Researching the Sydney Gay Scene of the 90s – Part 2

Writing these blogs is helping with my research.

I realised this during the past week. It’s a great way for me to categorise the different themes I want to explore in my novel set in the 1990s. In the last blog I talked about my first impressions of the pages I copied from the Sydney Star Observer at the State Library of NSW.

In this blog I’m reading the Letters to the Editor section and discovering what was important to the queer community throughout that decade.

From a 1993 edition of the Sydney Star Observer: Mardi Gras Party pictures featuring guest British talk show host, Julian Clary, and Australian pop singer, John Paul Young.

Sadly, a lot of the correspondence in 1990 is about gay bashings.

Members of the Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby were calling for more police presence on and around Oxford Street. But Michael from Surry Hills wrote to the editor saying:

“I think that it is wishful thinking to believe that yesterday’s uniformed gay bashers are tomorrow’s gay defenders.”

He goes on to say that we (the queer community) have to learn to defend ourselves. Paul from Dulwich Hill wrote about a close friend with AIDS who was bashed by two men he was earlier chatting to in a gay hotel. The victim was repeatedly hit with a bottle and kicked while others walked past, not coming to his aid. Paul also lets us know that he was bashed twice in the past year.

Taken from an ad, this drawing encapsulates the club wear of the body beautiful. I often wore a waistcoat over a t-shirt but I wasn’t a singlet guy. This look, along with ripped jeans and Doc Martins is established by mid-decade.

Mardi Gras Party ticket prices and the music the DJs played at the event, are recurring themes throughout the decade.

Many times while walking from the party to the all-day recovery parties on Sunday, we would dissect the live shows, the overall vibe, and the music in the various dance spaces.

Back in 1990, Michael from Woollahra was disappointed in the lack of recognisable tunes as he tried to dance between 2 and 6 am. He felt that the DJs believed the patrons were so ‘off their faces’, they would “dance to two saucepan lids being banged together.” He singles out one particular DJ and demands they:

“…pay more attention to the responses of people at gay venues when the B52s, Janet Jackson or Madonna are played, or to visit the Unicorn Hotel on an ABBA night.”

From a 1999 edition of the Sydney Star Observer: Mardi Gras Party pictures. We’d take our cue on what to wear based on the design of the Mardi Gras poster of that particular year.

As the decade progressed, topics written to the editor were more varied.

Some letter writers defend local theatre shows that received bad reviews in the gay press. There are various opinions on holding the Gay Games in Australia. Others write about how bouncers at clubs are getting picky about who they let in.

Issues concerning HIV are prevalent in this decade, yet somehow by 1999, unprotected sex is on the rise.

In 1993, a member of grass-roots activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) defends his organisation after an article is printed deeming them “increasingly irrelevant.” I had two friends who were part of an ACT UP demonstration inside parliament demanding faster approval of HIV drugs. One of these friends told me one of the security staff championed what they were doing, even though he had to escort them out.

One letter written in 1999 points out that a gay and lesbian liaison officer has been at the local police station for eight years.

In the various articles I’ve browsed, you can see how the relationship between the cops and the community changes. Undercover officers are still entrapping gay men in the early years, but laws change by mid-decade and these cases are regularly thrown out of court.

I recall gay and lesbian police liaison officers (one male, one female) helping  a drag queen auction cakes at the Bake Off at the Oxford Hotel. This was a yearly event where home made cakes were donated to sell and raise money for the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation (an HIV charity). When certain baked delights infused with a special plant-based additive were auctioned, the drag queen spoke in code while the officers pretended not to understand.

From the Sydney Star Observer, 1999. And yes, sometimes people bid just to lick sugary delights off a man’s leg.

These memories are why I want to write this novel.

As I said in my last blog, the chapters of this initial draft flow well, but I’m getting a better sense on how to achieve what I want this book to be. I’m about to revamp the outline, and possibly, rethink one of the characters.

And it’s a project I want to take my time with. My personal love of that decade deserves a joyful story that isn’t rushed.


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