Researching the Sydney Gay Scene of the 90s – Part 1

A whole box of microfilm was waiting for me at the State Library of NSW.

A lovely librarian arranged copies of the Sydney Star Observer from the 1990s, as well as a couple of years’ worth of Capital Q, at my request. Both were significant street press which covered queer issues. The former still exists.

The research is for a book I’m writing based on my own gay clubbing days, celebrating Oxford Street and the big dance parties of that era. It would have taken me a week to go through all the material, so I dipped into several issues from 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

News stories from both the Sydney Star Observer and Capital Q from the early 90s

Gay bashings were prevalent around Oxford Street in 1990.

There are so many news stories about them, including one about a gay guy murdered in Bondi, of which six teenagers (yes you read that right, they were between 16 and 18) were charged. An earlier murder in a previous issue implied the police were not interested in solving the crime.

I remember this era of bashings, although I had to be reminded by reading these old publications. At the time we were told to wear whistles around our necks, and encouraged to run toward the sound of a whistle blower to help our fellow gay man in need.

From the Sydney Star Observer, 1990. A collective watching of ‘The Golden Girls’ at the downstairs bar of The Midnight Shift (a popular bar and nightclub at the time)

As the decade changed, so did police attitudes.

Gay Liaison Officers were employed by the police as the decade progressed, so the LGBT community (as it was then called) had someone they could approach directly. Queer vigilantes were on the rise with one group in Melbourne targeting the cars of known bashers. But first, they had to do a number plate check to make sure their retaliation wasn’t carried out on a car that belonged to the basher’s mum.

By 1992, the Guardian Angels, a vigilante group that began in New York, had new members locally, wearing the iconic bomber jacket and red beret. They kept an eye out on public transport and on Oxford Street.

Out and about in the 90s from the social pages of The Sydney Star Observer and Capital Q

As the pink dollar became more prevalent mid-decade, bashings weren’t as much of an issue.

The Sydney Star Observer was very much a gay newspaper in the early 90s. It was first published as The Sydney Star in 1979 and is now simply the Star Observer. By the late nineties, the Star featured more stories from our diverse rainbow.

‘Living With Adam’ was the regular cartoon strip featuring gay couple, Richard and Adam. A comic called ‘Lemons In Love’ was published every second fortnight, featuring (as you probably guessed) a lesbian couple, by the time the readership was more varied.

Examining the mid to late 90s editions, the articles seem more mainstream. The LGBT community is itself, more accepted by the mainstream. So, while there are still important news stories, regular contributors like Lance Leopard wrote about his adventures in the queer social scene. Mazz Images is the major photographer capturing us, on our nights out. Lifestyle features appear covering travel and real estate.

Early 90s editions cover any gay content in the upcoming TV guide. By the later 90s, both major and indie films and theatre shows are reviewed.

My copy of an anthology of ‘Living with Adam’ comic strips. In the featured two squares of a strip, Adam mentions that their gay party tickets are under $30 each. By the end of the 90s, Mardi Gras and Sleaze Ball party tickets were over $100

I’m still going through this historic material.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share with you some of the other issues we faced  in the 90s. But here are some things that sparked my interest from editions solely from 1990:

  • Both an AIDS organisation and the Democrats (a minor political party that no longer exists) calls for the drug, AZT, to be widely available for people living with HIV.
  • Ladies night at popular male sex-on-premises venues, The Den and KKK (or Ken’s Karate Klub, later known as Ken’s). The latter was a popular sauna, and at the time we encouraged a female house guest to visit ladies night. The next morning she had the widest smile.
  • At a Young Liberals national convention (for those outside Australia, the Liberals were, at that time, an old fashioned ‘conservative’ party), a motion was passed to decriminalise homosexuality all over Australia and that the age of consent should be the same as it is for heterosexuals (16 years of age). At the time, male to male sex was illegal in Tasmania, decriminalised in Queensland, and the age of consent for gay men was 21 in Western Australia.
  • Popular women’s magazine, Cleo (think Australia’s answer to Cosmopolitan), features an article that introduces both a gay couple and a lesbian couple to its readers.
An ad for the popular gay bar and nightclub, The Midnight Shift. Often referred to as ‘the Shift’.

This is a decade that’s close to my heart.

At its very beginning, I met Warren. We became a couple. We still are. The 90s defined who we both are today, and introduced us to friends, most of them straight, who are still in our lives.

In the late 80s and into the 90s, the Mardi Gras and Sleaze Ball parties were not only queer events, they were the two parties the inner-city arts crowd and fashionable young straights marked in their calendars as yearly ‘must do’ events. I know. I remember a conversation with a twenty-something heterosexual taxi driver who was just as excited it was Mardi Gras party night as I was. And most of the friends that came with us, were heterosexual.

Later that decade there was a backlash against straight people at the party. Our friends felt excluded even though it wasn’t a backlash against them. The queer scene became mainstream, especially after the release of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Every teenage school girl and steroid taking straight boy attended, changing the feel by freaking out at the male-to-male affection displayed around them. In short, the party felt ‘aggressive’ rather than the familiar ecstasy fuelled vibe that made us hug and kiss strangers while wishing them a ‘Happy Mardi Gras!’

As one lesbian wrote in the Letters to the Editor section in 1995:

“Straightsphere or Homosphere?

Sharing our pride and celebrating with our straight friends is one thing, and a good thing. Feeling like the freakish-fauna on display at Taronga is another”

The only zoo in Sydney is Taronga Zoo. Thus the reference.

The book I’m writing about this decade is good, but needs to be better.

At the time of writing this blog (3 Dec 20), I’ve completed forty percent of the first draft. It flows well. But I feel it doesn’t capture my exhilaration for that time, and while the initial draft is not yet finished, I want to re-imagine this novel starting with its outline.

So, keep an eye out in the years to come. A joyous celebration of the queer nineties could be at your favourite book store.

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