Fridays were Boylesque nights at the Greyhound Hotel (GH), St Kilda. GH is now permanently closed. Its closure has been both sad and irritating because what once was an important and safe space will now most likely become yet more residential apartments to suffocate the identity out of the suburb.
I came out about four months before I first visited the Greyhound Hotel. I was 19 and I was nervous, worried I wasn’t queer enough, so I wore the worst clothes I owned: a hoodie threadbare at the sleeves, jeans too baggy in the back, and a pair of knock-off Vans. I stood in one corner of the main d-floor; felt watched despite my efforts to look ‘rough’.
In my mind I had an image of what it would be like, but the real reason I was there was because I was writing an ‘immersion’ piece about creating identity. The Greyhound Hotel was a glimmering centre of drag culture – the perfect venue for my purpose. After sinking a few beers and being asked to dance, four bucks cat-walked out on the stage at midnight. Each one wore a black feather boa constrictor, tight black undies, and high stilettos. A slender queen in Egyptian-like get-up sang with an enlarged version of herself on the screen behind. The bucks danced around her like she was Cleopatra. One of the tight-undied bucks winked and smiled at me. I blushed.
It was after my first visit to the Greyhound Hotel that I began to – obsessively – consider my own identity. I returned to the things I was told as a young boy were ‘for girls’, were ‘sissy’, were ‘gay’ – things I’d abandoned so I wasn’t marked as ‘other’. I used to play with my sister’s Barbie dolls until my then-stepfather made me embarrassed enough to hide this part of myself, and I liked watching my mother curl her fringe to a wispy curve over her forehead before she went to work.
Maggie Nelson comments in The Argonauts: “the simple fact that [Judith Butler’s] a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth… certain listeners hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there… to discounting the lesbian… when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity.”
A large part of drag is about creating identity, about how we perform gender. Drag highlights, and often mocks, gender. Because queer people often see negative images, stories, and stereotypes – just as Nelson points out about Butler – being able to create an identity that reclaims negativity and turns it into a point about our society is actually empowering.
In a place like the Greyhound Hotel, “the listener who cannot get beyond the identity” is left outside on the street, along with those negative images, stories, and stereotypes. And the inside space, protected from all that, is filled with queens and kings walking around the dance floor, queers of all kinds dancing and drinking with gay abandon (quite literally). These kinds of spaces reopen curiosity.
If it wasn’t for GH – if I hadn’t seen the stage, hadn’t seen the young and glamorous Art Simone colliding pop culture with identity, hadn’t seen the gender-neutral toilets, and hadn’t blushed when a boy my age came over and asked me to dance – I would be three steps behind in how I see, feel, and think of myself and who I am today. While I regret the closure of the Greyhound Hotel, I regret even more seeing other more LGBTIQA+ spaces demise.
Queer spaces have dropped off with alarming regularity. Take, for example, the changing face of Sydney’s Oxford Street. Yet here in 1978, brave queer people left the safety of the gay bars and marched from Taylor Square down the street in what was to become the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. If not for the safety of those bars – just as with the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village – would these ‘78ers have felt supported by their peers to go out and march in the first place? Would they have felt a sense of community without a place in which to gather? Would they have marched at all without being a ‘collective’?
So whether our identity is as fully formed as a queen, or as developing as mine was on my first visit to the Greyhound Hotel, a queer space gives us a place to reside, to perform, to feel safe. These places protect our identities. These spaces support our identities.