What the future of queer nightlife in Sydney will look like
© Jake Scevola
Will Oxford Street still be the clubbing epicentre? What's coming? And what should we leave behind? We explore how the new decade will change the Harbour City's dancefloors.
Sydney’s queer nightlife history is immense. It was 1969 when the city’s first gay clubs — Ivy’s Birdcage and Capriccio’s — opened on Oxford Street, at a time when Australia and its attitudes were very different. In the 50 years since, queer partying in the Harbour City has reinvented itself countless times.
Oxford Street boomed from the disco-drenched ‘70s to the heady house days of the ‘90s, across which time clubs like Patchs, Exchange, Midnight Shift and Sublime became the stuff of legend. Of course, as some things changed others stayed the same: in 1983, the Inner West got its first gay venue when Cecchini’s launched on King Street, foreshadowing the queer presence the area would later carve out. In ‘99, Arq opened its doors (on Friday the 13th, to “defy superstition”) and is still dancing 20 years later. By the 2000s, Mardi Gras had become a phenomenon that’s only continued to grow.
But what about what's coming next? As we move into a new decade, the scene will evolve even more — already, venues are moving away from Oxford Street and into the ‘burbs, while parties are placing a greater emphasis on inclusivity and diversity.
To find out what the else the 2020s hold, we spoke to a few of Sydney’s favourite queer promoters — from parties and spaces like Kooky, The Bearded Tit, Birdcage and Poof Doof — to find out what they think is coming, what they’re excited about and what needs to change.
What do you think the future holds for queer nightlife in Sydney?
Joy Ng, Bearded Tit: I think (and hope) that the future of queer clubbing in Sydney will be more diverse. I think promoters and venue owners will realise that booking and curating events involving more people from diverse cultural backgrounds and demographics will add to the richness of Sydney’s queer clubbing scene.
I think, unfortunately, the extreme conservatism that is ruling the country will probably stay the same, which means queer clubbing will be even more important as a continued place of refuge for those of us that are seen as different or not mainstream.
Jonny Seymour, Kooky: The scene is always evolving and developing. Currently there is a rise of beautiful events run by queer Indigenous people and people of colour. The scene is shifting from the traditional white cis organised events to gatherings that are browner, queerer, feminine, feminist, witchier, trans and non-binary, experimental, performance artist led.
There are institutions like Performance Space that have a long history of supporting emerging queer artists that even with the savage budget cuts from our conservative government to the arts show no signs of abandoning their incredible collaborations with performers and communities
The scene is shifting from the traditional white cis organised events to gatherings that are browner, queerer, feminine, feminist, witchier, trans and non-binary
Jacqui Cunningham, Birdcage: There's been some big changes in the queer clubbing scene in Sydney over the last few years. The queer hubs are no longer where they used to be due to gentrification and lockout laws. I think because of this, a lot of clubs and bars are becoming gay-friendly in general and crowds are getting more mixed. I feel as though there are less exclusively “gay” bars per se — everyone seems to be mingling with each other. A lot of the safe spaces that used to be queer are no longer around.
Nic Holland, Poof Doof: We’re already seeing the beginning of a big shift on the queer scene since the lockout laws lifted. New venues, new locales, new talent. Inclusivity is at the forefront of this — venues need to be inclusive and promote inclusivity, otherwise they will be left behind. If you’re not creating a safe space for all identities and sexualities, you’re not doing drag.
Will Oxford Street still be the epicentre of queer clubbing in Sydney in the future, or do you think that will change?
Joy Ng, Bearded Tit: I think before the lockouts, Oxford Street was mostly known for gay clubbing rather than queer clubbing, but I hope the lifting of the lockouts will see a rebirth of Oxford Street with more queer clubbing — that would be amazing.
Jonny Seymour, Kooky: Due to the recent lockout laws but longer term geographic gentrification and also the digitising of communities, Oxford Street is no longer the epicentre of queer clubbing. The inner west — led by spaces like the Red Rattler, The Bearded Tit, Satellite Cafe and the Marrickville warehouse district — has been the centre for the past 10 years, but even this is starting to dissipate too, due to over-surveillance by authorities.
But there will always be a scene, in that Darwinian sense of a species survival is determined by its ability to adapt. Queers are social creatures, we need to come together to heal, grow and resonate joy.
Queers are social creatures, we need to come together to heal, grow and resonate joy
Jacqui Cunningham, Birdcage: Oxford Street doesn’t really seem like a queer strip anymore. There are still safe spaces there but I’m not sure it will be return to being the epicentre of queer clubbing in Sydney. It seems to be the strip where a lot of tourists go, but in my opinion it’s the venues in the inner west — Newtown and Marrickville specifically — that are where majority of queer people go out dancing these days.
Nic Holland, Poof Doof: Oxford Street and Taylor Square will always be the cultural centre of the LGBTQI+ community in Sydney, but the 2019/20 Summer has shown that queer parties can exist and thrive almost anywhere.
For example, currently the biggest queer club night in Sydney is in the CBD. Newtown has a massive scene of its own. Morning Glory is open every Sunday from 4:30am in Darling Harbour. Promoters are rediscovering that people are willing to travel for a good time, and the new spread of queer events will ensure a robust, diverse range of parties operating successfully all through the year.
What needs to change to make the scene better?
Joy Ng, Bearded Tit: I sometimes see events which are labeled ‘Queer’, and have a line-up made up solely of queer talent, but the crowd that makes up the event aren’t queer. It’s like the crowd is there to see the spectacle, which is a completely different vibe than if the crowd was made-up of queers who are there to see someone they can relate to killing it on stage or on the dancefloor. I think those events need to not just hire queers, but plan the events for queers.
Jonny Seymour, Kooky: There has to be greater support from authorities to acknowledge that queer dance parties are intergenerational community safe spaces. We don’t have churches, community halls, parks nor recreation areas of our own. There should be more government grants to fund LGBTIQA spaces and share the wealth like the sports rorts slush funds.
Also the community itself just needs to show up to events, and get involved in helping organise spaces. Our community is only as strong as we build it. Fortunately, Mardi Gras has an army of amazing volunteers that are very supportive of LGBTIQA talent and are programming all kinds of disciplines across their festival footprint. Excitingly there has been a change of the gatekeeper structure of the past recently, allowing more access for emerging talent from the community into their party stages and spaces.
Jacqui Cunningham, Birdcage: There is still a lot of transphobia in the the queer community which I feel needs to be addressed. We need more platforms for trans and non-binary artists and we need to make sure our queer spaces are trans-inclusive and safe for everyone.
Nic Holland, Poof Doof: Persistent restrictions on our nightlife and venue licensing is the biggest challenge we face. Conditions like no liquor service from 3:30am still exist in most venues, but once these regulations are relaxed it’ll have a domino effect. Less rules means more freedom for patrons to be able to choose their own adventure, leading to more people going out, leading to more successful LGBTQI+ venues and businesses, which then ultimately leads to a healthier nightlife economy, more opportunities for our hospitality professionals, DJs and performers, and higher quality parties and experiences for patrons.
When you look towards the future of queer nightlife, what are you excited about?
Joy Ng, Bearded Tit: I'm excited about having a new generation of queer young people who have better language and awareness around intersectionality, and seeing how that will affect them creatively and socially.
Jonny Seymour, Kooky: Establishing more brick and mortar spaces that are queer owned and operated. Sadly, too many venues are now actually corporation and conglomerate owned. There is a movement to take events away from the metropolis, into venues in the outer west like Casula Powerhouse and Liverpool Arts centres, and even further afield into the bush and coastal cities like the recent successful Central Coast Pride.
I’m excited for queer clubbing to become exciting again
Jacqui Cunningham, Birdcage: I think the relaxation of the lockout laws will affect the scene in a positive way. I’m excited for more venues to be thriving which will encourage people to host and launch more queer events.
Nic Holland, Poof Doof: I’m excited for queer clubbing to become exciting again. For so long venues have fallen into that trap of repeating the same formula week in, week out — and for so long the community has been crying out for a refresh.
The success of clubs like Poof Doof show that there are thousands of people in Sydney that are very happy to go out every weekend if you give them a reason to. You can program each week as if it’s a special event: you don’t need to wait for a public holiday or Mardi Gras to create a night that’s one-of-a-kind. I think venues are cottoning on to this, and I can’t wait to see how it transforms our scene.
You can find all the details for this year's Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras here.