This weekend, as part of Midsumma Festival, the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA) will host a twilight queer history walk of South Yarra.
It’s the 22nd year ALGA has run a history walk as part of Midsumma, and festival director Tennille Moisel puts the tour in her top-five picks from this year’s program.
The archives have around eight routes in its history walk repertoire that it alternates year-to-year. Last year it was Fitzroy, and there are a few CBD jaunts as well.
ALGA president Graham Willett says that once you know some of the stories you’ll see them all the time. When he looks at Flinders Street Station, he remembers the stories of the beat that used to be there.
Surprisingly, the forecourt in front of the State Library is one of Willett’s favourite queer spaces, next to those two big Catholic-looking statues.
Saint George is the half-naked man on the rearing horse, holding a giant lance. While the other is cross-dressing Saint Joan of Arc.
“It’s a very homoerotic or queer kind of space, though that, of course, is not the way it was intended, and that’s not the way a lot of people see it. I like to start our CBD walks there because it’s a way of talking about ‘the queer eye’ and how different people will see places differently.”
The walk also highlights how the social composition of different suburbs has changed over time. In the ’20s and ’30s, South Yarra was defined by the mansions down on the river. However, in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of the mansions were converted into flats.
“Flats made it possible for a lot of unmarried people to move out of home. It became more acceptable to move out and share a flat with your friends, who would have to be the same sex, because otherwise that wouldn’t be respectable.
“But of course, two women or two men living together might not be conforming to the respectable standards, but they were able to, kind of, pass muster.”
One of the stops on this year’s South Yarra tour is what used to be Her Majesty’s Hotel. Willett says you’d be hard-pressed to recognise it today – it’s currently being developed into 11 luxury apartments.
“It hasn’t been a pub for some years now, but in the late ’60s it was known colloquially as Maisie’s, which was the camp name of the bloke that ran it.
“South Yarra was a very trendy sort of place, the beautiful people were gathering, and they were not at all disconcerted by mixing in the same social circles as homosexuals – it made them feel trendy and progressive and liberal.”
Despite the trend to mix in the same social circles, there were still two separate spaces within the pub. “One for the camp people, where they could be relatively open and relaxed, and another part which was not camp.”
“Homosexuals lived in a semi-open, semi-concealed sort of way, especially in South Yarra in the ’60s.” That’s part of the reason why this year’s tour is happening at twilight. A change from the usual 11am starts of past years.
It’s partly practical. A decade ago when ALGA toured South Yarra it was 40 degrees. “We all thought we were going to die.”
But Willett also says the idea of “twilight” reflects the historical world of LGBTIQ people.
“In South Yarra in the ‘60s, people were emerging from the shadows and into the light.”
The ALGA Queer History Walk will take place on Sunday January 24 at 5pm. Starting at ALGA/VAC, 6 Claremont Street, South Yarra. Tickets available here.
Midsumma runs from January 17 to Feburary 7. Find the full program here.