Queer Sydney and Melbourne: A Tale of Two Cities

Queer Sydney and Melbourne: A Tale of Two Cities
Image: Oxford Street (left) & Smith Street (right)

42 years ago this month, in 1979 the first edition of the Sydney Star Observer came out. Seven years later, in 1985 the first edition of the Melbourne Star Observer hit the southern streets. For decades, the Star Observer has been a part of Australia’s queer identity. Over the years we have chronicled, championed, and inevitably compared our nation’s two largest cities.

In recent years much has been said about the steady decline of Oxford Street in Sydney, but less attention has been paid to Melbourne’s ascendency. Last month Time Out named Smith Street, Collingwood the world’s coolest street. Melbourne’s inner-city street outranked the trendiest strips in Barcelona, London, Havana, and Los Angeles.


Smith Street is home to some of Australia’s busiest queer bars. On a typical Saturday night, upwards of 500 people line the footpath waiting to gain entry to the Sircuit Bar or Molly’s. The street is also home to a range of cool cafes, small bars, kebab shops, vintage clothing stores and factory outlets.

At Smith Street, queer Collingwood and hipster Fitzroy rub up against one another to create the sort of unique urban district that is fast disappearing just about everywhere in Australia. And this is not an accident. The openly queer Mayor of Yarra Council Gabrielle de Veitri was elected on a platform to “support and promote Yarra as a centre for LGBTQI business and culture.”


Photographer: Paul Patterson , courtesy of the City of Sydney Archives.

Meanwhile Australia’s largest gaybourhood is facing an existential crisis. An estimated 29.5% of all residents in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills are gay men. Oxford Street runs through the heart of the district and has long been one of the world’s most famous queer strips. The City of Sydney recently surveyed local attitudes to redeveloping Oxford Street. 80% of all respondents indicated “it is necessary to consider the precinct as a place for the LGBTIQ communities in the future.” And yet the needs and demands of the local queer community have not taken centre stage in drafting plans to redevelop Oxford Street.

After years of mismanagement by the City of Sydney, Council has privatised the redevelopment of the once Golden Mile to commercial developers. Real estate investment group Ashe Morgan has entered into a 99-year lease with the City to revitalise almost half of Oxford Street between Taylor Square and Hyde Park. The City of Sydney resumed the northside of the strip to widen the road in 1909. A century later the old drag queen ain’t what she used to be.

Ashe Morgan’s redevelopment portfolio would have brought goosebumps to Town Hall’s bureaucrats. Their signature project is just 2.5 kilometres west of Melbourne’s CBD and a world away from Smith Street, Collingwood. A glimpse at how Ashe Morgan has redeveloped Melbourne’s District Docklands foreshadows what could be in store for Oxford Street. The massive corporate shopping complex on the city’s waterfront is chock full of chain stores, a gourmet food emporium and a cinema. A new 200+ apartment hotel costing more than $100 million is in the works.


More than a decade ago the Star Observer had offices in a City of Sydney owned building on Oxford Street. Scores of other small local community-run services, businesses and organisations were housed at 94 Oxford Street as well. Starting in 2007 tenants’ leases (including this publication’s) were terminated to make room for a series of proposed redevelopments that never eventuated. For over a decade many of the once vibrant offices above Oxford Street have sat vacant. The retail strip’s daytime footfall has evaporated. Fewer queer office workers have been around to support queer owned businesses who were trying to pay Council rent. In response to the strip’s vacancy crisis, the City raised rainbow flags outside of empty office blocks, painted rainbows on bitumen and has funded an annual Mardi Gras parade down the middle of what one business manager called “the street of broken promises.” Then they outsourced the problem to Ashe Morgan.


Should Oxford Street be preserved as a historic, cultural, commercial and tourist precinct for the LGBTQI community?To mark the Star Observer’s 42nd anniversary we are hosting a panel discussion on the future of Oxford Street. Join a community forum with:
• Clover Moore, City of Sydney Lord Mayor
• Alex Greenwich MP; Independent Member for Sydney in New South Wales
• Kate Wickett is the Interim CEO of Sydney WorldPride 2023
• David Polson Chair of the steering committee for “Sydney Queer Space”
• Andrew Gorman-Murray is a Professor of Geography at Western Sydney University
• Lawrence Gibbons, Publisher of the Star Observer

Date and timeSunday, 1 August 2021, 3:30 pm – 6:30 pm AEST

Location: Burdekin Hotel, 2 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, NSW 2010

Register Here To Attend The Event, Registration Is Free.


Later this month the Star Observer will lease an office space in the Victorian Pride Centre. The showcase purpose-built premises in St Kilda will house numerous LGBTQI organisations. Hundreds of queer folk will work out of the centre. Valued at $13 million in 2017, the prime Fitzroy Street lot was donated by the City of Port Phillip. The Victorian Government subsequently contributed a further $25 million towards the construction of the building. The opening of the centre in July is the culmination of years of hard work. Just eight kilometres south of Melbourne’s CBD and a few blocks north of Port Phillip Bay, the Pride Centre demonstrates that local councils working in tandem with the State Government can deliver more than rainbow flags.

 Lawrence Gibbons has been the publisher of the Star Observer since 2019. He resides with his partner and two dogs in a rickety old house in a back lane a few blocks from Taylor Square. He has lived in Darlinghurst since September 11, 2001. He was the President of the Darlinghurst Business Partnership from 2010 to 2013. He moved to Sydney from San Francisco in 1995 to launch the Sydney City Hub which he also still publishes.


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One response to “Queer Sydney and Melbourne: A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. It’s a very binary piece which boils down to the Star Observer lost its offices on Oxford Street (which I used to work at as a freelance writer) and now has a brand new office at the Victorian Pride Centre, so Melbourne wins the race. I’d love more detail about queer life in the two cities and what World Pride could mean for a possible Sydney renaissance