Are we there yet?

Susie Elliot is thinking about Oxford Street and safe spaces

Susie Elliot is thinking about Oxford Street and safe spaces

Art by John

The first time I encountered drag queens, I didn’t even have a pen license. While it might sound like nightmare fuel for your average Sonia Kruger-loving upwardly-mobile Mum, growing up three minutes away from Oxford St was quite wholesome. Nearly all of my neighbours were gay, both in sexuality and temperament, and it never occurred to me that homosexuality should be sheltered from children. Despite the trope of the young gay kid running off to the Big Smoke to discover solace and amyl, Stonewall was only a stone’s throw from my front door.

Yet even with the privilege of being raised so close to the pulsing centre of LGBTI resistance, when I eventually was able to join it, the community I saw was not one that resonated with me. It didn’t feel like a place of resistance; it felt like every other male-dominated corner of Sydney nightlife, except with more glitter and they played Adam Lambert.

Yet there is a part in me that wants so badly to fit within it; that wants to fight for a street that belongs to us; that wants a headquarter for our resistance. After all the turmoil and confusion of finally becoming comfortable in one’s sexuality and/or gender, the place that we fought to find seems so distant to us. Where is our space? Did they think they could add a rainbow flag and call that a community? Oxford Street is synonymous with gay resistance and culture in Sydney.

It is the home of the legendary annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. From the first Mardi Gras in 1978, a protest against the injustices of sodomy laws, Oxford Street has been a site of resistance and social change.Those arrested in 1978 had their names, occupations, and addresses published in the Sydney Morning Herald, even when most of the charges were dropped. Many were fired, had their families destroyed, and this year, in 2016, an apology was made. This vibrant culture of bars and exuberance is all but gone now, and Oxford Street is littered with closed shops, empty buildings, and fading signs. Darlinghurst, San Francisco – places charged with the complex history of the LGBTI community are slowly being eroded.

Most discrete communities have a geographical centre from whence they have grown, this cannot be said for LGBTI culture. Queerness is not something you tend to grow up with, but come to learn and navigate later on when your closet days are over. Sometimes I wonder if ‘culture’ is really the right word for us anymore? Our community is so vast that it is hard to call it a community, as our experiences are so incredibly different.

It’s hard to put the experiences of a transgender Indigenous person from a rural area in the same category as a metropolitan gay man. There are communities, customs and differences within an enormous LGBTI group, which is perhaps the limitation of Oxford Street and places like it. When one goes to the gay bars and clubs in Darlinghurst, you find them dominated by cisgender homosexual men; and if you take a look at Grindr, you can see this group’s tendency to be racist, misogynist and judgmental.

If you go out on Oxford Street expecting inclusion and safety, you’re gonna have a rude awakening. One only has to bring up the street’s waning reputation to be inundated with tales of being groped without consent and the unsettling persistence of sexual offers by gay men at gay clubs. These stories sound awfully similar to those of the sex culture in straight clubs, and is the kind of conduct a progressive agenda should aim to erase. This isn’t to say that party culture can’t be radical, political, or liberating, but Oxford St seems to not practice the acceptance, self-expression and resistance which is what had once made it so famous.

If Oxford Street is no longer the queer cultural hub for Sydney, where is? What kind of relationships do queer people have with different parts of the city? Maddy Ward says “I feel much safer in Newtown than Mosman as a queer person, for example… I love Oxford Street in all of its trashy camp glory. It’s kind of dominated by white cis gay dudes, which is shitty, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it the most significant place for queer people in terms of meaning. I think that belongs to the Cross or Newtown. But Oxford St is good for a boogie”.

She also stated that her experiences growing up in Townsville have shown her that it is important that “every community has their own significant place that is meaningful.” This can be felt so deeply for people from places that breed hostility towards people who don’t adhere to hetero and cisnormative constructs, as more practical meaning behind these places is purely safety. The word safety truly means to be free from violence, from all different shades of violence.

The violence of isolation, of slurs, of being seen as the Other, is so common and damaging, and this is what is missing from mainstream conversations about safe places. People continue to incorrectly define safe places and spaces as totally centred around being free from physical violence, which is a misinterpretation of LGBTI experiences. Misgendering, fetishising, mockery –q these are all things that hold the same underlying values as hate crimes do, but the myth that the presence of physical violence is the only “real” danger out there continues to be perpetuated.

Even Newtown, however, is not as safe as it might seem. The introduction of lockout laws in 2014 pushed partygoers out from the city, and has led to a rise in violence against queer people. In 2015, Stephanie McCarthy, a trans woman, was beaten up at the Town Hall Hotel, and in April of this year Isaac Keatinge was assaulted on the streets of Newtown. He was wearing a dress and makeup. The attackers were a group of men who harassed him with homophobic remarks, and multiple punches were thrown to his head. Keatinge ended up in hospital and shared the photo of his wounded face on social media to show the risk of basic self-expression.

Only a few months later in June, the Orlando shooting took place, again reminding us of the fragility of our safety. It was often called a hate crime in mainstream media,not because its victims were LGBTI folk, but because the shooter had sworn allegiance to ISIL on a 911 call, even though no links were found between the shooter and ISIL in the formal investigation following. The media took it as a hate crime against the US, and used it to perpetuate disgusting Islamophobic hatred, not to actually promote the safety of LGBTI people. Mainstream media utilised the violence against our community to perpetuate violence against another community. Even then, people were still refusing to call it a queer hate crime, showing a level of ignorance that is hard to imagine.

These two attacks on our community occurred in so-called ‘safe places’. Newtown is unofficially noted as the new Oxford St; Pulse was a gay nightclub, and yet violence still infiltrated. The shocking and heart-breaking fact of LGBTI districts is that they don’t exist in a vacuum: safety is never guaranteed. Even in supposedly safe spaces, our protection is often reliant on quite a few fragile factors and pure hope.

What then, of all of this? Perhaps the question we pose to ourselves is more important than the answer. As Maddy said to me about LGBTI folk in regional areas, “overall the attitude is shit, but not as shithouse as it could be.”