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Ian Roberts and Robyn Reynolds for Qtopia
Photograph: Lexy Potts | Ian Roberts and Robyn Kennedy at The Bandstand in Green Park

The rainbow road to Qtopia Sydney begins at WorldPride

We chat to two of the founders of Australia’s first dedicated LGBTQIA+ history museum about what this journey means to them

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

There’s a whole lot of queer history going on when proud ‘78er Robyn Kennedy, an activist and vice president of the board of InterPride, joins sporting hero and actor Ian Roberts in Green Park to talk with Time Out about their vision for Sydney’s first LGBTQIA+ museum, Qtopia Sydney. A dedicated space to celebrate community achievements in the face of often brutal resistance, the board is hoping to find the museum a permanent home in the old Darlinghurst cop shop, a historically significant site that was once a flashpoint for persecution. For now, folks can get a taste of what Qtopia Sydney will offer through a capsule exhibition presented inside the Bandstand in Green Park during Sydney WorldPride.

“It’s almost like ground zero,” says Roberts. In 1995, the revered rugby league player became the first professional sportsperson in Australia to come out, and the first professional player in the code to come out worldwide. “It’s so central to gay life in Sydney.”

Our present and future are always informed by what came before...

Not far from the Cross and Oxford Street, this loaded place and the sandstone stretch of ‘The Wall’ – which cordons off the historic Darlinghurst Gaol site across the road, now the National Art School – has been a site where men could meet and hook up before (and also after) homosexuality was decriminalised in NSW in 1984. “It was also a place where the police came to intimidate, arrest and bash men,” adds Kennedy. She is the co-author, alongside Robyn Plaister, of queer history book CAMP: Australia’s Pioneer Homosexual Rights Activists. “And, of course, it’s just across the road from St Vincent’s Hospital.”

In 1984, St Vincent's Ward 17 South became Australia’s first dedicated centre for HIV/AIDS treatment. Qtopia Sydney has recreated the ward as it was then at the National Art School’s campus for WorldPride, as part of NAS's spectacular Queer Contemporary series. “Many of the nurses treating patients in that ward were lesbians, because many other nursing staff didn’t want to,” adds Kennedy.

Established in 1971, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) was a political organisation pushing for equality for queer Sydneysiders. Kennedy was one of the driving forces, and was involved in the push for the first Mardi Gras, which she underlines was always conceived as both a protest and a party. “It was organised, in part, to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, so we actually had a street march in the morning, and we decided on a street party that night. People were all dressed up in outfits, wigs and make-up and it was fun until the police attacked us and it became a riot,” Kennedy recalls.

Her book, celebrating those early pioneers of Australia’s queer rights movement, has been adapted into a play, CAMP (Feb 15-Mar 4), by Green Park playwright Elias Jamieson Brown, debuting at the Seymour Centre as part of Sydney WorldPride. Kennedy explains: “It really captures that time before ’78, the activism, the excitement and the struggle. It’s the stories of women who are very much absent from our historical records, but were really the backbone of the movement.”

 The 1996 Winter Pride March and Gay and Lesbian Rights RallyPhotograph: Supplied/City of Sydney | The 1996 Winter Pride March and Gay and Lesbian Rights Rally

Remembering the obscured and the disappeared is essential. Green Park is also where, in 2001, the distinctive pink triangle of Russell Rodrigo’s Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial was erected, honouring not only queer victims of the Nazis, but also all LGBTIQA+ people who have been oppressed throughout history and today. Its plaque reads: “We remember you who have suffered or died at the hands of others… and all those who have refused the roles others have expected us to play.” 

Roberts has long championed an institution like Qtopia Sydney. “We have to celebrate where we have come from,” he says. “It hasn’t always been a walk in the park, but throughout history, when things were down and the rest of the community was pushing back against us, we got together and shone brighter.”

He hopes the new museum will be a beacon for those still unsure of their identity. “There are still kids in the suburbs killing themselves,” he says. “A place like this will save lives.”

The museum will also be a rallying point for the push for positive change. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” he says. “Marriage equality wasn’t the be-all and end-all. It was a great step forward, but look at what’s happening around abuse of the trans community, including in sport, and the fiasco around the Manly Pride jersey last year.”

”IanPhotograph: Lexy Potts | Ian Roberts and Robyn Kennedy pose with Russell Rodrigo’s Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial

Kennedy is also a long-time proponent of a place like Qtopia Sydney. “We’ve needed this museum for a very long time. We’ve been through so much, all the hard years fighting for law reform, the HIV/AIDS crisis, turning the tide of public opinion, and the community has contributed so much culturally to the life of the city. We have a lot to be proud of.”

What was won can easily be lost, Kennedy cautions: “It’s taken a very long time to achieve the gains we have, but those gains can be wiped out in the blink of an eye, and I worry about our community becoming complacent. We’ve seen that recently with the setbacks in the US and what’s going on in Eastern Europe. The clock has been turned back. We also saw attempts here with the last federal government’s proposed anti-trans legislation. And there are far worse situations in the broader international community. Our present and future are always informed by what came before; what’s at stake and what are our strategies to counteract it?”

For Kennedy, a recent visit to Queer Britain in London underlined how important an institution like Qtopia Sydney is. “I was very, very moved,” she says. “It showed every aspect of our community, its diversity, and our resilience. The first thing I saw was Oscar Wilde’s prison door – well, that blew me away. It demonstrated the breadth of what we’ve contributed, from a historical but also creative and cultural perspective.”

This is real, this is not a hypothetical. We need the community to get behind it.

That includes hearing from more perspectives. “A lot of people don’t understand the way First Nations communities operated before colonisation. It’s very much the aim of the museum to address that,” adds Kennedy.

Kennedy played an active role in securing Sydney’s WorldPride bid and has her fingers crossed that the festivities will have a lasting impact. “I hope it will help revitalise Oxford Street, which is not looking too flash.” Qtopia Sydney is another step along the road to rejuvenation, she says: “This is real, this is not a hypothetical. We need the community to get behind it.”

Roberts was similarly moved by his visit to the Victorian Pride Centre in Melbourne: “That was an extraordinary experience. We would hope for all levels of government to get behind Qtopia Sydney, like the Victorian State government got behind that.” 

It’s about respect, he says. “We stand on the shoulders of giants. We want Qtopia to be a wonderful experience for visitors, a learning place of education that’s packed full of fabulous stuff.”

You can support Qtopia Sydney by tipping in tax-deductible donations or offering to volunteer.

CAMP, the play based on the historical book co-written by Robyn Kennedy, premieres at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, from Feb 15-Mar 4. Find out more right here.

Photos by Lexy Potts (@lexypottsphotography).

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