• DJ Dan Murphy entertains the I Remember House crowd. (Headliner Group / Supplied)
"The connection the gay community has to itself and between its members is very specific. That’s where the magic happens.”
By
Gary Nunn

5 Oct 2017 - 11:11 AM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2017 - 11:44 AM

This tweet, sent earlier this month by @introvertgay, went viral: almost 16,000 retweets; over 70,000 likes.

It struck a chord, coming at a time when the LGBTQI community is grappling with the definition of gay culture. Is there even such a thing any more? Are our ideas around it ironically outdated for a community that has prided itself on urbane progressiveness?

Last weekend, one of Australia’s biggest gay venues closed its door forever. As the final revelers descended the spacious podiums and steep staircase from The Midnight Shift’s upstairs club, spilling onto Oxford Street, we witnessed a further descent: that of the gay scene in Australia’s most populous city.

Hailing cabs on the very same street that hosts the world’s biggest nighttime parade: Sydney Mardi Gras, in one of the final western countries to legislate marriage equality, it became apparent - Australia’s gay culture is a series of paradoxes. 

For many, myself included, gay culture has largely meant the gay scene: fun, gloriously vacuous, occasionally bitchy, embarrassingly male dominated. But dig deeper, and it has meant much more to those who’ve opted to be “scene queens.” It is essential frivolous escapism from a world that doesn’t always like including us, especially during this so-called ‘respectful debate.’

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In addition to exercising that poignant Peter Pan complex, LGBTQI people will lose “history and heritage”, according to DJ Dan Murphy, who organises floating events for the gay community including day party I Remember House and symphonic dance event Ignite. “That disappears, along with a whole heap of emotions that happened on that dance-floor over the past 35 years as the gay community travelled through heartbreak, resistance, love, grief, and hope.” For Murphy, “This, like most gay venues, was more than just a building for our community. It’s like the death of a loved one. So much emotion was invested in that building.”

The scene has evolved over time, but it now faces a critical juncture as the trend of gay venue closures spreads globally. Melbourne’s biggest gay club, The Greyhound Hotel, shut its doors for the last time earlier this year. The 163-year-old venue is to be demolished and turned into 43 plush apartments. Campaigners tried to save it with a Change.org petition but, this time, it didn’t carry the teeth that other such petitions have done.

Ultimately, it was an offline action that could’ve saved the venue: LGBTQI people actually turning up to it. They weren’t any more. The same thing is happening in London, once a gay mecca. BuzzFeed featured a piece showing 24 before and after pictures of London’s “disappearing lesbian and gay scene.” It’s a pink graveyard where each before picture features bright colours, bustle and dazzling neon lights, which have been switched off to reveal the grim after-picture: inevitably grey, generic or covered in bland, forbidding blocking boards.

Gentrification is taking aim at all clubbing venues, including straight ones such as London’s Fabric (which, after facing closure, was saved – this time the Change.org petition and community action really worked!) This combines with a perfect storm of other causes destroying the gay scene as we know it: hook-up apps, stay-at-home drugs like ice overtaking dance floor drugs like ecstasy in popularity, festivals overtaking clubs in popularity, Sydney’s lockout laws killing the night-time economy and – arguably – more acceptance meaning integration in ‘straight’ venues is easier.

Dan Murphy, though, refutes this and thinks too much blame has been placed with Grindr: “Everyone says it’s ruining the scene but I don’t believe that’s true. At I Remember House, 2,500 people regularly turned up to party. I also think our gay bars and clubs are safe spaces where you never have to think twice about pashing the same-sex on the dancefloor. No matter how cool a straight bar is, there’s always that fear.” Other than a small handful of bars, two clubs are left on Sydney’s once-buzzy Oxford Street: the camp Palms and the clubbier ARQ, which, Murphy points out, are packed weekly.

The lock-out laws, though, can feel like the gay community is being punished for the straight community’s problem. No coward-punches occur on Oxford Street; only loved-up gays dancing around their man bags to Rihanna remixes.

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As Murphy says, these places are more than just bricks and mortar. They’re feelings. They’re sanctuaries where LGBTQI refugees from oppressive suburbia flee to find acceptance, excitement, love, hope and safety.

Gay burlesque performance artist Joshua James, 24, who performed at The Midnight Shift, laments what’ll be lost: “Coming from Wollongong, I always felt I had to hide myself, keep my guard up. Having gay clubs along the legendary golden mile of Oxford St meant I could be myself without fear of being abused. Sydney’s clubs have been another home for me as a performer, allowing me to express myself in my own weird and wonderful way. I’m truly grateful to have had a place to learn about myself and grow.”

James says gigs will be harder to come by now: “I feel sorry for the established and upcoming queens. The Shift’s closure means one less space to ply their craft and develop their drag, which to me is terribly sad.”

It’s more than safety that’s lost; the subversiveness of the LGBTQI community led to an explosion of creativity that thrives on the fringes. Mainstreaming, although essential for equality, comes at a price for gay culture.

Or perhaps it’s just evolving: floating events like Heaps Gay and I Remember House (whose November debut in Melbourne has sold out) continue to thrive. Elusive warehouse parties around Sydney’s Marrickville are giving expression to queer culture. 

Some of this comes down to a more shared-economy approach to the gay scene and/or gay culture, putting it in the hands of the many, not the few. Murphy says: “People should get off their butts and organise something! Even a picnic or BBQ. Although it’s being brought more into the mainstream, the connection the gay community has to itself and between its members is very specific. That’s where the magic happens.” 

It would appear, though, that we’re rapidly approaching an era where the fixed gay venue has had its day.

Twitter: @garynunn1