Queer Geographies of USyd

For many, university spaces have become intertwined with seminal queer experiences.

Art by Telita Goile

Queerness persists all around us. Stories of queer life, love and heartbreak have persisted through millennia of oppression and have been known to every patch of grass, every grain of sand and every human structure. Archiving these stories is in some ways an impossible proposition: queer life is an ongoing reality that resists reductive attempts at quantitation. Queering the Map is a digital archive of global queer geography that nevertheless pursues this goal in earnest. Despite being a relatively meagre cross-section that artificially overrenders the importance of metropolitan centres of the Global North, it fills the map with pins that radically reclaim everyday spaces as queer ones.

There are twenty or so pins in the main campus of the University of Sydney on the Queering the Map website. The entries are often brief, alluding to much richer stories of self-discovery and love beyond the reach of the reader. With few expectations and a dream, I sought out to discover some of that richness and map it faithfully. 

The seven stories for which I have had the good fortune to be entrusted speak to our own queer places. For many contributors, university spaces have become intertwined with seminal queer experiences — first kisses, first sexual experiences, and first love. For others, they have been the site of refuge from discrimination and observation. It is no coincidence that the autonomous queer space, whether as its previous iteration in the Holme Building or the present iteration in Manning House, appears twice in this piece. In both of these stories the importance of a space to be authentically oneself free from the real or perceived eyes of judgement becomes apparent. 

Each of these seven stories sheds light into brief moments in time that become formative and have an inescapable intimacy. The majority of these stories reveal that authentic queer expression in our university spaces is often only possible without feeling observed; this is a sombre realisation to have about a university campus in the heartland of one of the world’s most queer-friendly metropolises. These stories are barely a drop in the ocean of queer experience at the University of Sydney. They do, however, ultimately allude to its richness, its beauty and its persistence.

The Cadigal Lawns

We met at the beginning of year eleven and for four years you were my blanket. To all the rest of the world our love was not particularly grandiose but we inhabited a safe, happy world of our own devising. For years we’d enter that baby gay boy world on the hills near Cadigal Lawns, just to the right of the stairs. We’d bring our lunch and peacefully watch as hundreds passed to and from the Redfern run, speculating endlessly about what kinds of lives they led. I’d run my hands through your black hair, we’d gently throw grass at each other and sometimes we’d forget about the nameless onlookers and kiss. One warm day on the eve of summer as our second year was coming to a close, we met on the lawns for one last time. I delivered an ill-fitting and overly rehearsed break-up and then you walked silently down the Redfern run and out of my life forever. I lay on the lawn and wondered how I would ever displace the love I had for you. To be honest, I still do sometimes.

The Seymour Centre  

Under the lights of the cosy Reginald Theatre, I played the role of myself in my first queer relationship — something that just weeks prior I didn’t know I wanted. We were both casually seeing other people, but were cast together thanks to the “stage chemistry” (according to our director) that would slip easily into the real life chemistry that I know and love today. 

Backstage, my breath hitched in my throat and I averted my gaze as they walked past my mirror in fishnets — I was no stranger to having a ‘show crush’, but this was new. We bonded over pre-show stress messages and met up opposite Manning House to study before shows. I borrowed her lavender-coloured jumper for the walk to Redfern station and sent a selfie of myself in it from the train home. At the cast afterparty, we fell asleep on the floor, inebriated and drowsy, wrapped in each other’s arms.

“But she’s straight, for sure”, they thought. 

“But they’re this affectionate to everyone”, I reasoned. 

A week later, we gasped with laughter at an unfunny joke made hilarious by the vegan/gluten-free edibles that were catered to us. We found our way home together (not sure how I pulled this off, to be honest), and my heart thumped deafeningly before our lips finally made contact. They still tease me for the way my voice dropped low to stutter out my desire to kiss. It was truly the start of something wonderful. 

The Quadrangle

My first queer experience was a poorly kept secret set against a tumultuous backdrop of stupol negotiations and protests. On my birthday we kissed at a house near uni and wanting to escape some men who kept annoying us, went on a walk to the Quadrangle around midnight, talking until security told us to leave because we had brought a bottle of wine with us. Perhaps if we hadn’t gone to the Quad of all places, it would’ve been easier when it ended for me to let go of the ideal I’d created in my head. I’m glad we’re friends now.

Hermann’s Bar

I met my first USyd hookup here after a SHADES event. I didn’t realise how much of a geek or how much of a power top he was. After a few chats and a hangout later, he was the top and I was the bottom. I’ve moved on ever since but the hookup that ensued from that night will always be part of my USyd experience.

The Old Queerspace in Holme Building

I was always resentful when the Queerspace was relocated to Manning with its new floors and new furniture. Some described the old Queerspace in Holme as drab and dilapidated with its old, patchwork couches likely covered in a thin layer of human secretion. To be fair, it was a windowless room beneath the bustling Courtyard Café – now a storage room I believe, but it was a beacon of safety, comfort and understanding for the young me trying to figure out who I was and where I belonged. I spent four to five years in that room studying, chatting, sleeping, eating, organising, partying and getting frisky. In times of turmoil, like the 2017 plebiscite, I was always there, and so many LGBTQIA+ students on campus sought comfort in this tiny basement room. So many firsts and so many lasts, that dingy basement room, with its convenient back alley for smoking cigarettes in between classes, became a refuge. I never went to the new Queerspace.

The New Queerspace in Manning House

At some point in the final semester of my penultimate year of undergrad, I visited the Queer Space for the very first time. Campus was virtually abandoned as it was approaching 6pm and pandemic restrictions meant that very few students were attending in-person classes. I took this opportunity to enter the Queer Space without fear of unexpectedly finding strangers there. I opened the door to a smallish square room with high ceilings, a kitchenette stocked with the basics for tea and coffee, though no milk, and a mismatched arrangement of comfortable seats and couches. It was cozy and unyieldingly camp, just as one would expect. What struck me most though were the two racks of clothing placed in a corner of the room. My best friend later informed me that these were for gender-questioning/transgender people to experiment and affirm their identities. At this point, I was vaguely aware that my future as a trans woman was inevitable, though I had only joked about it up to this point. I grabbed a cute bag off the rack of clothing and strung it over my shoulder, gazing at myself in the tall mirror leaning against the opposite wall. There was a pang in my stomach, one that acknowledged how far I had come, and how much lay ahead of me. I was scared, but in the quiet of that tiny room, I felt emboldened to step back out into the world as myself. And so I did. I’m nearly six months into medically transitioning now.

Queen’s Park

My local park is near my home and my high school. We meet there late at night, after trying not to intensely, obviously look at each other in the library. Everyone can tell when you’re staring at someone in a gay way, right? It doesn’t help that you aren’t even in the same friendship group; sitting at a table together feels flagrant, inviting speculation.

Slipping away to the park is safer. It’s expansive and dark, and intimate, because it’s winter and you have to stay close; the school blazers are drafty and mock their purpose. It’s only after several visits to the park that I gather the courage to kiss her, though, hidden under the trees on the slope of the hill. And everything we do together afterward feels hidden too, ensconced in the darkness of that park, even though it happens in other places, in the light. But the dark only feels safer if you’re more afraid of what’s in front of you than what’s happening around you, or if you’re afraid of yourself. It started and ended in the dark, because secrets are only exciting for a short time, while they provide a hiding place rather than a cage.

We went there again a month ago, almost as friends. I pointed out that it was the same spot and she laughed as though she only half-remembered. Intoxicated confessionals poured forth, floating on Absolut:

she loved me then (news to me),

she loves me now (a little bit),

she wishes we didn’t both have girlfriends (yikes). 

Lots to think about on my homeward stumble.

These two mirrored scenes, years apart, form a painfully lesbian diptych. Who doesn’t have weird associations with the darkness of their local public park?