Entertainment

The Colourful History of Gay Clubs in Australia

Glitter sticks to everything, darling.

Trigger Warning: This article discusses hate crimes against members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This may be difficult for some readers.  Please engage in self-care as you read this article.

Angel Jack and Hibiscus / Getty

In 1994, Stephan Elliot shocked the narrow-minded masses of Australia with his fabulously queer comedy film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The opening and closing scenes of this low-budget production that were filmed at The Imperial Erskineville in NSW, hold the key to stories that make up the history of gay culture and clubbing in Australia—long before it was legalised, let alone celebrated.

The oral history of Erskineville's Imperial Hotel
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert / PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving as drag queens and Terence Stamp as a transgender woman, the groundbreaking, history-making film followed these dazzling characters as they made their way around Australia in their van, Priscilla, performing Australiana drag to outback folk. Australia had never seen anything like it.

Back then, in 1994, queer people were far from feeling safe. The Sex Discrimination Act had only come into place in 1984, officially making it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of their sex, gender identity, intersex status or sexual orientation. This, however crucial,  didn’t stop the violence against gay people. 

Let’s set the scene. 

Data gathered from 18 years worth of responses from members of the LGBTQIA community, the largest Australia study, released in 2010, found that 72% of LGBTIQ people had experienced verbal abuse, 41% had experienced threats of physical violence and 23% experienced physical assault. For transgender participants, 92% of trans women and 55% of trans men had experienced verbal abuse; 46% of trans women and 36% of trans men had experienced physical assault.

Hate crimes against queer people occurred frequently, many more than were ever publicly known. Victims such as 27-year-old Scott Johnson, an American PhD student whose body was found naked at the bottom of North Head in Manly, Sydney, 1988, was one of many. 30 years and three coronial inquests later, Johnson’s death, which had previously been “deemed” a suicide, was finally recognised as a gay hate crime. The coroner concluded that he’d been pushed off the cliff, or had died trying to escape attackers. 

On top of all this heaviness, is the HIV aids crisis. Back in the 1980s, HIV was initially referred to as “gay-related immune deficiency”, which many thought was a punishment for making “sinful choices”. A successful cure for HIV didn’t arrive until 1997, meaning that gay men living their truth throughout the late 70s and early 80s were living each day with guilt, fear and shame that they didn’t deserve.

It’s pretty safe to say that following such a history, Australian society didn’t know what to do with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; a film that celebrates gay people, camp culture and drag realness, with Australian references that had never been touched on before. For many, this film was the first time they’d ever seen a drag queen, it was a social awakening.

I believe that we’ve always suffered a social disconnect in Australia. Whether it’s because we literally stole our land from another culture and therefore, relied heavily on other Western cultures to influence us, it’s all a matter of speculation. What is clear, is that Australia was created on the basis of racist behaviours, which infiltrated into our early society in the most disgusting and discriminatory of ways. 

But even so, queer culture prevailed. Glitter sticks to everything, darling, especially people. Queer culture is infectious, it’s fun, it’s free and it’s real—so where did it truly begin in Australia? 

The first well-known gay nightclub in Australia actually opened in 1975, 11 years before being gay was deemed legal. Connections Nightclub opened in Perth and against all odds, it flourished. It’s still thriving today.

Connections Nightclub in Perth in the 1970s
Connections Nightclub.

Connections has seen it all. Standing strong for 45 years, it’s seen Perth’s LGBTQIA+ scene through its existing-in-the-shadows era to now, where it stands tall, loud and proud. The club has welcomed Elton John, Mel Gibson, Rod Stewart and both Sasha and Frankie Knuckles under its colourful strobe lights, just to name a few of the legends that have embraced Australia’s first gay club over it’s lifetime. 

Even the building that houses Connections has an incredible history. Before it became a game-changing gay club, the building served as an illegal gambling den and cabaret bar. In a nod to the badass past, Connections still hosts regular cabaret shows alongside it’s live DJ sets and epic drag performances.

Now, let’s go back to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a constant thread throughout queer partying history in Australia.

The opening and closing scenes of this film are arguably the most iconic and are both filmed at The Imperial Erskineville in NSW. After Connections Nightclub in Perth, The Imperial Erskineville is the other well-known, historical gay club that has been around since the 80s. But there’s more to the story. 

The Imperial was bought by Dawn O’Donnell, a prominent Sydney entrepreneur and supporter of the Sydney LGBT community, in 1983. The Imperial was put on the map, after it’s integral role as backdrop in the glittery, profound and iconic opening and closing scenes of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The film shone a spotlight on the drag scene in Sydney and on The Imperial, for being a place where drag was celebrated. 

Dawn O’Donnell and queens. Photos by Brain Williams / The Imperial Erskinville website.

But before The Imperial Erskineville, Dawn O’Donnell opened a string of other gay and lesbian focused venues. First, came a wine bar off Broadway called The Trolley Bar. Then, came Sydney’s first lesbian bathhouse, located over a cake shop in Bondi Junction and then, it was Capriccio’s, a gay nightclub and theatre on Oxford Street circa 1969.

Capriccio’s, 1981. William Yang / National Library of Australia

Although there is minimal information to be found online, Capriccio’s was an iconic club, famous for its drag shows.

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine the life of gay men, lesbians and transgender people living in the late 60s. During this time, identifying as anything other than heterosexual was considered illegal, meaning that the queer population were forced to live in an oppressive culture. They were forced to hide themselves as well as endure all forms of abuse, whether it was subtle, implied, or downright violent. The party scene, the nightlife, the secret bathhouses and hidden clubs were the only places where they could express themselves. 

Understandably, this is why there isn’t much detailed information on where these places were or what they looked like, but we can be grateful for the pioneers that built and fostered a community within them. They are true, unsung heroes. 

So after Capriccio’s, Dawn purchased The Imperial Erskineville, which soon became a hub for everything drag. Throughout the 70s and 80s, it’s pretty safe to say that Dawn built an incredible legacy among the Sydney bar and club scene, both in Oxford Street and East Sydney, providing a safe space to come out (literally), and celebrate themselves and each other. Dawn, being the queen that she is, was notorious for posting bail to release gay men who had been taken into police custody—usually caught out partying or having a pash down an alleyway; a romantic weekend activity that many of us have taken for granted.

There is almost no information to be found on Dawn O’Donnell’s personal life. Her legacy is the incredible family environment she created for the LGBTQIA+ community in Sydney when they had nowhere to go, and when being who they were wasn’t deemed as allowed, in Australian law and social culture. Dawn had a wife, Aniek Baten, who was 23 years younger than her. They were married until Dawn’s death in 2007, aged 79.

The Imperial Erskineville.

The Imperial Erskineville is still an iconic venue to this day, paying homage to their big break into pop culture with their restaurant, titled PRISCILLA’S, which is mostly plant-based but also has a ceviche bar. They host drag nights, disco and house-dedicated dance parties and live DJ extravaganza’s. 

Moving away from Sydney, and up north, to Darwin. Before Throb, Darwin’s first and only gay nightclub, there were only gay nights at certain venues, that generally happened once a month. Co-owner of Throb, Tim Palmer, recalls watching the balcony of Fanny’s Nightclub from his bedroom window at 8-years-old, blissfully unaware that his now husband and the other co-owner of Throb Nightclub, was up there, partying underage. 

In the 80s and 90s in Darwin, there were places like Fanny’s that had a gay night once a month. However, in 1999, when Tim and his husband Mark witnessed a close friend of theirs get violently bashed at another club, they decided that there needed to be somewhere else for the LGBTQIA+ community to feel safe. So, they opened Throb. 

Throb Nightclub is one of the only gay nightclubs in the late 90s and early 2000s that sought to accept everyone, regardless of their sexuality or identity. Although co-owners Tim and Mark received a lot of anger and backlash from Darwin’s gay community, they fought for a space that accepted everyone into their colourful club, believing in a space where people could learn from and celebrate with each other. 

No photo description available.
Throb Nightclub, circa 2010 / Facebook.

It’s this progressive and incredibly generous mindset that Throb Nightclub remains to be one of the most celebrated gay clubs in Australia. Known for its epic drag shows on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as its iconic slogan “where you’re free to be”, Throb has been the place that straight men can rip of their shirts and dance on poles, where tradies can come and explore their sexuality, where women can feel safe to express themselves, without judgement, for 21 years.

Opening in 2000, 2021 is Throb’s 21st anniversary. The fact that it’s still standing and is stronger than ever, proves that what it stands for is stronger than what it had to fight through. 

There are many more gay nightclubs and bars that have existed throughout Australian history and we’ve probably never heard of, but I’m afraid that if I continue down this path of research, you’d be reading a thesis, not an article. The gay bars and clubs of today are numerous, spanning across the country both in major cities and in regional areas of Australia, all with something different to offer.

From the incredible places we’ve discovered, most with stories that I’d never heard before, I think the take away from this is that there are many facets of Australian history that have been left uncovered.

I find it heart-warming to know that there were places for the LGBTQIA+ community, where they could express their real selves, in a time that was truly unsafe for them. Attempting to understand the sacrifices that were made for these places to exist would be impossible, but I feel more grateful than I could ever express through words for the strength that these queer pioneers have shown us. 

To the owners, supporters and partiers of all Australia’s queer nightclubs throughout history, we thank you. You have paved the pathways that give us the freedom to be ourselves today, in a world that doesn’t try to hide us. Thanks to your fight, we are able to exist in a time that is increasingly opening itself up to celebrate queer culture, which is a world worth fighting for. 

I hope you’re looking down at us, beaming with pride.

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Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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