B&D; khaki-uniforms; and white-masturbation (though this later came to signify safe sex). As for me, well, I wore navy blue, and my keys were always in my right pocket. Some guys also liked to carry small teddy bears in either pocket, signifying that for that night at least, they were into either cuddling or being cuddled. There was a strength in that clone sameness, that stripping away of ‘straight’ stereotypes, a feeling that everyone in the nightclub was equal, and male. The Shift only allowed men to enter its hallowed walls…
Seeing as I have managed to get you to the door- you must have had the regulation uniform on, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered getting you this far – feel I should give you a quick guided tour before leaving you to your own devices. To the left of the doorway is the main bar, named ‘Charlie’s Bar’, at least up until Charlie died, early in the AIDS epidemic. It is ‘L’ shaped, and dominated by the dimly lit bar, which is packed. There are four barmen behind the bar, all going flat-strap serving drinks. In an alcove to the left of the bar a guy is smoking a joint, and another sniffing a line of speed from the bar’s corner. As we wonder through the bar (cruising) we come to another doorway on our left. Music is roaring out of it, and as we push our way through the crush of sweat-soaked men (cruising), we find ourselves on a large platform, which overlooks the dance floor. There are rails around it, with several sets of stairs leading down to the extravagantly lit dance space. I pull you to the left, then we wonder along a narrow corridor to one side of the dance floor. This is called the ‘Meat Rack’, being where guys stand if they are not dancing, and are definitely available to be picked up. Unfortunately, it has gained something of a reputation for only having desperadoes as its clientele, those who have little chance of being picked up in the better lit areas, feeling they might be luckier in the dimmer zones. I take you past the dj’s box (cruising), glancing in through the huge glass window. Steven Cribb is playing. No wonder the floor is packed and raging. He is the current supremo amongst our disc jockeys, having earned himself a reputation as a dance floor God. His beat (continuous) mixing is flawless. He can mix a 118BPM record into a 128BPM record, and you would never know a mix was happening until the track change. His music has made The Shift THE place to be on the weekends. However, I am going to keep you off the floor for a while until we finish our tour. We go down several steps, and we find ourselves in a barn-like area, set up with long tables, and benches. There is a bar at the back, but not a lot of people use it. The area is very dimly lit, and it doesn’t take much straining of the ears to deduce that the place is humming with sexual energy. If you glance into that corner, you can see a guy giving another a blowjob, with a similar activity going on only several feet away from them. Instead of taking you up the back for a more intimate look, I will drag you through this door to the left. There is a toilet to the right of us. This toilet is actually used as a loo, or you want to share some drugs around. A corridor is to our left, leading us past the DJs box, then back to the main bar area. As we exit the corridor, you will notice another corridor to the right. This corridor leads past the cloakroom, then the manager’s office – do you want a bottle of “Rush”? I know the owners, so it won’t be a problem – then around a corner to the ‘other’ set of toilets. These are the ones that are used for sex. Don’t confuse the two! Nothing will piss a queen of quicker than having to have a piss, and finding someone getting off in the wrong loo. Now that you know where everything is – you’re going to THOSE toilets, eh – well I guess we’re here for different things – I’m going to love you and leave you. The dance floor calls (cruising). Steven has just put on Yvonne Elliman’s “Love Pains”. Have beat, must dance!..
On most Saturday nights, you could stand in the bar and listen to Steven taking us into a different world with his often impossible mixes. He would mix from “Love Pains” to Eastbound Expressways “Primitive Desire” as people headed onto the dance floor. With its growly under-chant of ‘You Tarzan, me Jane’, it was a dance floor favourite; a definite floor filler. I was often entranced by the lighting technicians, as they started the strobes flashing, and filled the floor with fog. Overhead, eight various sized mirror balls would be clustered together, reflecting multi-coloured flashes of light from the sate-lites and vari-lites situated nearby. A techie would start the sate-lite whirling and flashing through the fog. Suddenly, I would find myself in another world. Stephen would mix “Primitive Desire” into Miquel Brown’s “So Many Men, So Little Time” (This morning, I open my eyes, and everything is still the same. I turn to the guy who stayed last night, and ask him “what’s your name?”). There would be whelps and yahoos from all corners of the room. Suddenly, I would find that I cannot move on the floor. Somebody might hand me a bottle of amyl, and I would take a huge snort of it, placing my thumb over the top to stop the liquid from spilling as we dance around. For a few seconds, my head may spin, the dance beat would become all pervasive, driving everyones feet into a frenzy of sleazy dance. I would find that some guy next to me had stripped off his sweaty tee shirt, and is sharing an ethyl soaked handkerchief with another dancer, also stripped to the waist. More fog would be pumped onto the floor as Miquel is mixed into Hazell Dean’s anthemic “Searchin’ (I Got to Find A Man)”. More hoots and hollers – this is something everyone related to – (Searchin’, looking for love, every place I can, searchin’, looking for love, I got to find me a man). On the speakers at two corners of the dance floor, guys in Speedo’s are dancing with 3’ gold fans, rotating, spinning, and intertwining the fans to the beat of the music. Hours of rehearsal in front of the mirror at home are paying off! Guys standing within range either duck to avoid the spinning fans, or move completely out the way. Steven has the floor ultra hot! God only knows how long it will be before he puts on something to give everyone a break. He has had me on the floor for two to three hours at a time without a break before tonight. This is the magic that a good DJ can spin. He will then mix in the huge anthem of Norma Lewis’s “Maybe This Time” (Maybe this time I’ll be lucky, maybe this time he’ll stay), and the whole dance floor will turn handbag, at last a short break from the endless, relentless beat of Hi-NRG. Often you would find a couple of guys have stripped down to jock straps, and are weaving their way around the floor, their butts glistening with sweat. The pervasive odours are of sweat, testosterone and amyl. This is a domain only male animals can love, and we do! Steven will go for the pull of an oldie with Shirley Lites “Heat You Up, Melt You Down” (I’ll heat you up, I’ll melt you down, let’s do it, do it, do it, come on baby, I’ll heat you up, I’ll melt you down), and I may yell at the memories the track invokes. Oh Romeos “These Memories” (These memories, these memories haunting me) follows, then Earlene Bentley’s “Boy’s Come to Town” (When the boy’s come to town around midnight, I’m gonna find one, take him home. When the boy’s come to town around midnight, I won’t spend the night alone), following this with Divine’s gay anthem “You Think You’re A man” (You think you’re a man, but you’re only a boy. You think you’re a man, you are only a toy. You think you’re a man, but you just couldn’t see. You’re not man enough to satisfy me) then brings the beat down to Princess’s “Say I’m Your Number 1”, which gives some of us an escape route to get to the bar to replenish our drinks before he builds the beats up again.
I would often cruise a guy on the dance floor. He would, hopefully, stand next to me at the bar, and glance at me out of the corner of his eye. My taste ran to navy blue ‘Bonds” singlet, thus anybody who had one on, a greater stimulation if they are so old and well worn that they are more indigo than navy, and worn with a pair of 501’s. If nobody else comes along, you both have already created a frisson. I watch him as he picks up his drink. He smiles at me as he turns from the bar. I check out his butt as he walks back towards the dance area. Nice! Denim-clad. Right up my alley. I have this thing about mid-thirties to early forties guys (I’ll never be that old!). Being young and pretty, I have no problems getting picked up by anyone I fancy.
If I want a break from dancing, I will pull up a stool to the doorway between the main bar and dance area. Just sit, looking like a real sleazy, cruising slut. It works every time. I find older men much sexier than guys my own age, they are more confident than my own peer group. They also don’t throw you out on the street five minutes after you cum, preferring someone to cuddle up to during the night, and usually cooking you breakfast the next morning. Gay life can be a very lonely life sometimes, especially as you get older. They have a network of guys in the same age group, and if you have been good sex – and who my age isn’t! -, the word is passed along, which makes picking up an easy job for a while.
I get my drink, then move to the corner to speak to some mates. They offer me a line of speed, but tell me I will have to go to the toilets to take it. The manager has warned them that the cops are doing one of their token raids on the place, but the right amounts of money have been placed in the right hands, so provided nothing obvious is going on, things will be fine. I disappear into the toilet with one of the guys, and we sniff speed off the top of the cisterns through a rolled fifty-dollar note. This should keep me going for a few hours. He says he will have some MDA next week, maybe with a bit of luck some crystal meth. I tell him to keep me some MDA. The fucking stuff makes me so horny I could fuck my way through a football team.
Just after I returned to Sydney, I went out with some friends one night. I was a bit of a drug ‘virgin’ at the time, always having a slight fear of them. One of the guys gave me a ‘moggie’ (Mogodon), and said if I had plenty of alcohol to drink, and forced myself past the sleepy stage, I would have the best time. Yeah, sure! I sat down just for a little minute and got woken up by the doorman several hours later, telling me the place was closing. I have never done that again I can assure you. If money gets a bit tight, I will wonder up to “Rely’s” pharmacy in Oxford Street, and they will sell me a bottle of pseudo-ephedrine tablets – under-the-counter, of course – for a few dollars. I can get a cheap thrill very much like speed from these. It is better than nothing for a night out, despite playing hell with the water-works.
I return to the dance area, and my eyes are like stoplights. I sort of hope for a quick pick-up, like I had last week. A guy just walks up to me and says, “Do you want to go home and fuck?” This is the entire intro I get until we get back to his place in William Street. I find out I have seen him in an ad on TV. I wish pick-ups could always that easy. Beats sitting around playing games for hours. Suddenly, there is a break in the music. There is the soft ‘hiss’ of smoke being pumped onto the dancefloor, the soft hum of sate-lights and vari-lights being manipulated into position. The strobes start a soft pulse. There is a quiet squeak from the mirror-balls as they start to revolve. The air is electric. Something major is about to happen! From the 20,000 watts of speakers spread over the four corners of the dance floor issues the voice of Gloria Gaynor, an almost whispered “I am what I am, I am my own special creation, so come take a look, give me the hook, or the ovation. It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in, my world that’s not a place I have to hide in. Life’s not worth a damn, ‘til you can say – I am what I am”. Chaos reigns. People run from everywhere in a mad frenzy. We are all on the floor for the biggest gay anthem of all time. Poppers are going from hand to hand, and everyone prepares for the explosion of sound, indicating that the track is about to rage. The lights all go up at once, rainbows of brilliant colour reflect through the smoke. Guys with tambourines circuit the borders of the floor beating them on the palms of their hands to the beat – the first time I took a tambourine onto the floor, I came home with a bruise from the top of my arse, down to my knee. God, it hurt! – the fan dancers take up their positions on the speakers, and everyone starts to blow whistles. It is a wonderful insanity. It is a song about our own lives, the pride and freedom we are still fighting for, the exhilaration of being what we are! We are all as one for the duration of this one track. Gloria Gaynor is Goddess! Steven mixes the heavy drum beat intro of Dee Martin’s “Lover Why?” into “I Am What I Am”. A frenetic pace is being set for the next hour. This will be a long tiring night.
But then the guy I have been cruising joins me on the dance floor, and I think that maybe I’m not so tired after all. At 3 AM, there is another sudden stop with the music, but only for a change of beat. Wind-down is about to start. Everyone is tired and sweaty, though those on speed and MDA sweat for reasons other than dancing. The beautiful low-beat guitar strums of Chaka Khan’s anthem “Ain’t Nobody” throbs through the silence (Ain’t nobody does it better, makes me happy, makes me feel this way. Ain’t nobody does it better than you), then mixes into the fabulous choir styled “Life In a Northern Town” by Dream Academy. The opening notes of Brenda Starr’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Make You a Star” gets the two-hour wind down off to a slow, sleazy start.. Those who were here for just the Hi-NRG leave to go home, or perhaps to traipse up to the Taxi Club for some gambling and drag acts. The die-hards like myself, and my potential evening’s trade start to sleaze dance to the slower beats of the music. It gets a bit more commercial with The Thompson Twins “Hold me Now” being followed by Spandau Ballet’s “Gold”; Patti Labelle’s “Oh, People” – all too soon to become almost a funeral anthem- and “On My Own”; Gazebo’s beautiful Italo sleaze track “Masterpiece” are concessions to gay romanticism. My friend grips me on the butt, and pulls me in close. Most people have left The Shift by 4am, though my trade and myself don’t leave till 5am.
I find it is a bit of culture shock finding yourself on an almost empty Oxford Street in the early hours of the morning. Before I get him home, the sun will be rising, but it is Sunday morning, and I only need a couple of hour’s sleep before I start to get ready for tonight. Sometimes, especially at this hour, I wonder if this is not an addiction, like my cigarettes. But like my smoking, I’m not yet willing to give it up. I am young, and I just want to party, and party! If I have my way, this will never stop, and neither will I.
FOOTNOTE: Just after I returned to Sydney in 1982, I contracted a mysterious illness, very flu-like, but much more severe than any flu’s that were around at that time. Doctors were mystified, and the symptoms disappeared as quickly as they had begun. I never gave it another thought, and it wasn’t until 1985 that it was recognised as sero-conversion illness for HIV.
This article was first published in the Queer issue of “Vertigo”, the student newspaper at the University of Technology Sydney in 2002. It was published “as is”, though I have edited and cleaned it up since.
I’ve spent most of my life sitting on the sidelines of a radical’s playing field
It’s not that I’ve never had opinions; it’s always been more a matter of having different opinions, and a strong urge not to end up affiliated with the unpopular (read losing) team. So, I’ve shut up and put up where I shouldn’t have; sat back and listened to endless tirades of bullshit sprouted by individuals who have no idea what they are talking about; held a glass to the wall while the downfall of sanity was planned in another room; and watched people selling off or ignoring the weight of sane idealism. White-collar elitists undermining the structures of a blue-collar world!
Perhaps I could carry on like this; perhaps I could continue to use my soapbox as a storage devise for my now unused vinyl collection; arse-end my megaphone and convert it into a vase; or start a petition to sue the growers of marijuana for being inept at keeping me (us) permanently stoned. Nothing can change the fact that these days, I am getting fucked off by just about everything going on around me, and fucked off by having allowed myself to keep quiet for far too long.
When I crashed out of the closet in the early 80’s – at the grand old age of 25 – it was into the perfect environment for a potential dissident – the gay liberation movement. Yeah, let’s hear it for gay rights! Sure, if you can find the time between checking out the latest bar, and keeping your cock in your pants long enough to fight the good fight. Naturally, I sympathised with all the boys out there trying to make life easier for us, and sure, I had an opinion. I just didn’t want the opinion to stand in the way of a good time. Oh, I did write a letter to ‘Campaign’ (newspaper, not magazine back then) defending the rights of guys to look like clones if they wanted to – and accused those who didn’t like it as being ‘cloneophobes’. Nothing like inventing a word! Did I ever feel guilty about this lack of radical action? Sure I did, as someone yelled ‘faggot’ at me as they drove past in a car, or I read in the latest gay rag about the increase in gay bashings in the local ghetto. I even determined that I was going to the next rally, or the next kiss-in, or signing the petition that was sitting in my local pub. The problem was that I had to manage to get past the pub door, or get up before midday, or say no to a bit of trade to accomplish any of these things. So I left it for those guys to do. You know who those guys are! They are the ones who wander from club to pub with the petition that you should sign, but never seem to remember. The guys who always had their photos in the gay papers, as they tried to rally a community to action. The guys who always had letters published in the same gay rags, defending us all against the rantings and ravings of the vocal minority, who saw fit to hold everyone ransom to every other standards of morality than those we accepted as right. Yep, those guys! I admired them, I supported them, fucked if I wasn’t even just a teensy bit envious of them for being so out there, but I mean…I was just a 25-year-old male bimbo with a life to burn. I’m sure they understood!
So, the 80’s passed me by. I never did get to any of the gay rights marches, or the kiss-in arranged by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on the steps of government house, or the first march, that political pivot point, that was to become Mardi Gras. I did, however, manage to work my way through three relationships, got the clap no less than four times, and found myself trapped in a frantic lifestyle that generally left anyone caught in its vortex an alcoholic, a drug addict, or dead! Even I, from my ivory tower of intellectual snobbery, sprouted from a bar-room stool, should have foreseen the next chance at radicalism – a bigger stage that I could have acted from, another soapbox to yell rousing, unrhymed verses from, finding uses for milk crates other than what we annually used them for – viewing a parade!
No, not even I foresaw HIV. No one knew the devastation, the heart wrenching desolation, the sheer bloody mindlessness of this pandemic like those of us in the middle of the fray. Behold, another opportunity was handed to me, and still I sat back, still took the easy road, still tried to pretend that tomorrow I would do something, tomorrow…
Sure, like many others I put up the pretence of radicalism. I joined the fringes of the AIDS groups, at least long enough to say that I had done my bit, I shouted members of ACT-UP a drink if they happened to be in the same bar as me after a demonstration; I unfolded quilt panels; attended auctions to raise money; visited the sick and dying in hospital; ranted, again, that everybody was doing something except those who should; then took myself off to the local and again, got my priorities right from my bar stool in the corner. Let it never be said I didn’t have an opinion – it was just aimed at the wrong ears. When I realised it was no longer good enough to fight this battle this way, it was almost too late, and the white-collar elitists had almost kidnapped the whole epidemic to their own benefit.
There is nothing quite like a degree, nothing quite like a network of those in the know to give people a sense of wisdom beyond that of everyone else. It was time to act! Enough of pub politics, opinions whispered into the crotch of the latest bit of trade, the mind numbing importance of yet another drink – like I really needed it – or another joint, or another tab of acid. Life leeching away at the speed of the next line of coke. I had a frightening experience – I got ill. I had another, more life altering experience – I survived the illness. I had the most frightening experience of all – I got older! When I think of all the frightening things that have happened in my life, perhaps the latter was the most frightening of all. Years flying past at the speed of light.
So, like Lazarus, I arose from the dead, marched from the hospital ward and back onto the streets. It’s too late, I kept thinking to myself. It’s too bloody late and you’ve missed the fucking boat. But no, it’s not too late. In an age of complacency and burn-out, there is time still for a yet-to-be-a-has-been radical. I find myself at a rally in support of equal age of consent for gay and straight men, not quite comprehending what makes one sector of the community more irresponsible than the other in terms of sex. All I really find is that the era of great radicals has passed, and no one seems to be moving up the ranks to fill their Doc Martens. The rally leaves me feeling flat, wondering where all the great bullhorn vocalists have gone! Even the turnout is small compared to those of the 80’s. There was no value in rallies and parades anymore. As far as these forms of radicalism go, perhaps I have missed the boat.
I join the underground world of working groups, sub-committees and networkers, and at last started to find the missing flame of righteous indignation. The written word is something I am more than proficient at, and my letter writing on anything from ugly McDonalds advertising to condom use – and misuse – becomes prolific. I discover the hidden world of ‘the article’, and start to churn them out by the zillions. I discuss, initially, disease and its impact on life, but soon find myself drawn to the palliative issues of illness, and how best to survive in a world that barely recognises your existence. Public speaking is my next step up in this alien world, and I suddenly start to realise that it is not too late to be a dissident. You just need the right soap-box at the right place and the right time. Being there when something is happening doesn’t mean that you have to act on it. Sometimes, coming in through the backdoor can be much more beneficial.
Now, as I enter the noughties, I am finding the dissident gene that I thought was missing for so long. I joined groups, both community and university orientated, and feel that in some small ways, I am making a difference. Perhaps more importantly, I am no longer just focused on the smaller issue of HIV, but see potential for being a voice in all areas of disability. What achievements and benefits I obtain for myself I also obtain for others, and vice versa. Make a difference? You bet your balls you can. Shout, yell, scream, demand. Send emails and annoy people until they are sick to death of the sight of you. By the time they reach this stage, they are willing to listen to what you say. Be patient, be diligent, be aggravating. Trust me on this. I do it regularly, and yes, things are happening – perhaps not as quickly as I would like, but they are happening. In many respects, it has given me an alternative view. I used to wonder what the attraction was – name in the paper, photographs at rallies, police record – and like most others, I thought they really just craved attention. Now, when I see a set of stairs being marked so vision impaired people can see them clearly, when I see adverts for note-takers in lectures for the same people, when lighting is fixed in badly lit areas, or just an advert in a lecture about a disability meeting in a faculty, I know what it was that they obtained from all their vocalising and protests. It is that feeling of having done something for the greater good, and that is something you can do whether you are 16 or 60, gay or straight.
Feeling peeved? Pick up your soapbox. Find a patch of grass or asphalt big enough for a captive audience. Raise your megaphone high…and SCREAM!