On April 23, more than a thousand colourfully dressed weirdos braved the bad weather to march, dance, and hula-hoop their way up Newtown's King Street. The event was called Keep Newtown Weird and Safe, and was organised by Reclaim The Streets Sydney in response to a brutal assault on a Newtown resident two weeks ago.
Isaac Keatinge was walking home from a party wearing a dress when he was attacked by a group of men. They called him a "faggot" before the attack; the same word used against Stephanie McCarthy, a transwoman who was beaten up at Newtown's Town Hall Hotel in June 2015.
"Newtown isn't what it used to be. An influx of violent dickheads on weekends has made our streets unsafe to walk down," reads Reclaim The Streets Sydney's Facebook page. Most people blame the lockout laws for the changing vibe in Newtown, and maybe they're right.
VICE headed down to Newtown to talk about lockout laws, intolerance, and how the two seem to be violently converging.
Sarah Betts (Sharky), Reclaim The Streets
*VICE: Hey Sarah, what's happening today?*
Sarah Betts: This is a snap protest that came about 10 days ago when someone was verbally abused and physically assaulted for wearing a dress in Newtown. As Reclaim The Streets, we were asked to do something in response and we jumped on board. This is our 'hood and we think that the culture of Newtown and the diversity and the weirdness is part of what makes us.
What's Reclaim The Streets?
Reclaim the Streets is a movement that started maybe 20 years ago in England as a way to bring people into public spaces. We take people into the streets to party and protest. We've been calling it a "protestival" because we like to be more pro than anti. Today we're here for diversity and safety.
What about the influx of partygoers coming from Kings Cross? Is there resentment towards them?
Not at all. Anybody is welcome to join the protest. It's very much about inclusion, rather than exclusion. That's the heart of it.
Isaac Keatinge, Newtown local
Hi Isaac, so you were bashed for wearing a dress. What happened?
I was leaving my friend's housewarming party around midnight and heading up to King Street. A group of people sitting on the kerb made some comments about what I was wearing and called me a "faggot."
When I retorted they quickly surrounded me, pushed me violently—my dress was ripped—and then hit me with some rapid punches to the face, which made me lose consciousness.
Were you hospitalised?
Yeah, just for 13 hours. I got an intense laceration to my forehead. My muscle layer was open to the skull—it was pretty horrific. I needed 10 dissolvable stitches and five nylon stitches that just came out today.
On a more positive note, what's happening today?
This rally is in recognition of the social, domestic, and sexual violence happening in Newtown. In a way I've become a bit of a poster girl for this. There's actually been something positive in the whole experience. All these people coming together in the streets of Newtown has been pretty amazing.
So after the attack, is there a feeling that some people aren't welcome in Newtown?
Everyone is welcome here as long as they're accepting other people. It's very easy to stereotype and say that we don't want bogans here who threaten us with their hyper-masculinity, which really is the root cause. It's Australia's hyper-masculinity and drinking culture that's the problem; however, everyone is welcome in Newtown, as long as they're willing to listen.
Emma Woods, Newtown local
Hi Emma, firstly, do you consider yourself weird?
Yeah, I think we all do in our own ways. I think Newtown is one of the places where you can be weird and not feel weird because everybody's weird.
What's cool about being weird?
Being weird just means that you get to be yourself. You don't have to get dressed up for people or to look a certain way or act in a certain way. You can be whatever version of yourself that you choose to be.
Tell us about this event and why you've come.
I've lived in Newtown for a few years and I've noticed that since the lockout laws there's been an influx of people in Newtown who maybe don't respect what Newtown is and what it's become. It's really disappointing that it's affecting people's safety. I've come to show support for people who might feel less safe than I do when going out in Newtown.
So is this about the lockout laws?
Yeah, we end up with a bunch of people who would otherwise be in the city or elsewhere and they come to Newtown and sometimes they bring their aggression and some different ideas about what's acceptable.
So how do you want Newtown to be?
I guess just how it was before the lockout laws came into effect. That's when it became a bit less comfortable going out on a Friday or Saturday night. There's a change in the crowd, a change in aggression levels and there people who are ready for a fight. That's what we don't want.
James Loch, Spokesperson for Reclaim The Streets
Hi James, what's Keep Newtown Weird and Safe about?
Well there's been a change in tone over the last year or two, everyone who lives in Newtown or parties here has noticed the change. I guess the bashing of Isaac was just a spark that ignited a flame that was ready to explode anyway. People are pissed off. They're unhappy that their cute little ghetto has been taken over by people who are likely to give them grief.
So have things stepped up for Reclaim The Streets since the lockout laws came into effect?
Yes, it has kicked up a bit. Normally we get between 1000 and 2000 people to our events but I think we got 5000 to the last event when we marched to the casino.
Is it the people coming from the Cross who have ruined Newtown?
No it's not people from the Cross. People who work in the Cross such as sex workers, strippers, and kebab shop owners. We love them, they're fantastic people. What we're talking about is people who go and party in the Cross and aren't necessarily used to being in a space like Newtown where people are a bit different and they've just got to learn to not be jerks about it.
So is there a sense that some people aren't welcome in Newtown—like bogans or yuppies?
Everyone's welcome in Newtown so long as they don't harass people. The whole point of keeping Newtown weird isn't to say that you must cross dress or you must look like a punk or a goth in order to fit in, it's about acceptance of difference. You don't punch people in the face because they're wearing a dress.
Dorian Cameron, Grounded Sound crew
What are you hoping to achieve through this protestival?
When something like this [assault on Isaac Keatinge] happens, it's important that we react and make it clear that it's not acceptable. If you want to beat up on someone for being weird then a thousand other weird people will come out to show you that that's not ok in the best way we know how: by showing up and being weird.
Do you consider yourself weird?
Oh, you know, other people consider me weird. I'm a straight, white, cisgender male so fit into that upper, easier class of the world. I don't get persecuted for much, short of being a ginger, but that hasn't happened since I was like 15 so it's all pretty cool now. But I identify in different ways at different times. I want to wear a dress; I want to dress as a cat. People should be able to express themselves in a happy, open way.
So is there a sense that macho dudes aren't really welcome in Newtown?
Everyone's welcome. If you want to wear a really nice Ralph Lauren polo shirt or you want to wear a wedding dress, whatever. Wear what you want, be whoever you want. But don't attack other people if you feel insecure. By all means come to Newtown and be nice. But we like our little suburb of nice people who do nice things, so don't be a dickhead.
Follow Nat on Twitter