Renowned HIV+ theatre maker and queer arts producer Jeremy Goldstein surveys Sydney WorldPride Arts for The Queer Review, and finds a radically inclusive multi-artform festival of gender, identity, and sexuality. Beyond the Mardi Gras and the usual circuit parties, WorldPride Arts reinvents the harbour city as one of the world’s greatest LGBTQIA+ cultural destinations.
I came of age on Sydney’s Oxford Street at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the late 1980s. As famous as the Castro in San Francisco or Greenwich Village in New York, Oxford Street in its heyday was the home to Sydney’s own downtown community of misfits, artists, and activists, who would go on to define Australian queer culture as we know it today. Many of these legendary Sydney people have long since passed, but they continue to be hugely influential in my own work, and the work of countless others of my generation. Peter Tully, David McDiarmid, Doris Fish, Jac Vidgen—to name just a few—are lovingly remembered as part of a revolutionary festival they would be proud to be a part of.
The two-week festival combining over 70 theatre, dance, music, and visual arts events, took place on the Aboriginal lands of the Gadigal, Cammeraygal, Bidjigal, Darug, and Dharwal people. Ben Graetz, himself a descendant of the Iwaidja and Malak Malak clans in the Northern Territory and of Badu Island on the Torres Strait, is one of the festival’s creative directors, who along with co-director Daniel Clarke have opened up the queer experience like never before. In what can only be described as a seismic shift in LGBTQIA+ arts programing, serious longterm issues around queer representation are being addressed, and the voices of First Nations, artists of colour, Asia-Pacific, gender diverse and disabled people are finally being brought in from the cold.
I begin my festival journey at the Seymour Centre, a long-standing Sydney hub of queer performance. The Siren Theatre Co production of CAMP by up-and-coming Australian playwright Elias Jamieson Brown, chronicles the struggles, successes and legacy of early Pride activists who risked everything to achieve social change for LGBTQIA+ communities in Australia. The work is further contextualized by William Yang’s Gay Sydney: A Memoir. Both shows tell important personal and political stories of queer love and resistance at a time when our love was illegal, and the fear and stigma was so real that our elders were ostracized and publicly abused to the point of death. Even now, there are 60 countries around the world where it’s punishable by law to be who you are and to be queer.
For those of us lucky enough to experience queer sovereignty, the Australian premiere of Dan Daw’s critically acclaimed The Dan Daw Show takes us to a place beyond liberation and into the promised land our elders fought for. Dan Daw, an Australian queer, Crip (disabled) artist now living in Manchester, steps into his own power to create an unapologetic world of no shame, no judgement and none of the fear and stigma of our past. What we see before us is a true artist; a glorious human being in total control of his learned complexity, proudly drip-feeding his audience, with the humanity of his lived experience. We lap it up. We meet KrixX, performed by Christopher Owen, a non-disabled dancer and Daw’s collaborator. As the performance unfolds, the duo leads us into a queertopian dreamland of sensual desire and sexual freedom. We bear witness to next level relationship goals where vulnerability is a given, and where trust, respect, consent, and control combine to display a depth of connection most of us can only aspire too. “Joy is resistance” proclaims Dan. It sure is.
Next up is All the Sex I’ve Ever Had at Darlinghurst Theatre. This long-term theatre project from the team that brought us Haircuts for Children, is created by Darren O’Donnell and his Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex. The show is a moving performance of people over 65 sharing everything they care to about their romantic and sex lives. But these are not any ordinary people. These are real-life Sydney heroes who stepped beyond the tightly controlled heteronormative boundaries of the 70s and fought for their legal right to love so we that can do the same.
Inevitably they combine their stories with their lived experience of LGBTQIA+ activism through the ages, including the formation of Australia’s first queer activist group CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in 1971; being arrested at the first Mardi Gras in 1978; and the humiliating fight for marriage equality in 2017.
Taking part is Titi Chartay; an activist, writer, photographer, flautist, elder of the Sydney leather community, and currently co-chair of the Mardi Gras 78ers: a group who attended the first Mardi Gras parade in 1978. “Out of the bars and into the streets” they chanted in good spirits, but what started as a fun event on Oxford Street was dramatically altered by systematic, brutal bashings and arrests by police. But the community fought back, and 45 years on, the Sydney equivalent of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 spawned the Mardi Gras and an entire generation of artists, activists, and freedom-loving individuals.
Sitting alongside Titi was Wilfred Roach, Barry Charles, Sylvia Kinder, Peter Murphy, and John Thomas Turner, all of whom are still very much engaged in activism in their own lives and spoke eloquently and passionately, presenting their truth for the empowerment of themselves and the audience, who showed their appreciation with nightly standing ovations.
On to Carriageworks, one of Australia’s most renowned and significant venues for contemporary art. Situated inside a vast complex of performance spaces and galleries, the original build as a Railway Workshop took place in 1880 and 1889. By the 1900s, several thousand people worked here shaping the development of Sydney for the next 100 years. Carriageworks was one of the first places to employ First Nations people on an equal basis, and it is here I find the heart and soul of the festival as the directors reclaim it as Marri Madung Butbut (Many Brave Hearts): First Nations Gathering Space. The six-day festival inside a festival is worthy of a Nobel Prize for its ability to bring community to the normally austere environment of Carriageworks. Queer peoples and cultures come together as part of the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander global First Nation LGBTQIA+SB programme to take place in Australia. Defined as a party, a giant artwork, and a gift to the people of Sydney, the Gathering Space brought First Nation queer artists and allies together to share their artistry and voices for the world to hear.
Among the many highlights was the launch of Nangamay (dream) Mana (gather) Djurali (grow) First Nations Australia LGBTQIA+SB Poetry edited by Alison Whittaker and Steven Lindsay Ross; Ovah Ovah, a joyous celebration of Queer Pasifika Indigenous communities living in Oceania; and Joel Bray’s Daddy, which has been described as “a candy-coloured camp extravagance, which meshed the impact of colonization with the quest for love in the Grindr era”.
As an HIV+ activist, I was drawn to Bloodlines created by The Huxleys, Melbourne based artists and lovers who joined forces and shared their surname as a moniker in support of queer love. This is my first encounter with the dynamic duo whose work can be found in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and at numerous exhibitions in London, Berlin, Moscow, and Hong Kong.
Bloodlines is a multi-art form exhibition which honours artists lost to the HIV/AIDS. Upon entering a darkened gallery, I’m confronted with a series of large-scale photographs accompanied by a Bloodlines Quilt inspired by the AIDS quilts of the 1980s and 90s. The photos and individual panels which make up the quilt, honour artists including Peter Tully, David McDiarmid, Sylvester, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Freddie Mercury, Leigh Bowery, Peter Allen, Derek Jarman, and more.
But it doesn’t stop there. In the rear gallery is a video work described as “a love letter to the luminaries of queer utopia”. Split into two parts, the first part is The Huxleys’ tender version of the Sylvester classic “Mighty Real”, with audio created by Jules Pascoe. Part two is the Bloodlines video set to a disco beat of queer icons and that great mirror ball in the sky.
Sylvester and Jarman in particular, will forever be in my queer Pantheon, so to see them so lovingly remembered through the lens of a moving and authentic homage to the world we lost from HIV/AIDS, proved to be a highlight of my festival experience.
An hour to the west of Oxford Street and the buzz of Carriageworks, lies the geographical heart of this vast city of Sydney. It’s here, in Western Sydney where I find the National Theatre of Parramatta (NtP) production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. The play is beautifully written and performed by a cast who are as good as it gets. It’s everything you would expect from the Academy Award-winning writer of Moonlight, but unlike the work I’ve seen to date, I don’t see its connection to its local community, and I don’t understand why NtP chose to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars, time, and precious resources into an American import at the expense of a local playwright and a local story.
What we need is an ambitious newly commissioned play which puts the lives and stories of the great people of Western Sydney centre stage. This is the show I’d like to see at Riverside Theatres, the home of NtP and on tour in central Sydney and across Australia. It’s a story which urgently needs telling.
Choir Boy tour dates: Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland March 15-18th , 2023; Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong Town Hall, Wollongong March 22-25th, 2023; and Canberra Arts Centre, Canberra March 29th – April 2nd, 2023.
For my final night of the festival, I’m back at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, but this time I’ve chosen to spend it with Australian theatre maker and national treasure Maeve Marsden. Earlier on in the festival, Maeve’s new lesbian comedy Blessed Union opened at Belvoir Street Theatre, and tonight I’m here for the WorldPride edition of her hugely successful LGBTQIA+ storytelling project Queerstories. Queerstories events take place all over Australia. They provide meaningful opportunities for queer people to connect and tell their queer stories in front of audiences made of people who matter to them.
For this special WorldPride edition, I’ve come full circle, as I bear witness to the stories of a new generation of LGBTQIA+ heroes who without the trailblazers I met in All The Sex I’ve Ever Had, none of us would be here tonight. Those speaking include Ian Roberts, a former footballer who came out in 1994 at the height of his Rugby League career. Rugby League is the uber-macho Australian equivalent of the American NFL, so just imagine for a moment Carl Nassib coming out in 1994 during the AIDS pandemic… it’s a big one isn’t it, and therein lies the strength of Pride and the transformative power of community storytelling to effect social change.
By Jeremy Goldstein
Jeremy Goldstein is a British/Australian interdisciplinary theatre maker and HIV+ activist. He is the creator of the internationally acclaimed Truth to Power Café, and founder and director of London Artists Projects, which is currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary. For three decades he has championed underrepresented voices and new forms of artistic and political expression. His projects have won major theatre awards including London Evening Standard, Scotsman Fringe First, and BBC Audio Drama and Time Out named him one of the 100 most influential people in UK culture.
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