Mardi Gras History Walk

I went on the Mardi Gras History Walk today, organised annually by the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence. This year’s walk focussed on the historical association of gays and lesbians with Darlinghurst and Kings Cross, dating back to the establishment of boarding houses and apartments in the area the 1920s.

For those who could afford it, apartments and boarding houses allowed gays and lesbians of the time the opportunity to live somewhere other than with their parents. Often employed in radio, theatre and the arts, the influx of gays and lesbians helped develop the area’s reputation for being “bohemian”. Changes to liquor licensing laws during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, also allowed for the establishment in the area of bars which often caterered informally to gays and lesbians.

More recently, Kings Cross has a very strong association with Mardi Gras, as it was on Darlinghurst Road in 1978 that police clashed with those participating in the very first parade. Sitting on the steps of Kings Cross, where William Street meets Darlinghurst Road, I understood for the first time how police were able to easily trap those participating in the parade, to arrest them and to bash them.

Tour leader, Robert French also observed the role of police incompetence in dealing with gay and lesbian issues, that ironically allowed for same-sex decriminalisation in 1984. Before decriminalisation, the gay and lesbian bar scene in the area was underground and often corrupt. Robert French told us, for example, about the Kings Cross bar where members of the NSW Special Branch had a “viewing platform”, from which to observe and spy on well-known gays and lesbians. He also told us, interestingly enough, there were two bars called “Costellos”, with one known as “Castellos”. Significantly it was “Castellos”, not “Costellos”, which was the site of under-age illegal prostitution highlighted in the John Marsden defamation case.

Under the shade of a large tree in Green Park (named after the Colonial Hangman, Thomas Green), we also learned something of another famous man presumed to be gay, the bushranger, Captain Moonlight who was hanged in nearby Darlinghurst Goal. Famously, Captain Moonlight had conducted a raid on Wantabadgery Station (on the back road between Gundagai and Wagga Wagga) during which one of his gang, James Nesbitt was killed. Most likely, he and Nesbitt were in a relationship, as for many years afterwards, Moonlight wore a ring made from a lock of Nesbitt’s hair, and his dying wish was to be buried with Nesbitt near Gundagai. It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, the wish was granted, when Moonlight’s body was relocated from Rookwood Cemetery. Green Park is also a significant location in gay and lesbian history in Sydney as a “beat”, and due to its proximity to the “The Wall” and to “St Vincents Hospital” (where many men with HIV and AIDS have spent their final days).

It was then, looking across to the Sydney Jewish Museum, that the Gay Holocaust Memorial took on a further level of meaning, with both the holocaust and HIV/AIDS having claimed the lives of many tens-of-thousands of gay men.

The history walks are held annually, with other walks having previously concentrated on Colonial History and “The Golden Mile” of Oxford Street, to name but two. Highly recommended.