the death of australia’s lesbian party culture

LGBT culture is more widely celebrated in Australia now than ever, but lesbians still remain marginalised when the mainstream interacts with queer identity.

by Sarah Gooding
29 January 2016, 5:45am

Image via Flawless

In the 90s and 2000s, Maria Frendo was the unofficial matriarch of Melbourne's lesbian club scene. It was a position she took on when she turned Dante's, the Fitzroy restaurant and venue she ran for over a decade, into a hugely successful lesbian-friendly nightclub. After demonstrating her skills there she was offered the lease for a nearby club with a later liqour licence: The Glasshouse.

Over the next few years, the Glasshouse would become famous for its rowdy lesbian parties. "I'm telling you, there were fights at the Glasshouse every week," Maria sighs dramatically. "I ended up having to get a female bouncer, because they [the clubgoers] were forever complaining about the male bouncers. And they used to wreck everything!"

Dancers at a Flawless event in 2014.

After four years she handed the Glasshouse to two other women, but the venue never reached the same peak and closed in 2011. Explaining the devolution of the once popular spot Maria explains, "You can't make enough money just being a girl venue."

LGBT culture is more widely celebrated in Australia now than ever, with events like Mardi Gras growing every year, but the support isn't universal. Lesbian culture is often marginalised when the mainstream interacts with queer identity.

Australia is home to many successful male gay bars. Perth even has Connections, the southern hemisphere's longest-running gay club, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in December. But local gay bars generally enjoy wide success, with Mars Bar in Adelaide, The Midnight Shift in Sydney and the Laird Hotel in Melbourne all being open for more than 35 years.

Dancers at a Flawless event in 2013.

While these bars and clubs continue to thrive, the majority of the country's once-successful lesbian parties and venues such as Grouse Party, Danceteria, Flawless and The Glasshouse have closed down.

When examining the disparity between gay and lesbian venues, many point to Australia's widening gender pay gap. On average women currently earn nearly 18 percent less than men. "Women don't have the money to go to the big events - that's a reason they don't go out, because they don't get those high-paying jobs! If you go out, you spend $100 in a flash, and women just don't have that kind of money to spend," Maria explains. "Whereas men will just go out and spend money like it's water. And they drink more."

Cash aside, many promoters I spoke to for this story suggested that the issue was more cultural. They observed that a big reason lesbian clubs are dying is because of their crowds' tendency to lock themselves at home when they get loved up. Katie Pearson has been DJing and promoting queer clubs and parties in Australia for eight years, including Flawless and Danceteria. Now co-promoting a series of popular "gay-ass disco" parties called The Outpost, she says she's watched her crowds become increasingly male.

Katie Pearson AKA Whiskey Houston, DJing at a Flawless event in 2015.

When asked why, she comments it's because queer women are more likely to stop going out to clubs once they find a partner, compared to their male counterparts. "Gay men are more comfortable with being open in their relationships and hooking up with other people, whereas that's not really a common lesbian thing. Unless they're polyamorous, lesbians generally settle down with each other and feel they don't really need to go out anymore."

Maria noticed the same phenomenon while running the Glasshouse. "Once women find a partner they really like, they don't go out - they start nesting. They don't want to share them. It's a female thing," she says. "Whereas boys carry on partying, whether they have a partner or not, from what I've seen."

Grouse Party crowd, including Lia, Banoffee and Chela. Photo by Ella Bancroft.

Practical and financial issues aside, lesbian clubs' struggles does appear to point towards a more unsettling issue: our broader culture favours men over women. "From my experience, people accept gay men before they accept gay women," says Maria. "I think people find gay women a little bit harder to accept than gay men. I don't know why, but I've seen it."

Maria's now working as a civil celebrant, and still lives down the road from the clubs she used to manage. One of the buildings now houses an upscale American diner, shilling fashionable fried chicken and $6 soft serve ice cream. She's just one promoter who has watched the lesbian club crowd ditch queer clubs in favour of venues not aligned with any sexuality. "I think they just live their lives, they don't make a big deal [about their sexuality] anymore. They go to the normal clubs these days."

Grouse Party promoters Romy Hoffman and Lia Tilson. Photo by Mia McDonald.

While the loss of lesbian night-life culture is undeniably disheartening, some see a faint silver lining. Romy Hoffman, a musician, promoter, DJ and artist who ran Grouse Party - a regular event that saw international artists such as Le1f, JD Samson, CSS, Big Freedia and Cakes da Killa take to the decks, bringing huge crowds that at one point even included Katy Perry - with Lia Tilson before relocating to Los Angeles, says the trend of lesbians frequenting "normal clubs" shows they're feeling safer and more accepted. "Before, it was more important to have queer spaces to bring people together, to meet, not just for romantic reasons, but so that they could feel safe. Now that gay culture is more accepted there isn't the same need for those spaces."

Things are "getting easier", Katie agrees. "You can go into a venue and be affectionate with someone of the same sex and not feel as much discrimination. It definitely still happens, but I think there's less of a safety issue around having to go to queer clubs to express yourself."

Grouse Party crowd. Photo by Ella Bancroft.

However, the trade-off with this acceptance is the "normalisation" of gay culture, says Romy. "Gay culture starts to blend in with 'normal' mainstream culture and thus starts to lose some of its edge, some of its underground leanings, as it surfaces overground. I guess the world as a whole has become more homogenised. And gay culture isn't immune to that."

This may mean we lose the unique lesbian club culture that became iconic in the struggle for equality. But it may also signify that equality is slowly being won, as women perhaps no longer need a sense of ownership of a space in order to feel safe and accepted in it. 

For more club culture catch Big Night Out on SBS VICELAND Tuesdays at 9.20.


Words Sarah Gooding
Image via Facebook

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