THE local punk scene was ablaze and burning throughout the late 1970s, bringing together a community of misfits with diverse gender and sexual identities.

It was a youth movement that was culturally aware, but didn’t take itself too seriously. There was somewhere to be every night, and it was here that Rowland Thomson and Crusader Hillis were the guests of many late night parties.

[showads ad=MREC]“The punk way of doing things and the sense of diversity in that scene has always stayed with us, and the way you treat people,” Crusader said.

“It was a very welcoming community.”

It was this passion for inclusion and diversity that Rowland and Crusader carried with them when they first opened the doors to Hares and Hyenas in 1991.

Ever since, the venue has morphed from being a beloved queer bookstore in Melbourne to a symbol of togetherness — a hub where members of the LGBTI community are given a voice and a safe space to express themselves freely.

Queer classics line the shelves of the store, but there is much more that happens here than the simple flick of a page of Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man or James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. On any given night there may be a show of some kind — the disability performance night Quippings was born in Hares and Hyenas, for example — or a group gathering, like the 15-year-olds who recently used the space as a home for their book club.

The performances hosted at Hares and Hyenas include spoken word, cabaret, theatre, and music, and cover gender and sexual identity in all its variations. Over the years, Rowland and Crusader have also helped program the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the Gay Games, and of course Melbourne’s own Midsumma.

Fuelling all of this has been a drive for inclusion and to ensure the entire LGBTI community is visible and heard. Rowland said both he and Crusader have always felt that way.

“Some people are interested in hearing stories about people who are similar to them, while some people are interested in stories outside their own experience,” he said.

“I think we both fall into that latter category. There’s beauty in hearing those stories.”

Crusader agreed, and highlighted the importance of giving a voice to marginalised LGBTI community members.

“You get so much satisfaction when you see the community grow and express and develop, especially voices that otherwise would never be given the opportunity to be on the stage and be listened to,” he said.

“We found that those particular communities were lacking a voice, even in the gay and lesbian scene.”

Hares and Hyenas is one of the last remaining queer bookstores in Australia — and the world — and has cemented its place as part of the local LGBTI culture. Coming up to the store’s 24th anniversary, the owners said they’ve seen many major shifts in the LGBTI landscape over time.

When the store first opened there was a hunger for books about coming out, and books with even the suggestion of homosexuality. However, Rowland said with more openness and acceptance, even family members of LGBTI people have been visiting the store.

“We’re at a stage where we have parents coming in and assuming that their kid is gay or trans*, and they’re looking for books to help them come out,” he said.

“And parents with trans* kids are looking for both books for their children and books for themselves.

“There’s been a huge change in perspective.”

Friendships and relationships are also ignited in the store, helping those looking to connect with the broader LGBTI community.

“There isn’t the usual barrier that you’ll see at a bar where people are just trying to pick up,” Crusader said.

“There are some people who come to things here regularly that say they never leave without having met three or four new people.”

That is what Rowland and Crusader have essentially done for the community through Hares and Hyenas. They’ve created a second home for today’s misfits, much like the punk scene did decades earlier.

Quite often the continued existence of events like the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and Midsumma are questioned, as acceptance of the LGBTI community grows. But Rowland believes there will always be a place for these events, alongside Hares and Hyenas.

“Even if there’s complete acceptance in society, there should still be a place for people to come together with similar interests,” he said.

Crusader agreed.

“What this store does is beyond what any mega bookstore can do, because it has so many people’s journeys attached to it,” he said.

“Hopefully we’ll be around for a long time yet.”

Do you know of an unsung community hero who deserves recognition? Email editor@starobserver.com.au with your tip

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**This article was first published in the November edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.

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