A place to belong: A new wave of queer bars is revitalizing Australia’s LGBTQI+ scenes | LGBT rights

In the middle of Sydney Road in Brunswick is an unassuming bar. The blinds are drawn over the windows and scrawled across the door – so faint it would be easy to miss it – is the word “queer”.

Inside, a crowd of she/she and them clad in flannel, flares, and silver chains surge forth. The atmosphere pumps.

“I’ve never been to a space like this,” says one non-binary partygoer. They’ve never been to a queer bar that doesn’t focus on cis gay people and has more seats than strobe lights.

Another person in the bar, a 40-year-old lesbian, tells the Guardian Australia that her brother was beaten up for ‘looking like a fag’ a few yards away in the 90s. She looks around and comments that times have changed.

Meet Flippy’s, Melbourne’s new LGBTAQI+ spot. It’s run by fags, for fags, and the crowd is grateful.

The LGBTAQI+ culture has changed. The acronym has expanded and the word queer has been reclaimed to signify a more fluid and inclusive identity. Within the community, gay bars can be controversial, often criticized for being sexist, transphobic and unwelcoming to people who are not cis gay men.

Nasty was launched by Priya Vunaki and her friend Diana Kalkoul in 2021. Photo: Priya Vunaki

A new wave of queer bars is changing that – providing spaces that welcome trans, non-binary and non-white members of the community.

Flippy owners Amy Parker and Em Lipschitz say there was a shortage of queer spaces even before Covid, with some venues closing.

“So for us, even then, we felt there was a need for the queer community to have a space that was, I guess, more fluid,” Parker says. “For a larger queer community, instead of a strictly gay or lesbian space.”

The space isn’t just a bar – they are turning the back room into a gallery and have plans for the community to eventually own it.

“We’re starting to look at collective ownership and operation models, which is our ultimate goal for Flippy’s,” Parker says.

“Everyone feels comfortable”

After two years of confinement, queer places and nights in Australia are breathing new life.

“The queer scene in Naarm [Melbourne] pump now,” Lipschitz says. “I think there’s a really good point where a lot of people are quite comfortable, turned on by their homosexuality.”

To get the bar off the ground, the couple learned carpentry, found a mate to paint the place, and found all the furniture used.

“We definitely picked up a lot of skills along the way,” Lipschitz says. “I also know an odd amount of plumbing now.”

The response from the queer community has been overwhelming.

The owners of Flippy's bar in Brunswick Emma Lipschitz, she/they (L) and Amy Parker she (R)
Queer bars are a safe place to find friends and chosen family, as well as lovers. Photography: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“Everyone feels comfortable,” Lipschitz says. “It causes people to express a lot of gratitude. I’m always surprised when people say: thank you, thank you.

For queers, bars aren’t just places to get drunk; they are historically significant spaces that act as the cornerstone of the community and a safe place to find friends and chosen family, as well as lovers.

DJ Priya Vunaki and her friend Diana Kalkoul launched Nasty, a traveling queer dance party, in Hobart in 2021. They wanted a night with great music in a feminine, trans-inclusive atmosphere.

“We don’t capitalize on a queer phenomenon or market, we organize events for ourselves and our community,” says Vunaki. Nasty kicks queer First Nations people out for free and has a structured ticketing system, so the less money you have, the less you pay.

Tasmania’s only full-time gay bar, a venue called Flamingos in Hobart, closed last year.

“Fags just need a place to be themselves, [to be] around like-minded people and being seen properly,” says Vunaki.

“It’s sad that Hobart doesn’t have any gay or queer bars right now, and I think the community is suffering for that.”

The new events are spiritual successors to meetups held in the 1990s. Among the most revered was Pink Sofa, a monthly meetup for lesbians who had chatted online. It started in 1997 and was held upstairs at Dante’s, a hip function space near Gertrude Street in Fitzroy.

It was hosted by publican Maria Frendo, a straight, married, cisgender woman whose gay-friendly events made her the near-matriarch of Melbourne’s lesbian scene from the 1990s to the 2000s.

“They used to have online chats, like the original chat room, and everyone was talking to each other but they couldn’t see each other,” says Frendo.

“So I said we’re meeting upstairs so you can finally see the person you’ve been talking to for hours.”

Frendio filled his pub, The Glasshouse, with 400 lesbians and employed an all-female team of bouncers, bookers and promoters.

Party People Party at Nasty
Nasty is a queer party collective based in nipaluna/Hobart. Photo: Priya Vunaki

1997 was a pivotal time in queer liberation. Tasmania decriminalized homosexuality, the last state in Australia to do so, but the wider culture did not accept: then Prime Minister John Howard refused to offer a message of support to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and said he would be ‘disappointed’ if any of his children were gay.

But by the end of the 2000s, the places welcoming queer women that had been created in the late 1990s had disappeared. Until the pandemic hit, bars and clubs that cater to gay cis men can still be found in all major capitals.

“It’s a tough market,” says Frendio. “Once the girls found a partner, they stopped dating and they didn’t have the disposable income like the guys.”

Today, the Australian queer scene has entered a new era.

Kat Dopper has been running Heaps Gay, a queer party in Sydney, since 2013, and is set to launch Summer Camp Festival, a one-day party in Melbourne and Sydney, later this year. She says post-lockdown queer events have gotten bigger and bigger.

The party people dance to Nasty
Partygoers dance at Nasty, a traveling queer dance party, founded in Hobart in 2021. Photo: Priya Vunaki

“I think the community has realized the importance of safe spaces and our chosen families,” Dopper says.

“Nothing beats being on a dance floor with like-minded people you care about and trust. There’s this unspoken vibe — you can’t explain it.

There is, however, another key element to revitalizing the scene: mainstream acceptance.

“Queer is cool now,” says Dopper. “With the pink dollar, we saw it with Pride, I noticed it with Heaps Gay – they’re becoming more and more popular because queer is cool.”

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