With plans afoot to transform Oxford Street, Scott McKinnon traces the strip’s queer history.
In London, there is Soho; in New York, Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and in San Francisco, there is the Castro. In Sydney there is Darlinghurst and, more speciﬁcally, Oxford Street. These are neighbourhoods of large cities that have, since at least the 1950s and often earlier, developed a reputation as queer spaces.
In more recent years, those reputations have begun to fade and the enduring meanings of the ‘gaybourhood’ have come into question. But what each of these places represents is the centrality of urban space to the emergence of visible, “out and proud” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer identities and communities.
The peak years of Oxford Street’s queer life extended from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s. In the years after the second world war, many gay men in Sydney socialised in CBD hotels, including the Hotel Australia.
The ﬁrst LGBTQ+ clubs on Oxford Street were Ivy’s Birdcage and Capriccio’s, which both opened in 1969. By the beginning of the 1980s, Oxford Street was home to a string of bars, clubs, saunas and cafes and had become known as Sydney’s gay
The emergence of this gay heartland represents extraordinary social change. Male homosexuality remained illegal in NSW until 1984. The homosexual men socialising in 1950s CBD hotels were required to do so with discretion — the consequences of discovery could be devastating.
In contrast, the queerness of a venue like Capriccio’s was deﬁantly visible and undeniable. As more venues were opened along the Golden Mile, the street itself became a gay space, as did the surrounding neighbourhoods where LGBTQ+ people — particularly gay men — made homes in the terraces and apartments of Darlinghurst and Paddington. A simple walk along the street became an act of participation in an emerging community. Members of a marginalised social group were thus using urban space to resist oppression and build a community.
For some, this produced a kind of utopia. In an interview with Sydney’s Pride History Group, DJ Stephen Allkins described his ﬁrst visit to the Oxford Street disco Patch’s as a teenager in 1976. He remembers: “I was home. That was it. It was the most fabulous place I’d ever been in my life . . . It’s full of gay people and they’re all dressed to the nines. They’re not hiding under a rock . . . They’re expressing and happy.”
But these feelings of joy at having found such a space can be complicated by a range of factors. The gay community was certainly not free from sexism, racism and transphobia, meaning that some within the LGBTQ+ community were granted far easier access to these spaces than others.
Indeed, although Golden Mile-era Oxford Street included venues popular with lesbians, including the womenonly bar Ruby Reds, the surrounding neighbourhood was more identiﬁably gay than lesbian.
Into the new millennium, Oxford Street’s place as the gay heart of Sydney became less certain. As LGBTQ+ businesses failed and venues closed, questions emerged as to whether a community now more a part of the mainstream still needed its own spaces. Changes to licensing laws further produced signiﬁcant challenges for queer socialising in the neighbourhood.
Sydney’s ﬁrst Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras took place on the night of 24 June 1978. The original plan was to parade down Oxford Street from Taylor Square towards Hyde Park. A truck driven by Lance Gowland led revellers along the route.
When Gowland parked the truck on College Street, police shut the event down. Rather than dispersing, parade participants made their way up William Street to Kings Cross; 53 people were subsequently arrested during an ensuing riot on Darlinghurst Road.
In the early 1980s, the date of the Mardi Gras parade was moved from winter to autumn and the route was reversed and extended. Thousands of spectators ﬂock to see the Mardi Gras parade along Oxford Street every year.
In 1907, the ﬁrst stage in the widening of Oxford Street took place. The Victoria Hotel at the juncture of Bourke, Flinders and Oxford streets was demolished and a new civic space was created and named Taylor Square in 1908, after alderman Allen Taylor, lord mayor of Sydney 1905–06 and 1909–12.
Allen Taylor was the driving force behind an ambitious civic beautiﬁcation scheme for central Sydney that included slum clearance, road widening and parks. By World War I Oxford Street had morphed into a boulevard that joined the city to the suburbs to its east.
The Burdekin Hotel is an important visual landmark at the western end of Oxford Street. It marks the beginning of the street. This corner site has historical signiﬁcance as it has been occupied almost continuously by a hotel since the 1840s. The existing building is an extensive art deco refurbishment of an earlier Edwardianera building, carried out in the late 1930s.
The Oxford Hotel has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community. The hotel was also at the centre of the alternative music scene in Sydney. They say that in 1976, Australia’s ﬁrst punk band, Radio Birdman, approached the owners of the hotel. They proposed to take over the venue on the weekends “on the basis that the hotel keep the bar takings and the bands keep the proceeds of the door entry”.
Radio Birdman named the Oxford Tavern venue the Funhouse — with a name inspired by Iggy Pop. This venue became a place for anti-establishment bands to play. The hotel is opposite another famous venue, The Courthouse, aptly named for its proximity to the Darlinghurst Courthouse.
The Albury Hotel became a gay pub in 1980. Shirtless, muscled bartenders and outrageous drag shows made it an extremely popular venue with gay men well into the 1990s. The Albury’s closure in 2000 and the conversion of the building into shops and offices was seen by many as a sign that the glory days of the ‘Golden Mile’ were over.