Watch The Feed's report on the decline of Sydney's once-thriving lesbian bar scene on SBS VICELAND here.
As laws around marriage and sexuality gradually loosen and queer communities enter the cultural mainstream, traditional gay bars and clubs of the past are losing relevance. It’s happening around the world, and in Australia too: while gay nightlife venues are still a relatively potent cultural force, they’re less exclusive than ever, with many now opening their doors to all genders and identities. Lesbian bars, prolific in the Sydneys and Melbournes of the 1990s, are all but nonexistent now.
Any nostalgia might be misplaced: once places of refuge and secrecy, in 2018 queer clubs now host parties attended by a vast and diverse group of LGBTQI people. How can that really be a bad thing? Nobody understands and appreciates how far the scene has come more than Tim Brown, owner of Perth’s Connections, the oldest gay club in the southern hemisphere.
“Those 40 years have seen the biggest change in our community ever,” he explains. “I've witnessed great changes—it's gone from being a very closed world that was very inward looking, to integrating more broadly into the wider community while trying to hang onto its identity and be relevant to what it means to be queer here and now. That's the key thing and I think that's what’s been part of [Connections’] survival.”
First opening its doors in 1975, Connections is deeply embedded within Perth’s party landscape, known and beloved by everybody. Historically though, it traded on secrecy and discretion. When the club was founded, homosexuality was still outlawed in Western Australia, and that wasn’t set to change for another fifteen years. Connections is still well-known for its drag nights and lesbian mud wrestling, events which cater to specific patrons with specific interests. But they don’t really feel that way.
Nationwide, solidarity among queer people—particularly young queer people—in the face of recent campaigns against Safe Schools and marriage equality has meant that your letter in the LGBTQI alphabet doesn’t define your nightlife choices. Perth partygoers, more specifically, have been converging tribes for some time now, mainly due to lack of options. There are only two gay venues in the city, after all.
“Connections is unusual because Perth is unusual—because we've only got a couple of venues, Connections has always had a broader range of queer people—gay men, lesbians, trans people, and the straight crew who came to us because they were supportive and liked the party we threw—and we’ve sort of tried to keep that,” says Brown.
“Because Perth was a small town and there's nowhere else to go, we were all sort of chucked in together. And we've kept that idea as part of the basis of who we are.”
So despite its more discreet origins, it becomes clear that Connections has always been a gay club with a “the more the merrier” attitude when it comes to partying. It’s an attitude that proves helpful when apps like Grindr have made it easier than ever for gay men, once the exclusive patrons of your establishment, to meet and hook up without having to pay for drinks. Ensuring your venue feels welcoming and friendly for everyone can only ever make it a better place to party.
“We're not just about gay men, we're not just about twinks or bears or lipstick lesbians or whatever little subcategory you want to have,” says Brown. “What makes us strong is our diversity and it underpins everything we do.”
The biggest change Brown has observed in recent years is the joyful embrace of trans people within the queer clubbing community. “Once they were people who had to be underground even within the queer community,” he explains. “There were trans people that came to Connections, and we had trans staff members way back when, but still not many compared to the thousands of people that come every week and have done for 40 years. So those who have been in the shadows are coming out more, and that's great. And they're welcomed—they're part of us.”
With decades of experience running an iconic gay club in a small and socially conservative city comes perspective. Brown thinks the trans rights movement is moving at an astonishing rate. “I know people might say it isn't happening quick enough, and it never is, but if you think about the last few years and what it's meant for the trans community, and measure that against say, the decades it took gay men to galvanise their community and get support for things like the AIDs crisis, the trans community is gaining support very quickly, much more quickly—and that’s great.”
A clash between older and younger generations is always going to happen—older Connections patrons, Brown says, “can have different definitions of who is a part of this community” and tend to get “a bit set in their ways”. But he’s optimistic overall. “Younger people are more often pushing new ground and looking for new ways and new answers to what it means to be different. But what it means to be different shouldn't change at all, actually.”
Queer nightlife is shifting, and Brown would tend to think for the better. “When I started here back in 1991, there was a no camera policy in Connections,” he recalls. “Nobody was allowed to bring one in. But while I was giving my speech at the 40th anniversary in 2016, everybody was filming me. We've gone in 25 years from being a group of people who didn't want to be filmed because it was too dangerous for us, to filming every last minute.”
In a utopian society where everyone feels safe and accepted regardless of their identity, will we still need gay bars? Well, yeah. Connections makes a compelling argument that a queer venue doesn't have to be a sanctuary so much as a place to have a really, really good night.
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