Earlier this week, the pedestrians of Melbourne's Chapel Street were delighted with the sight of a rather unusual Christmas caroller. Instead of the typical silver-haired Santa Claus cruising down Chapel on his sleigh, the Chapel Street Precinct opted spread festive cheer with drag queens lip-synching to Christmas carols.
Art Simone – the singing siren during opening weekend, and one of Australia’s premier drag queens - came as a pleasant surprise to South-side revellers, busting out seasonal Mariah Carey anthems throughout the afternoon, enticing many smiles in the process.
However, not everyone was quite so thrilled. People lashed out, claiming the festivities were an affront to their Christian celebrations by not including the tried and tested Santa Claus, and some went as far as to launch targeted abuse at Simone via social media.
Much can be said about whether excluding Santa Claus is in fact an insult to Christian celebration. Then again, much can also be argued about the origin of Santa Claus himself; with many saying his history has roots in ye olde Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian saint - as well as having origins in aged Pagan religions. At one point he was even depicted as a jolly Dutch sailor, rather than a beefy bearded daddy hanging ten on his sleigh.
Whether or not you support the notion of Father Christmas as a Christian tradition, you can’t deny that the modern prevalence of Santa Claus has taken on a particularly secular tone, with celebrations of Santa Claus having little to do with the baby Jesus-and-friends and more to do with rorting your relatives for pressies.
What the criticisms of Art Simone and her merry band of men in wigs fail to realise, is that drag queens are perfect for Chapel Street. For the very reason that Chapel Street – and indeed, the surrounding areas of Prahran, South Yarra and Windsor – have been a frequented home for gays and gender diverse folk for decades.
Although it’s said that gay men and lesbians only constitute around 5% of the population, some suburbs continue to be relentlessly popular among the LGBT+ communities. They’re known as gay districts, “gaybourhoods” or gay villages; areas with established boundaries that contain large concentrations of homosexuals. The suburbs surrounding Chapel Street are among these regions.
From London’s SoHo to Los Angeles’ West Hollywood, these gaybourhoods exist all over the world. Many of these places will contain a large number of gay venues, such as nightclubs or bookstores. Others will contain higher densities of gay people who have simply chosen to flee the suburbs or rural areas, where they perceive there to be greater amounts of homophobia. We’ve all got one friend who fled the farm to live his big, gay, rainbow-hued dream.
Gaybourhoods made it possible for the legendary Harvey Milk to realise his goal of entering political office, thanks to the support of his primarily homosexual constituents in the well-known area of The Castro, San Francisco. And when the surrounding businesses in a gaybourhood profess themselves to be LGBT-friendly, you can be sure they’ll amass a considerable homosexual customer base.
Of course, even gay districts aren’t without their own internalised problems. White, cisgender gay men - considered generally to be more affluent and wealthy - often dominate many of the more rent-costly gay villages – such as South Yarra, St Kilda and Fitzroy – which means that many of the LGBT+ venues in the surrounds may cater more solely to them, occasionally even exclusively.
This leaves many individuals who fall out of homonormative stereotypes – going against the grain of cisgender, university-educated, professional and clean-cut homosexuals – left in the dark, often struggling to find safe spaces and even employment. Events and venues are expensive, so putting together the funds to run queer-friendlier, less-whitewashed events for LGBTs may fall into the hands of those affluent white gay men, who in turn focus on their own crowd. Even in gaybourhoods, the class conflict is real.
But really, what makes gaybourhoods like those surrounding Chapel Street so important, is the sense of safety and sanctuary that they offer LGBT+ people. Many move to these areas because they know that they’re going to be surrounded by supportive and understanding faces, and will hopefully endure far less homophobic bigotry than they might in the suburbs.
So when the vitriolic forces of the Christian Chapel Street wanderers lash their tongues about how Art Simone and her gaggle of queens are conspiring to contaminate Christmas cheers, and how they don’t belong, what they fail to understand is how much these frocked-up goddesses genuinely do. These areas have been homosexual hotspots going back decades. When a drag queen can ride down Chapel Street in a convertible, chanting festive tunes to the masses, you know you’re wandering down a strip of inclusivity and bliss.
This is our gaybourhood, honey. You’re just living in it.