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Retracing the queer history of Sydney's Oxford Street, step by step

Travel News from Stuff - 21-11-2022

Early one Thursday morning in October, over breakfast at iconic Sydney café Bills, Kate Wickett, CEO of Sydney WorldPride and the woman tasked with for the first time, explained to me that the core goal of the festival was to deliver "a party with a purpose."

They’ll certainly be putting on all the jubilant festivities you expect with a rainbow extravaganza, Wickett is keen to emphasise that amongst the glitter many of seek to also highlight the continuing strength of the Pride as political tool and to further propel the movements place within a legacy for change.

They’ll host inclusive three-day Human Rights conference to bring together community members, government and political representatives, philanthropists and corporate leaders committed to LGBTQIA+ rights and The Opera House will host Blak & Deadly: The First Nations Gala Concert which promises “a rainbow explosion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait artistry.”

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Later that afternoon I undertook an immersive history lesson on the reason for the season, retracing the queer history of Sydney's Oxford Street, long recognised as the home of the city’s rainbow communities.

Led by (whose persona is a copyright friendly spin on the superhero also known as Diana Prince), the two-hour tour walks the route of the annual Mardi Gras Parade, taking in the history of the area and parade along the way.

The Darlinghurst street has been at the heart of the local Pride scene since the inception of Sydney Mardi Gras in the late 1970s and continues to be central to queer advancement the city. One of the first stops is the political office of Alex Greenwich, the Wellington-born Member for Sydney who was one of the key leaders behind the successful Yes campaign which saw same-sex marriage legalised in Australia in 2017.

The fabulous and flamboyant humour the Aussies do so well is on display all along the trail, not only Wonder Mama’s razor-sharp quips but also within the establishments we visit. Hanging in the window of Sax, a fetish and leather goods store, is a row or fluffy Australiana toys. They're the type seen more typically in souvenir shops, but with one sly difference: each koala, platypus and kangaroo wears a leather bondage mask.

Oxford Street is going through something of an upheaval, the busy road is changing and some hallmarks synonymous with queer life in Sydney are struggling. A bar that used to have punters spilling onto the streets to catch drag acts now houses a pathologists office, others have become less friendly to already marginalised customers.

But there are steps underway to protect and preserve more of the area’s culture and community. Having recently acquired the pictorial archives of the Sydney Star Observer, the City of Sydney is utilising empty shopfronts to display archival images of the queer history of the stretch. It’s an act of beautification, but also serves as a reminder of the more ephemeral social and cultural value of the sites we’re walking past.

One heritage site of historical importance that operates to this day is the Oxford Hotel which has stood proudly on Oxford Street for over 100 years and a long history of supporting the community.

The pub’s location, opposite Taylor Square, is also where following the cities first Mardi Gras Parade on June 24, 1978 gay men, lesbians their political allies marched the streets encouraging more visibility by chanting “out of the bars and into the streets!”. Later that night police arrested 53 revellers with some being physically assaulted. The following Monday morning those arrested were subject to further public shaming when Sydney Morning Herald published their names, addresses and occupations.

Surviving attendants of the riot still play a visible and active role in Sydney's rainbow celebrations. Known as the 78er’s the group led the Mardi Gras Parade each year, preceded only by the First Nations float.

Around the corner in the leafy Stonewall Gardens, not far from ‘The Wall’ on Darlinghurst Road which was historically served a casual pick-up spot, we stop for a few moments of reflection on the realities of queer life that might be undervalued forgotten by contemporary members of the community.

The Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial, commissioned in remembrance of victims of oppression, is also dedicated to present-day gay and lesbian victims of violence. At the bottom of the memorial an inscription reads “We remember you who have suffered or died at the hands of others. Women who have loved women; Men who have loved men; And all those who have refused the roles others have expected us to play. Nothing shall purge your deaths from our memories.”

Across the green, Wonder Mama points out the site of what will the initial home of Sydney's first queer museum. Open to the public in February 2023 in time for WorldPride Green Park's bandstand will host various displays documenting the persecution LGBTQIA+ people faced, as well as the response to the AIDS epidemic.

It’s to be homed in an apt spot because we walk back towards Oxford Street we pass St. Vincent’s Hospital, which during the 1980s homed Ward 17 South, the first dedicated HIV unit in Australia which went on to provide compassionate care to more than half of the country’s AIDS patients diagnosed during the crisis.

The tour, which wraps up with a photo opportunity at the picture-perfect Rainbow Crossing at Taylor Square is a timely reminder of how important safe spaces that foster community and culture are to LGBTIQA+ leaders past, present and emerging. Though Sydney WorldPride promises to be a party like no other, it's heartening to know this purpose remains at the heart of the fun.

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