Erasing LGBTI history

I was surprised to read the news that Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria, was going to fund ‘Australia’s first Pride Centre’ to the tune of $15 million. Mostly because I used to work in one in Sydney more than fifteen years ago.

At that time the Pride Centre was a hall in Surry Hills, with an office downstairs where I answered the phone, wove some primitive HTML magic, updated an ever-changing database of community organisations and made a few flyers. Upstairs we hosted some of those community organisations and a big meeting space that anyone could book by ringing me. Sometimes I was the first point of contact for people who’d never heard of the (then) Gay and Lesbian counselling service, or were afraid to read the community newspapers. Sometimes I just copped random abuse.

I had that job while still at university, and it gave me a parallel education. Aside from the anarchist scene it was the first place I worked closely with trans people, and I learned a lot about the intersection of lesbian and gay, trans and queer, and feminist struggles. I discovered artists like William Yang; I attended the opening of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Holocaust memorial, then one of only three or four in the world. I went to meetings that planned protests against George Pell’s inauguration as Archbishop in Sydney, because of his many homophobic remarks, and against the plans of a right-wing Christian organisation that claimed to be able to cure us of homosexuality to hold a conference in Sydney (we scared them away).

I also learnt a lot about the struggles of grassroots organisations to run sustainably. Pride ran a new years’ party every year, which was the main source of funds, and it had a hard time diversifying. The Centre, which had started from community meetings in 1989, downsized to the Erskineville Town Hall space, after which it slowly fizzled out; by 2007 it was closed. It was a transitioning time for the movement, as the HIV crisis was calming and the gay marriage push had not yet begun. Mardi Gras was also besieged in those years. Old identity categories were changing fast, and so were Sydney rents.

$15 million is a lot of money, and I hope it will be well spent. I’m sure Andrews’ heart is in the right place – nestled deeply into his demographic research – but it is hard not to take offence when a community group that really existed and really helped people can be wiped from history by a careless and hubristic claim. When you support LGBTI folks, you need to support us in all our diversity. And you need to allow us to tell our own stories.

The claim originated in this press release from the Premier’s office. I asked Andrews via twitter if he approved the press release, but so far have received no answer from him.

I’m dismayed that a lot of media organisations ran some version of that press release’s headline without checking the facts. If you Google “Australia pride centre”, the Wikipedia entry for the Sydney Pride Centre appears on the first page. Maybe they don’t teach you how to Google in journalist school any more. But this isn’t just about getting the facts right.

This isn’t just about Sydney vs Melbourne either, though Melbourne has a habit of mistaking the windows of its house for mirrors (for Sydney it’s the other way around). No, this omission matters because our history matters. Grassroots activism happened, is still happening, and that’s how we survived this long. Our survival – our triumphs – are not the gifts of generous politicians, but the result of our working together to make change. Honouring us and honouring the kids growing up queer in the world we made means honouring the people who struggled and in some cases died for what we have.

Well-meaning politicians are welcome to support us, but we need to be able to determine the conditions of that support. Without autonomy, LGBTI communities risk being co-opted for photo opportunities and then shafted as soon as the wind changes. We’re not here to enhance your brand. Forgive me if I’m cynical, but you don’t have to be very old to remember this happening before. When you’ve been written out of history, you learn the value of community memory. This new Pride Centre should be a positive announcement, and maybe it still is. But it’s left me asking what kind of conditions are attached to this money, and just whose pride it aims to celebrate.


Image via Stonewall 45 project.

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Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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  1. Thank you for writing this important article. I have raised the fact that the claim by the Premier of Victoria and subsequently most of the LGBTI and mainstream media that this is Australia’s first pride centre is absolute garbage and historically inaccurate. It erases our history and despite comments being made to me that the wording is not a substantive issue, to me it is. As a 78er I value the historical record, particularly when it involved activists engaging in community based initiatives and collective action with few resources. I recall the Pride Centre in Sydney very well and appreciate its significance. Either Daniel Andrews’ staff and advisors and the LGBTI people involved in this development didn’t do their homework or didn’t care, but either way it reflects badly on the Victorian government and community. I also seriously object to being told that the amount of money makes the difference and hence don’t question the use of this terminology. If money talks, in this case it’s voice is erasing our past and to me that is seriously problematic.

  2. The nature of the announcement made me uneasy for the same reasons. It seemed both so positive but also somehow silencing. I thought of the Sydney Pride Centre, and of ALSO in Melbourne, which performed much the same function for many years, providing a home for community organisations and services such as Switchboard and – most importantly – existing. Being visible. Being safe. Being ours. As, too, have the AIDS Councils and health centres and community centres and organisations of many hues and in many places.
    I’m very happy to hear there will be a new Pride Centre with funding, so long as it is ours, and I am so often relieved to hear Daniel Andrews saying such supportive things when other politicians are on the attack. I hope our many historians and archivists and chroniclers will be part of this initiative to remind everyone of the diverse paths we took to this moment.

  3. Good to read! So Pride was an organisation in Sydney and where they ran from was called the Pride Centre.

    Did they have other organisations cohabiting with them or was it Pride themselves in the space?

  4. Hi Greg,

    I was on the PRIDE Board ~18yrs ago… The Sydney PRIDE Centre on Hutchinson St Surry Hills was a hub for many grassroots GLBTQ community groups. Some rented out office or meeting spaces while others hired the hall on a regular basis.

  5. There was a gay pride centre in Surry Hill Sydney 30 years ago in the 1980s. I performed there along with loads of other people including the first version of what became the gay solidarity choir. Nice article but …

  6. I agree with the sentiments of erasure, but this would be the first publicly-funded centre for a range of community organisations and services. In the only state with an Equality Minister, Andrews is delivering.

  7. I will believe Daniel Andrews when he finds a permanent home in Melbourne for the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Of course the proposed pride centre is not a first – the one in Sydney was – and all of us used it for a variety of purposes. Its biggest problem was its location in Hutchison Street, Surry Hills – a dark isolated street, very dangerous at night time, nasty attacks occurring on a regular basis – we were OK with day time meetings and events, but if they went on till late or early evening, we made sure we never walked on our own in the area. Even later, Erskineville was not so safe either.
    I was one of the founding members of the committee to build the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Green Park, when Pride was announced as its long term keeper, and we hoped all would be well with the maintenance of the Monument – and the web site, but all collapsed with Pride, and I managed to resurrect the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial web pages on
    Mannie De Saxe, Lesbian and Gay Solidarity, Melbourne (

  8. Embarrassed not to have heard of the Centre, I checked Witherspoon. Pretty sure it’s not in there. But anyway my candidate for the first community centre would be the Gouged St Gay Men’s Centre in Adelaide which was certainly there by 1976.

  9. (Apologies for the cynicism, but) I think the pressures on Andrews and Labor in Victoria are somewhat different to other parts of Australia – here, there’s substantive pressure on the left of the party from the Greens, which is influencing a number of their policies and/or funding decisions.

    Of course Victoria needs a Pride Centre, but I’m with Jen: these things shouldn’t be top-down. Hopefully the government will give funding for a democratic, community-led centre (just as the other centres mentioned here were).

  10. This comments section is becoming a nice little record of it’s own, so I’d like to add to it.
    NewQ was a Queer Space at 22 Enmore Rd Newtown, from 2007 to 2010 or so. We were only one room, which we tried to fund by donations, but we were an open, safe community space, run by a collective, at a time when there was a distinct lack of non-commercial, non alcohol driven, quiet spaces to meet in sydney. A variety of groups used our space, and others were born, which might never have been attempted without us: Chess Club, Sydney Atheist Action Group (now Sydney Atheists), a radical mental health group, a Stitch and Bitch, a board games group, a queer reading group, life drawing and a host of others I can’t remember off the top of my head!
    We started out of a festival called Resurgence, on the theme of permanent queer space. After three years we were taken over by another collective who had been associated with Resurgence 2, and renamed TuTu.

  11. A good article Jennifer. As a Board Member of the Pride Lesbian & Gay Community Centre (when there was one), unfortunately recording our history was never a priority – Making it was our Forte, as we pounded the streets regularly to fight for human rights. My archive of photographic images is stored in the City of Sydney archivePix collection & in Trove.
    If your Victorian Premier wants to call Melbourne the first Pride Centre in Victoria that’s fine…, ours here in Sydney has long gone. But not forgotten !!

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