Oxford Street is one of the world’s most renowned gay districts. For half a century the strip has been Australia’s queer capital, providing the LGBTQI community with a safe space in which to express our fabulous, colourful and diverse identities. Since 1979 the Star Observer has chronicled, celebrated and championed our glittering gaybourhood.
This year we are redoubling our commitment to the once Golden Mile. This month the Star Observer is launching a campaign to preserve Oxford Street’s LGBTQI identity. As part of this effort we have created the LET THE RAINBOW SHINE ON OXFORD STREET campaign to look at the past present and future of Oxford Street, while championing the local area, the people and venues that make it such a special place for our communities. To go along with this campaign Star Observer’s entry into this years Mardi Gras Parade will be a celebration of Oxford Street’s gay identity past, present and future, and we look forward to exploring the rich and colourful history of the area in future print editions and online throughout 2021.
More than just a rainbow-tinged inner city high street, Oxford Street is unquestionably the spiritual home of gay Australia. Even before the protests of 1978, that gave way to Mardi Gras as we know it today, the street was a home to bars and spaces that provided safe harbour from broader society at a time when homosexuality was still a crime and persecution of people just like us continued unchecked.
One person who has witnessed the evolution of Oxford Street over recent decades is Glenn Hansan who has worked at the much loved Stonewall Hotel for the past 23 years.
“There is so much history behind it, it has always been the heart of the gay community,” explained Hansan. “[Oxford Street] is known around the world and I think it’s important that we continue the legacy, of not only Mardi Gras but the whole history of Oxford Street.”
After lockout laws decimated the once thriving night-time economy and after years of mismanagement under the dubious tenure of the Sydney City Council along came 2020, a year that tested the strength and resilience of local LGBTQI communities. Today, many rightly lament the now faded state of Oxford Street.
This year, because of COVID-19, Mardi Gras will for the first time in the parade’s history be forced off the strip. This all comes at the very time that Oxford Street is poised for redevelopment, with no clear mandate to preserve the areas unique, colourful and rainbow identity.
“Oxford Street is the first place I kissed a guy, in Stonewall. It is where a lot of people felt they could come out for the first time and express their sexuality. It is really the heart of Sydney’s drag scene as well. It has made such an amazing contribution to Sydney, to New South Wales and to the LGBTQI community’s identity,” said Member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich.
“There have been challenges but I am really confident that Oxford Street is a really exciting place at the moment. Especially with the way in which local communities have really started to value their local area during COVID-19. I see WorldPride in 2023 as our opportunity to really show off a reenergised Oxford Street to the world.”
“Mardi Gras is the only night-time curated Pride parade in the world and that’s not to be underestimated. There are more spectators than participants, which is unusual for Pride parades around the world,” Kate Wickett, Mardi Gras co-chair and Sydney Pride Interim CEO told Star Observer.
Speaking of the importance of Oxford Street, Wickett added that, “the LGBTQI businesses along Oxford Street, even though there have been fewer and fewer over the last few years, whether it’s the sex shops or the bars or the restaurants, the diversity of businesses here have been a real backbone to the community. It’s an essential hub and a safe place for LGBTQI people and their friends.”
The fact remains, that far from an isolated phenomenon, Oxford Street is at risk of befalling the same fate as other gay districts around the world. From the Castro district of San Francisco, where a number of bars have closed their doors over the course of 2020, to the Soho District in London which similarly has been decimated by the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. But luckily for us, it’s not too late to save Oxford Street for our communities now, and for future generations to come.