I remember the day gay marriage was legalised in Australia. I was in year 11, and my best friend and I skipped the first two classes of the day to join the crowd in Northbridge Plaza as we all watched the big screen looming above us. I remember the explosion of sound, pride flags, tears, as it was announced that the majority of Australians believed as we did. My best friend and I holding hands, jumping, screaming. The older lesbian couple hugging me, tears in their eyes, saying, ‘we did it’. I also remember trying to celebrate that same pride some years later at a gay club in Perth, believing I was walking into a building full of safety and acceptance, and instead finding myself hit on by straight men without another queer person as far as the eye could see.
This experience, unfortunately, is not unusual. Nearly all of my friends, particularly queer women and femme nonbinary people, have entered into these ‘safe’ spaces only to be harassed. The Court Hotel has faced particular backlash on this front, with an online boycott campaign mounted against the venue in 2019 after gay patrons reported facing homophobia from straight patrons, and further petitions this year. More and more people are talking about the place of straight, cisgender women and men in queer spaces, with the debate split between exclusion for the sake of safety and embrace of the queer scene’s growing mainstream popularity.
In the midst of this debate, there seems to be a move away from gay bars as a source of entertainment. Instead, the majority of the young queer people I know are taking up residence in small indie bars, primarily in Northbridge and Fremantle. Rather than hitting up Connections on Saturday night, many are ending up at the William Street Bird during the week, usually to see a band. So, what is the deal? What is so much more attractive about these places, when there are specific clubs intended for us? What is going on with Perth’s gay scene?
Bring in The Bird
The William Street Bird is a small, unassuming venue, sitting in a row of stores at the mouth of Northbridge. The Bird has served as a live music venue and bar for more than a decade after being opened in 2010. Current owner Kabir Ramasary, who bought the venue in 2017, says his own positive experiences at The Bird influenced his purchase. “It was such a space that I felt comfortable and I saw so many people be comfortable in there in my time when I used to go there just as a patron.
“I loved going to a place that was super-inclusive, super friendly and comfortable, and then I just wanted to continue that.”
Aside from its bar and kitchen, The Bird hosts a range of entertainment, from live music across genres to festival events such as Soul Alphabet to drag shows. It is also famous for Monday Milk, one of the few opportunities in Perth for new bands to have the stage. Ramasary says the venue’s patronage is diverse. “There’s regulars who just come for the drinking culture, sit in the beer garden and meet up with friends, the social side of things…the live music side is all to do with what gigs you put on.
“If you put a night on that is all-inclusive, you can have that sort of audience come in for the night.”
The members of indie rock band Blue Honey says The Bird’s safe space atmosphere makes it their venue of choice. The band, made up by Iris Grey, Carla Cicchine, Isabella Cotter, Sarah Curran and Chloe Diener, got their start playing the Monday Milk event and have played at The Bird several times since. Their audience, Grey says, is, overwhelmingly queer.
“Lots of queer people, I would say, or alternative folk. It’s definitely dependent on the venue.
“Yeah. I feel very safe there, it’s very homely.”
For the full sit down with Blue Honey, listen here:
Ramasary says he expected The Bird to become a LGBT hotspot because it has always been a safe space for him. “We moved to Australia when I was three. During high school I went through a lot of bullying…my background understands that sort of thing. I just felt it was a comfortable space for me always and I think that’s really important for people. It’s something that I’m definitely proud of.”
Dean Misdale, a Perth drag performer who has worked at both The Court and Connections, says venues like The Bird are a brilliant addition to Perth’s gay scene. “I think it’s really cool to see other places like The Bird and parties like Cherry Bomb which are not ‘queer’ 24/7 but they’re absolutely safe spaces.
“I just think it gives a nice little level up to what we already have without them being full time, exclusively queer spaces…they’re doing a great job and they’re offering something different that The Court or Connections don’t always offer.”
The times they are a’changing
To understand the context in which this change is happening, I had a chat with Bruce Baskerville, an independent public historian specialising in LGBT history in Western Australia. Baskerville says the early days of gay clubbing in Perth were often dangerous. “You always had to watch out for the cops, you always had to watch out for entrapment,” he says.
“Whenever you went somewhere, even to Connections, you always had to know where was some backdoor, where was the way you could get out quick, where were all the laneways and the alleyways you could escape down in a hurry.
However, this didn’t stop other venues from embracing the LGBT community. Baskerville says there were many venues that were LGBT-friendly hotspots – namely, the Loaded Dog, the Stoned Crow and the Cat and Fiddle, then located in Perth CBD, Fremantle and Mount Lawley, respectively.
For more on these venues and Perth’s gay history, watch here:
Finding your niche
Diversity seems to be the driver behind the expansion of Perth’s queer scene. Niché events such as travelling parties, clubs and activities have exploded in popularity in recent years. Cherry Bomb is one such event, marketing itself as an ‘alternative queer party’ hosted at Lucy’s Love Shack on Murray Street. Another, Snatch, is dedicated to queer women and nonbinary people and travel between venues, the most recent being hosted at The Rechabite in Northbridge.
Joey Kessler of Pride WA says he’s noticed the community and their social scene is growing in “the best way possible”.
“That’s one thing that’s amazing about Perth and WA as a whole is that if there’s a need, someone will create it. There are different events catering all throughout the LGBTI space; you have ones targeted towards gay men, lesbians, and ones that are created for all people to be included…hopefully, a person in the community has the ability to find that perfect place for them.”
This diversification is spreading into more than just partying. Gay sporting clubs have picked up in popularity, with clubs being made for cycling, rock climbing, synchronised swimming, rugby and AFL, dance and hockey, just to name a few. There is also the Perth Gaymers, a group centred on competitive gaming, and the Gay and Lesbian Singers of Western Australia. Activities for those not interested in clubbing or sporting have also diversified, with ‘gay bingo’ becoming a weekly event at Connections Nightclub and elsewhere.
Kessler, who plays for the Perth Rams Rugby Union, an ‘all-inclusive’ rugby team supported by Curtin University’s Curtin Rams, says the sporting clubs give queer people a safe space to be themselves in a non-party setting. “I just want to play rugby and be me,” says Kessler.
As for The Court and Connections, there is still an ongoing effort to maintain their queer roots. In response to the 2019 boycott campaign, Misdale took part in organising a counter-event, dubbed ‘Reclaim the Court’. “I was heavily involved with it because my biggest thing with the gay bars, I guess, losing some of their gayness is, well, what makes a gay bar? It’s the people that go there. So, if the place is full of gay people, guess what? The straight people will be outside in the line.”
Misdale themself is involved in the niche event scene, running a drag performance group Divas: The Drag Revue performing at private functions and the Fringe Festival, as well as Balls Up Bingo.
The Bird, as a result of the increased queer patronage, is planning to start a dedicated gay and lesbian night, says Ramasary. “We’ve always been on the forefront of trying to make sure that there is inclusiveness in our venue. Why don’t we do a Wednesday where people can come out and actually feel safe?” he says.
Looking to the future of Perth’s gay scene, it seems certain that the mixing of gay and straight patrons across venues is going to continue. However, the blurring of the lines is not a negative – it was ultimately the goal, says Misdale.
While venues like The Cat and Fiddle have since joined the extensive graveyard of Perth’s entertainment venues and The Court’s demographics have changed, it seems like their legacies have carried on with the intimate settings, live music and mixed, alternative crowds in places like The Bird. Discussing the matter with Baskerville, it seemed as though the current situation mirrors that of the past – same venue movements, but for different reasons.
“What might be that after 1991, you know, it becomes acceptable or people feel comfortable, or they want to proclaim that we can all get together and this is our spot and that we don’t have to run from the cops anymore, or the bashers,” he says.
“30 years on, perhaps there’s not the need. We don’t need to feel like that.”
The Court and Connections Nightclub did not respond to requests for interviews.