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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.
What is special about the year of the Rabbit?
As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.
What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?
There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.
New South Wales
Darling Harbour Fireworks When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.
Dragon Boat Races When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.
Lion Dances When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.
Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.
Auntie Philter When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.
Lunar New Year Festival When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.
BriAsia Festival When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.
Chinatown Adelaide Street Party When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.
Crown Perth When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.