28 May 2015

Remembering Sydney’s ‘Drag Queen’ scene of the 70s



It seems little known now that back in the late 1970s our little part of the world here in Sydney experienced a phenomenon with a large subculture of transgender women that remains unexplainable. Why did so many choose to live in just several postcodes spanning from Kings Cross at this moment in time?


This phenomenon was coined the ‘drag queen’ scene by Roberta Perkins. Now a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at UNSW, it was part of her research for an honours degree in the early 80s, eventually writing a book called The Drag Queen Scene. It remains the best and most complete record of that time. Only a few seem to be around now, but thankfully, the City of Sydney’s libraries has copies.
 The 'Drag Queen' Scene. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983
I was an active participant of this subculture from which I learned I could live the life I wanted for myself and was blessed with influential and considerate role models. It was a wonderful environment for my chosen self to grow up in.
This subculture was made up of differing social groups all trying to live in what was still very much an oppressive and ignorant time. To be trans was often to be seen as a freak and came with all the dangers and fears of an un-accepting public. But from the bashings and name-calling this subculture gave us our strength and courage – our sisters gave us love and security.
While we were all individuals, we all looked out for each other in social justice terms and shared a sisterly bond. Sometimes we would mix socially, although generally we were rivals for the many trans-curious men that came to the Cross or the Taxi Club in Darlinghurst.


I was part of the showgirl group. I worked at Les Girls during this time and the late nightclub was a mecca for girls from all groups. Other showgirls in this group came from Simone and Monique’s Playgirls Revue, who worked the club circuit, and Capriccio’s, the famous Oxford Street show. Interestingly, we were all dubbed as drag queens, although most of us lived as women.
Colleen Windsor  Craig Petrie  Amber Lee
Kings Cross was full of bars and clubs during this period and many trans women worked in them. Infamous now in any Kings Cross story are such places as the Rex Hotel, Tina’s Bar, the original Venus Room in Hughes Street, the Manzil Room – the late night bar for rock bands and their roadies, and the Bourbon and Beefsteak. All these bars were popular social spots and fertile ground for picking up trade.
Unbeknown to the punters, many of the strip clubs employed trans girls who were often better at the art of striptease than their female co-workers. These girls were less social as it was important they weren’t sprung by the punters. These places, almost extinct now, were really the drawcard of 1970s Kings Cross for straight males.
A large group of working girls operated around Darley Street in Darlinghurst. These were the day’s pre-HIV/AIDS where a girl could make more money over a weekend than any of the rest of us over a week. The laws of the day allowed street soliciting and the stories of traffic backed up in William Street on a Saturday night are all true.
The final group were the girls who ran their own business: hairdressers, seamstresses, beauticians, artists and the like, as well as kept girls who had found themselves a ‘husband’ or boyfriend and decamped to suburbia. Of course, these girls would still turn up in popular drinking spots to catch up with sisters and let their hair down.
Perkins, in her research, estimated the number of trans women connected through this subculture to be about 500.  Let’s remember this is still very early in the development of Sydney’s LGBTI community and still remains an unexplainable social occurrence.
In the 1980s, Sydney dramatically changed and many participants in the ‘drag queen scene’ phenomenon dispersed. Public attitudes began to shift, other capital cities became appealing and some girls opted for a slower lifestyle in small towns or the bush. Reforms like the introduction of equal employment legislation opened doors.
Perkins formed an association for transgender people, the Australian Transsexual Association, in 1981 and the politics around what is transgender slowly developed.
Doris Fish

Mardi Gras was born and a flood of gay bars opened such as the Albury Hotel, Unicorn Hotel, Exchange Hotel, and the Stranded nightclub, mixing trans and drag subcultures into a scene that would become fundamental to Gay Sydney.
US author Kate Bornstein relates an interesting story about Doris Fish, who was the star of Sydney’s political drag group Sylvia and the Synthetics in the 70s and later became one of the most prominent drag queens in San Francisco. Doris told her that there was always a bond between the drag queens and the transwomen in Sydney. The bond was so strong, they invented a name for the identity they shared: tranny. This name said family to us – but later something else to the world.

3 comments:

  1. this is great,Les Girls was fabulous and it was my preferred club in the 70s and 80s!Old friends,so much talent,such good memories.

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