Oxford Street is one of the world’s most iconic queer strips. It sits in the middle of the largest concentration of LBGTQI people in Australia. After years of neglect the street is in desperate need of a makeover. Plans are afoot to redevelop Oxford Street. Council owned properties along the strip have been leased to real estate investment group Ashe Morgan who will redevelop the street. What happens on our street is important to us as a community and we need to speak about it.
To mark the Star Observer’s 42nd Anniversary we will bring the community together on August 1 at the Burdekin Hotel to discuss the future direction of Oxford Street.
The panel will feature Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich, Interim CEO of WorldPride Kate Wickett, Professor of Geography Andrew Gorman-Murray, David Polson, who has formed a working group to establish a queer museum/Pride Centre on Oxford Street and Lawrence Gibbons, publisher of the Star Observer, a local business owner, a long time Darlinghurst resident and a past President of the Darlinghurst Business Partnership.
Please Note: If Sydney remains in lockdown on August 1, this forum will be live streamed. A link will be sent to everyone who has registered.
We are posing a question to a panel of community leaders: Should Oxford Street be preserved as a historic, cultural, commercial and tourist precinct for the LGBTQI community?
While the panel will look to the future of Oxford Street, the Star Observer asked each participant to reflect on Oxford Street’s past, to share their memories in advance of our community forum.
City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has been in office since 2004. Lord Mayor Moore has supported the LGBTQI community during her time in office through the 1993 Homosexual Anti-Vilification Bill and the 2010 Adoption Amendment Bill, giving same-sex couples the right to adopt as a couple. She was a vocal supporter of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey vote in which over 80%. Sydney Federal electorate voted ‘Yes’.
“I have many amazing memories of Mardi Gras – as a parade float judge, standing atop Oxford Street shop awnings in the mid-1980s, as the first Member of the Legislative Assembly to march, in 1992.”
On the changes Oxford Street is facing, Lord Mayor Moore remains positive that Ashe Morgan recognises the unique identity of Oxford Street and its assurance to reintroducing the buildings for office spaces, cafes, small bars, restaurants and subsidised creative spaces.
Alex Greenwich MP was elected in 2012 as the Independent Member for Sydney in New South Wales. He was a co-chair in Australia’s 2017 Marriage Law Postal Survey.
Greenwich grew up around Oxford Street but remembers visiting soon after coming out as gay in his 20s as an exciting and welcoming place of celebration. He also attended protests on the street.
“[Oxford Street is] a place where you know you can share experiences, a place where you can go on dates, a place where you can join a protest. It’s always been a welcoming space, not only for me, but for so many other people.”
Greenwich met his husband on the dance floor of Slide Nightclub in 2006, which now operates as a cabaret lounge. He believes the lockout laws were damaging to the street’s trade. As a result, the clearway has changed to 40km per hour, and Greenwich is focusing on traffic calming and street beautification to allow for dining and retail experiences.
He points to Gilligan’s Island, where the Pride flag flies as an essential space that held equality marriage rallies, celebrated the plebiscite ‘Yes’ vote in 2017, and a vigil following the Pulse nightclub massacre. Greenwich wants to see more interaction and promotion of the street as a place to experience Sydney’s LGBTQI culture from dining to retail to entertainment.
Kate Wickett is the Interim CEO of Sydney WorldPride 2023 and was previously co-chair of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Wickett was 19 years old when she first went to Oxford Street to celebrate Mardi Gras.
“I remember, and it’s one of my favourite memories, standing out the front of the Colombian Hotel and just seeing this amazing rainbow of human diversity. It was breathtaking, and to be honest, I knew then and there that I had found my spiritual home.”
She says she found safety in the friendships made in the community, which guided her into becoming the person she is today. Wickett says the community is resilient and is constantly evolving and adapting.
“I know our intention at Sydney WorldPride is to help with the post-COVID revitalisation of LGBTQI arts, culture and entertainment.”
David Polson is the Chair of the Steering committee for “Sydney Queer Space.” Along with Justice Michael Kirby and Ita Buttrose his group is committed to establishing a queer space to serve as an exhibition and community space.In 1984 he was one of the first 400 men diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Australia.
Polson first visited Oxford Street in 1973 at 18 years of age, finding a community in Sydney after moving from New Zealand. He said the only two venues at the time were Enzo’s and Capriccio’s – he frequented both. Unfortunately, his closest friend died from AIDS in 1994. After travelling the world, Polsen returned to Oxford Street, but it had changed.
“I think it’s been let to go into dreadful disrepair for a variety of reasons. First, I think rapacious landlords saw how successful the gay businesses were along Oxford Street, and they just tried to squeeze more and more money out of them via rent. They didn’t put any resources into maintaining the properties. Then, of course, AIDS hit and took a great toll on Oxford Street per se. And it hasn’t ever come back to its heyday, not because the gays don’t want it to, but because the landlords charge enormous rents, and they are just not putting anything back into the community.”
Polson will be Chair of the Steering Committee Sydney Queer Space. The vision is to create a safe and welcome meeting space in Sydney devoted to the memory, education and celebration of the unique queer history and ongoing queer lives. The space will provide be a place of celebration and community for like-minded individuals and educate those on the impact of the community in Sydney.
Andrew Gorman-Murray is a Professor of Geography at Western Sydney University. His research is on social, cultural and political geography, with journal articles on LGBTQI-friendly neighbourhoods worldwide.
Gorman-Murray began going to Oxford Street in the mid-1990s into the early 2000s for the nightlife and day-time shopping as it served to gay clientele. He frequented The Albury, The Midnight Shift (now Universal Bar), The Stonewall Hotel and Palms.
“My first impressions were both how vibrant and how unashamedly LGBTQI Oxford Street was – both the evening social scene and the commercial spaces. I’d never seen so many LGBTQI people together before, or so many social and commercial spaces for LGBTQI people.”
With his research, he says LGBTQI spaces are still vital for the community despite increasing societal acceptance. These places are needed for like-minded individuals to be themselves and celebrate. He speculates the decline of the LGBTQI identity on Oxford Street to ‘super-gentrification’ but maintains it is still important for these spaces to exist as a reminder of history.
Oxford Street’s LGBTQI identity has struggled to stay vibrant with Sydney’s changing nightlife and population needs. However, as a landmark of the LGBTQI identity in Australia, it remains a relevant touchstone of progress. With a change in lockout laws and new ownership, it is up to the community to push for the Oxford Street identity revitalisation.
Community forum tickets available here.