The Polson Effect

The Polson Effect
Image: David Polson

LGBTQI museum Qtopia Sydney is set to open its doors on February 23. In commemoration of this, Star Observer spoke with the founding chair David Polson about the upcoming opening and the journey that led us to this moment. 

In 1984, Polson was one of the first 400 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Australia. During Polson’s treatment, he was introduced to HIV/AIDS researchers and physician, Professor David Cooper. Under Cooper’s care, Polson took part in 28 HIV drug trials.

“I went through 28 drug trials with him and we became very close friends,” Polson said. After Cooper passed away in 2018, his wife, Dorrie, shared Cooper’s vision for a Sydney AIDS museum with Polson.

“I said, ‘Dorrie, I’m going to do this. You have given me a mission. This is my mission. I’m going to honour David in his wonderful work and I’m going to get him his AIDS museum’ – 

“That’s literally how it started,” Polson shared.

From AIDS Museum To LGBTQI Museum

In the subsequent days, he spoke with former High Court judge Michael Kirby about the idea, who offered him advice. Polson recalled Kirby saying, “‘I think you should also expand it to include Queer people who have been oppressed, persecuted, and discriminated against over the decades’.” 

Soon after, a small committee was formed to bring Cooper’s dream into the real world. “We had our very first meeting at the Oxford Hotel,” Polson said.

The Oxford Hotel incidentally sits adjacent to the eventual site of Qtopia Sydney,  the old Darlinghurst Police Station, located at 301 Forbes Street.

Speaking of location. The committee looked at many different potential spots for the museum. These included The Substation, which is now part of Qtopia Sydney, the Old Darlinghurst Police Station, and the T2 Building. The T2 Building sits in Taylor Square, across the street from ARQ Sydney. 

Sydney has been waiting for a Queer museum for years. “There have been about six previous attempts to have a centre of some sort for Queer people in Sydney. They’ve all failed for one reason or another,” Polson said. 

The Vision For Qtopia

The committee’s next mission was to make sure history did not repeat itself. Polson met with Larry Galbraith, the senior policy adviser to the City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

“Larry was tremendous,” Polson said. “Larry laid out why they failed and what we had to do to make the project successful, which was tremendous because that set me up – I had a goal – I knew what to do.”

According to Polson, Qtopia Sydney is centred around three principles: memory, celebration, and education

When asked what he would like visitors of the museum to walk away with, he reiterated these three principles. 

“I want people to be able to go to Qtopia and see our AIDS Memorial and acknowledge and remember all the people who died from AIDS, see the reconstruction of Ward 17 South, and the wonderful contribution of the Sisters of Charity.

“I think that’s such an important part of the history of Queer Sydney. These women looked after us without judgement. They said ‘we are here to look after these people, to love, and support, and care for them.” 

He continued, “Celebration: We’ve got so much to celebrate. So many of our Queer community have done so many wonderful things in every walk of life. We need to celebrate – we’ll have that celebration in the museum, and show people just exactly what we’ve done.” 

The Old Darlinghurst Police Station

Education, Polson stressed, is the most important part of Qtopia.

“It’s very much going to be a place of education, and I really want that to be my legacy for Qtopia – that it’s going to educate people, not just next year, and the year after – but in 10 years’ time, 20 years. It’s going to be a continuing process of educating people.”

In September, the old Darlinghurst Police Station was officially handed over to LGBTQI museum Qtopia Sydney.

]The site of the old Darlinghurst Police Station on Forbes and Bourke Streets has an important place in the city’s queer history. The police station was once associated with the harassment and persecution of Sydney’s LGBTQI community, including 78ers.

Before the handover, the NSW Government was using the old Darlinghurst police station as offices for NSW Health.

Qtopia Sydney is set to open on February 23, 2024.

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