Once upon a time, there was a community of lesbian and gay aesthetes for whom creating art that spoke of their lives was difficult, if not impossible. The reasons given by producers, directors and gallery owners alike were varied and suggestively similar. There was the imperative towards universal (read: heterosexual) themes in fiction; fear of a niche (read: unprofitable) audience base; rejection of the erotic as a serious subject for art; dismissal of art created for a particular community or culture and so on. The Mardi Gras Festival became a welcome oasis for artists from Barry Lowe to Deborah Cheetham, to find responsive audiences and warm spaces for expression.

Mardi Gras continues to offer this cultural haven, even though a broader resistance to lesbian- and gay-themed art has eased over the years. The 2002 Mardi Gras Festival can afford to be a more tightly curated program not just because standards have risen, but because there is more to choose from and more events than Mardi Gras can now contain.

So before a month of official Mardi Gras events coverage, I thought it would be worth exploring the range of alternative events happening throughout February. The selection here is eclectic and occasionally amateur, but also includes such respected professional artists as Paul Capsis and the late Peter Tully. They’re not endorsed by Mardi Gras, and their existence during February could be seen as either healthy competition or shameless slipstream riding. But in the spirit of gay and lesbian community publishing -“ it’s queer, they sell beer, so it’s listed in here.

In the world of live music, a chorus of new venues should please cabaret queens. There are tributes to Peter Allen by Craig Schneider and Doris Day by Donna Lee happening at the Woodfire Cabaret Restaurant (459 New South Head Road, Double Bay -“ phone 9363 4567). Singing and lip-syncing duo Dusty Glass and Dee Mountable are starring in Pity In Pink for one night only on 6 February at East Village Hotel, Darlinghurst (with tickets for sale on the door). Ruby King and Margi de Ferranti are also starring at Cabaret Junction (139 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, phone 9389 4432). Then of course there’s Paul Capsis, who’s performing at The Studio at the Opera House (see listing to left).

Lesbian or gay theatre alternatives are a little slimmer on the ground, although you might like to check out a new play by William Nedved called The Three-Way. Combining the stories of a gay couple in modern-day London with the journeys of gay code-breaker Alan Turing and ancient sodomite Frederick the Great, the play was a finalist in the UK International Student Playscript competition in 2001. Opening at the TAP Gallery on 14 February, The Three-Way runs until 23 February with tickets from $14. Phone 0415 516 914 for bookings.

For lovers of visual art, three galleries are presenting gay- and lesbian-themed shows in addition to the festival proper. The TAP Gallery’s Arty Gras Art Fest runs from 4 February to 2 March, with exhibitions including A Fairy’s Tail by visiting American artist Dominic Beaulieu (you can check out his work at www.dominicsart.com). Bear lovers should flock to Peter Skirrow’s new show which opens on 25 February and the mini-fest culminates on 27 March with Outloud 2002, an open entry exhibition of gay- and lesbian-themed art. (Entries for this group show, which is intended to celebrate Sydney’s Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras, must be submitted by Monday 25 February). For more information on Arty Gras, call the TAP Gallery on 9361 0440.

Gay and Lesbian (Artist) Management Australia [GL(A)MA] will also be hosting Trade, a showing of lesbian and gay art in their gallery, upstairs at The Piercing Urge at 251 Crown Street, Darlinghurst.

Finally, Tin Sheds Gallery (154 City Road, Chippendale) are holding a special retrospective called Dead Gay Artists. David McDiarmid, Peter Tully, Robert Cole, Brenton Heath-Kerr and Doris Fish are among the Australian gay artists represented, in an exhibition that runs the gamut from hippies to gay rights to the birth of Mardi Gras. The show opens tomorrow and runs until 23 February -“ phone 9351 3115 for more information.

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