Losing Autonomy: The impacts of gentrification in Sydney on autonomous queer performance spaces.

Amy McMurtrie

 This article explores the impact of gentrification, and the practice of queer autonomous performance spaces in Sydney. Significantly, this article reflects both secondary and primary research that I carried out with a small sample of people immersed in queer performance culture within Sydney. I explore the framework of spatial justice to demonstrate the radical nature of these spaces, which have offered autonomy as resistance in an inequitable, homophobic and transphobic society. I present former queer performance space, ‘Gurlesque,’ as a case study of democratic participatory practice; a space that fostered experimentation, agency, resistance and a sense of community. In a context wherein gentrification has led to significantly less available venues for queer performance in Sydney, professional arts organisations are filling the gap. I explore the differences in performance that are born out of this context and what this means for queer sites of gathering and autonomy. In conclusion, this article poses questions for the future of queer imperatives in queer performance spaces.

Queer performance spaces as spatial justice

The 1990s to early 2000s saw the proliferation of queer performance (often centred around women) and sex-positive spaces in Sydney. Some of the more infamous were ‘Club Kooky,’ a weekly queer club night with performances and a focus on audiences attending in costume, ‘Ms Wicked’ events, a series of performance competitions that toured nationally and were hosted by sex-positive media and the performance collective Wicked Women, and ‘Gurlesque, The Lesbian Strip Club,’ which was later to include transgender people, both in the space and subtitle. Significantly, queer space in Sydney erupted following the AIDS crisis, during the time of the ‘Beat murders’[1] and extensive LGBT safety campaigning throughout Australia.[2] Exploring sex, body positivity, queer identities and politics provided a creative platform for dissidence and resilience building. These spaces were instrumental in sustaining people’s wellbeing, and were transformational, both creatively and politically.

In defining queer performance space, I have utilised Lynda Johnston and Robyn Longhurst’s definition of space, which considers its construction relationally. Rather than focusing on physicalities of space, performance content, or theatrical aesthetics (though these are relevant), Longhurst and Johnston’s definition looks to conceive of space as unfixed and hinged in relationship to power dynamics.[3] Equally paramount to establishing queer spaces are queer counterpublics: intimacies that enable ‘witnessing intense and personal affect while elaborating a public world of belonging and transformation’.[4] Counterpublics describes discourses and practice whereby one is understood in relationship to the other, as marginalised or subaltern subjects, as separate from the normative construction of ‘publics’.[5] In the case of queer counterpublics, this is a culture which is understood amongst its queer constituents, differentiated from the public culture of heteronormativity.[6]

In extending understandings of space as relational and embedded with power, spatial justice is highly significant to understanding the importance of queer performance space. The study of spatial justice focuses on inequities created spatially and/or geographically.[7] Gender, race, class, and ability are significant indicators of power, and strongly manifest in how individuals are advantaged or disadvantaged by these constructions.[8] Spatial justice, rather than another particular type of social justice movement, provides a sophisticated understanding of how inequities manifest in these spatial contexts. Imperative to our understanding of queer performance spaces is the way they provide validation and agency to those excluded from heteronormative structures; they are spaces of safety, gathering, experimentation, pleasure, and resistance.[9]

Whilst justice is often considered with regards to ‘results’ or ‘spatial distributions (of goods, of services, of people),’ the field is experiencing an increase in ‘representational space where identities and experiences constitute the process of justice.’[10] Queer performance spaces in Sydney have been instrumental in the formation of both individual and collective agency, and articulation for queer communities. I argue that autonomous queer performance spaces are one of these representational spaces, as the process of claiming space is an attempt to create spatial justice for queer people.

Autonomous space and democratic culture making

One of the strengths of queer performance, which has made it such an important site for community gathering, has been its ethos of participation; a highly democratic form of culture making. Gavin Brown suggests that perhaps the importance of creating autonomous queer space is less in the claiming of the actual space, and more in the processes that it enables, as it provides people with skills for working collectively towards a more democratic and, hopefully, queer future.[11] It is significant to understand these spaces as enabling the transformation of community through participatory practices.

The stage practices of ‘Gurlesque’ demonstrate the centrality of participation within queer performance spaces and the way they produce queer counterpublics. ‘Gurlesque’ was based on a burlesque/cabaret model; the structure included several intermissions, which enabled audiences to engage with each other and the space. The hosts of ‘Gurlesque,’ Sex Intents and Glitta Supernova, relied heavily upon verbal stage dialogue to create a relationship between themselves and the audience.[12] These discursive spaces between audiences and performers were more than just a collapsing of the stage boundary; they existed as an extension of the community, offering leadership, facilitating experimentation, and providing a space for self- and collective expression.

It is significant to understand participation in autonomous queer performance spaces not simply as an artistic aesthetic, but as endemic to the structure of the space and its sustained relationship with its community. For many years, ‘Gurlesque’ occurred on a weekly basis and  its audiences were regular participants. Intents and Supernova made frequent appeals to audiences to venture into the performance on the stages of ‘Gurlesque’.[13] These invitations were an explicit call to non-performers, and worked impress upon the audience the inclusion of women of diverse body types.[14] Indeed, these spaces provided an opportunity for individuals to orchestrate their own performance in the safety of their community. This practice consistently reiterated the values and rituals of the club. This was a community space that prioritised self- and collective expression and experimentation, and the formation of agency; high-level visual aesthetics were not fundamental. This is important to keep in mind, when I later explore the challenges of the current climate.

Gentrification and Autonomous Space: The challenges in sustaining queer performance space

The gentrification of Sydney has consequently led to a decline in available space for queer communities and performances. On 8 August 2015, ‘Loose Ends,’ a longstanding queer club night in Sydney, held its last event at the Phoenix Bar. ‘Loose Ends’ projected images of rainbow flags, featuring the text, ‘Gentrification is a queer issue, Keep it Loose Sydney Queers,’ ‘Music. Dance. Sex. Romance. (Resistance)’.[15] These slogans are indicative of the depth of the impact of gentrification amongst Sydney’s queer communities. The Phoenix bar, part of the Oxford Exchange, is one of several inner city gay venues to close, as they struggled to generate income following the introduction of Sydney’s ‘lock out’ legislation. [16] As venues shut down, the city has never been so attractive to wealthy families, who no longer have to contend with the disruptions of a busy night life.[17]

The lack of available physical room for autonomous queer performance space has reduced the capacity for works. Whilst these spaces have not entirely disappeared, they are available on a much less frequent basis. It would be unreasonable to suggest this was entirely due to gentrification, however, material infrastructure is evidently a prerequisite in this framework. New opportunities continue to emerge through arts organisations such as Performance Space and the MCA Artbar. Performance Space have articulated their commitment to providing resources and training to emerging performing artists, many of whom came from this “Do It Yourself” queer culture. [18] Fiona McGregor, a queer performer and writer based in Sydney, suggests that the prioritisation of aesthetics rather than challenging content could be seen in the queer programming of the venue, Performance Space.[19] McGregor further submits this has consequently meant that political content has been compromised and the charged ‘liminal spaces’ that previously existed within queer performance are no longer present.[20] In contrast to McGregor, I propose that queer performance is still enriched with political content, yet the liminal opportunities, which occur not merely through stage presence but also in the relationships built with audiences, are immeasurably changed when taken outside of an autonomous context.

The participants in my research indicated a growing concern over the expression of what they considered to be middle class values within queer performance; a growing gentrification of practice. These performance values not only heightened production levels and prices of shows, but appeared to compromise representations of the visceral body and sex, which have almost disappeared from queer performance. In aspiring towards a “cleaner” city, where the indicators of supposed immorality have been removed,[21] is queer performance required to desert depravity and filth? If queer performance is failing to subvert paradigms of the body and sex, what hope have we for challenging normative conventions?

This leads me to ponder, how do arts organisations understand the values that have underpinned queer performance? Autonomous queer performance space exists beyond the performative event; these spaces enable a continuity within community. What knowledge and resources are lost, without continuity and sustained autonomous space? Would the stage aesthetics of ‘Gurlesque,’ those which permitted an exchange within community, have a platform in professional arts venues? What is at stake when communities are no longer able to autonomously produce performance spaces?

The question surrounding autonomy is instrumental here. With a loss of autonomous space, is the ability to create transformative, resilience building, community spaces diminished? How do queer communities ensure the sustainability of practice which is informed by queer politics and community, rather than the needs of arts organisations? Are queer counterpublics compromised without access to self-determine space? How do queer communities maintain a place that is invested in democratic process, affective relationships, and the development of alternatives to heteronormative space? Perhaps, the imperative exists to look towards new and emerging forms of practice that may enable the development of further queer autonomy.

Autonomous queer performance spaces in Sydney have unequivocally developed queer agency and resiliency, and provided safe spaces to queer people. Given the heteronormative structures we live within, the claiming of these spaces has been a powerful form of spatial justice. In providing a creative structure for women to be empowered in their bodies, ‘Gurlesque’ left an important legacy; a strong platform for the democratisation of culture making. Sadly, the gentrification of cities has led to a lack of available infrastructure for queer performance and thus a decline of autonomous performance spaces in Sydney. Whilst the arts sector is providing important opportunities to emerging artists, its practice presents significant challenges to the possibility of queer performance as a form of spatial justice. This article has asked poignant questions about the capacity for transformation and the ability to build community resilience without self-determination. The significance of queer spaces that are self-determined should not be undermined; they enable us to imagine new and profound futures that offer hope and the ability to transform our present existence, on queer terms.

*I would like to extend a special thanks to research participants who contributed towards the knowledge and ideas contained in this article. Cleo Gardiner, Crusader Hillis, L., Kerith Manderson-Galvin, Margaret Mayhew, Fleur Ramsay, Justin Shoulder, and Meredith Williams.


[1] The ‘beat murders,’ as they are now categorized, is a commonly used term to describe the horrific violent homophobic murders that occurred around Sydney public sex spaces, known as ‘beats’.

Wade, Matthew, “The Sydney Gay Beat Murders Revealed,” The Sydney Star Observer, last modified, September 23, 2016, http://www.starobserver.com.au/features/in-depth-features/sydney-gay-beat-murders-revealed/152993.

[2] Throughout Australia businesses and residences displayed ‘safe space’ stickers to indicate to LGBT people in trouble they could stop in at their venue/residence for safety. McKinnon, Alex, “‘Safe Place’ Program Relaunched,” The Sydney Star Observer, last modified May 31, 2013, http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/national-news/new-south-wales-news/safe-places-program-relaunched/104523.

[3] Lynda Johnston and Robyn Longhurst, Space, Place and Sex: Geographies of Sexualities (Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 16.

[4] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in public,” Critical Inquiry 24, 2 (Winter 1998): 558.

[5] Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version),” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88, 4 (2002): 424.

[6] Berlant and Warner, “Sex in public,” 558-59.

[7] Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010).

[8] Edward. W.Soja, “The City and Spatial Justice,” Justice Spatiale | Spatial Justice 1 (2009): 3.

[9] Maura Ryan, “The Shimmy Shake Protest: Queer Femme Burlesque as Sex-Positive Activism,” in American Sociological Association, Annual Meeting, (2008):1-23.

[10] Frederic Deufaux, Phillipe Gervais-Lambony, Sonia Lehman-Frisch and Sophie Moreau, “Birth Announcement,” justice spatiale | Spatial Justice 1 (2009):1-2.

[11] Gavin Brown, “Mutinous eruptions: autonomous spaces of radical queer activism,” Environment and Planning A 39, 11 (2007): 2697.

[12] Rebecca Beirne, Lesbians in Text and Film after the Millennium (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 157.

[13] Beirne, Lesbians in Text and Film after the Millennium, 162.

[14] Beirne, Lesbians in Text and Film after the Millennium, 162.

[15] I saw these images displayed on my social networks’ Facebook pages in the following days.

[16] The legislation has been the subject of anger amongst clubs and patrons, frustrated with the lack of business and diminishing night life that has comes to see patrons unable to access venues following midnight.

[17] Camille Bianchi, “The winners and losers of Sydney’s local out laws,” Domain, last modified September 27, 2015, http://www.domain.com.au/news/the-winners-and-losers-of-sydneys-innercity-lockout-laws-20150915-gjmrbd/.

[18] Gallasch, Keith, “Time-Space Reshape, Keith Gallasch, Interview: Jeff Khan, Performance Space,” RealTime 125 (2015): 6-7.

[19] Fiona McGregor, “At the coal face of queer performance,” RealTime 90, (2009): 42.

[20] Fiona McGregor, “Enduringly queer,” RealTime 120 (2014): 26.

[21] Elizabeth Farrelly, “When Wabi met Sabi,” in There Goes the Neighbourhood: Redfern and the Politics of Urban Space, Pdf E-Book, eds. Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza (Sydney: Breakdown Press, 2009), 50.

Amy McMurtrie is a socially engaged arts practitioner, driven by social justice, the integrity of collective voice and the importance of finding one’s own agency....


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