Is the Golden Mile tarnishing?

Urban and social change on Oxford Street, Sydney
Brad Ruting
School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Email:

Oxford Street is Sydney, Australia’s ‘gay street,’ a visible and famous agglomeration of gay culture, retail, entertainment and people. This paper seeks to explore the role Oxford Street plays in Sydney’s urban geography, regarding the formation and sustainability of visibly gay male spaces. Theories of gay geography are briefly discussed along with a description of Sydney’s mainstream gay male ‘scene.’ Recent evidence suggests that gay residents and commerce are gradually abandoning the area around gay Sydney’s most visible and central streetscape, resulting in its gradual ‘degaying.’ Growing acceptance of homosexuality in the wider community alongside increased resistance to mainstream gay culture within openly gay populations has contributed to the ‘tarnishing’ of Oxford Street’s ‘Golden Mile.’ Many openly gay men are resisting the ‘gay’ community, choosing to embrace alternative identities, live elsewhere and adopt new forms of community organisation and integration.

Distinctive and concentrated gay spaces experienced marked growth in many Western cities during the 20th century. Economic, political and social forces interacted to create these unique places, with important implications for politics, commerce, migration and tourism. In inner Sydney, visibly gay territory has formed around Oxford Street, which stretches from Hyde Park in the central city, through Darlinghurst and Paddington and towards Bondi. Gay men have formed a distinctly gay enclave around the ‘Golden Mile’ at the western (Darlinghurst) end of Oxford Street, socially constructing it as the centre of Australian gay society and politics, and establishing its international reputation as “a gay street.”1 This paper examines the Oxford Street area’s formation and role within Sydney’s visibly gay population. Many gay men, especially of the “creative classes,”2 have migrated to the area in

search of housing, employment, entertainment and community. However, emerging evidence suggests that Oxford Street’s commerce and once vibrant gay culture are diminishing as Sydney’s openly gay population diversifies and disperses. The ‘centre’ of gay Sydney is losing its appeal to many gay men as it becomes gentrified, commoditised and heterosexualised. Wider social acceptance of homosexuality has also permitted gays to adopt multiple identities and live comfortably in ‘peripheral’ areas away from the city centre. In many regards, broad urban and social changes have made Oxford Street a victim of its own success, eroding its gay vibrancy and politics, with implications for gay spaces worldwide.

This paper analyses books, academic journals, newspaper reports and other secondary sources, combined with the author’s

”20 little demographic analysis21 has been undertaken to identify the spatial distribution of its openly gay population. For example.29 Oxford Street became the centre of the gay ‘scene’ in Sydney.’ allowing them to ‘come out’ on Oxford Street to seek individual expression.28 By the late 1990s. They generally emerge in inner-city localities with high population densities and cheap house prices. with the emergence of social norms and expectations characterising gay men in the area. Oxford Street had emerged as visibly gay space.4 times the Australian average22 (see Figure 1).4 Despite representing only the “most politicised and vocal fraction” of gay men. be relevant for analyses of lesbians. a cultural lifestyle. Number of men in same-sex couples. Indeed. white shirts and a love of nightclubbing31) emerged as the predominant stereotype within gay ‘scene’ culture.BRAD RUTING observations. By the 1980s. masculinist and in many QUEER SPACE: CENTRES AND PERIPHERIES. entertainment venues.11 yet share similar socio-political backgrounds across Western cities.5 gay enclaves have challenged the “heteronormative” nature of urban space6 and heterosexual values that underlie wider society. respite from antihomosexual discrimination and lifestyles premised on sexuality. OXFORD STREET The Oxford Street area26 (see Figure 2) comprises numerous gay shops. It attracted young gay men and gay ‘migrants. clothing and specialty shops had emerged. triggering further gay settlement15 and a “domino effect” 16 as more gay residents and businesses locate nearby. having been created by the gay population as its own space and. with the ‘Paddinghurst’ Chamber of Commerce (now the Darlinghurst Business Partnership) consolidating gay-oriented business activity in the area. Gay territories have often been labelled “ghettoes”17 as they involuntarily segregate gay men from mainstream society. The street’s gay identity emerged from the 1960s. Oxford Street also became the centrepiece of the annual Mardi Gras gay rights parade (see below). gayfriendly businesses and entertainment. enhancing the street’s appeal to gays. Although the true distribution of homosexuality across metropolitan Sydney is undoubtedly more complex. its ‘clones’ were “almost invariably young.30 It also facilitated spatial and political solidarity during the AIDS crisis. and are more widely associated with Oxford Street than other social groups.24 and focusing solely on such localities risks creating “inner city homo” versus “everywhere else hetero”25 divisions. Erskineville and Glebe in the inner-west. bars. to examine the nature of gay space around Oxford Street and its recent ‘decline. this population has centred on the Oxford Street area in the suburbs of Darlinghurst. Historically. Notably. UTS 2007 SYDNEY’S VISIBLE GAY GEOGRAPHY Although Sydney is widely perceived as a ‘gay’ city and the “heart of gay and lesbian Australia. and health and social services. Although the ‘scene’ facilitated sexual liberation and transgressions of heterosexual social norms.9 Gay communities developed to be “at the same time a sexual orientation. 2001) Figure 1. Gay migration and gentrification continued substantially in the 1980s. in proximity to other gays. including Newtown.23 2 .19 Source: (Birrel and Rapson.’”10 Urban gay spaces have unique spatial forms. Oxford Street is near their geographic centre. and a political ‘party.14 Gay bars and gay-owned business then emerge. Surry Hills and Paddington. politics. ‘clones’ (young gay men characterised by tight jeans. which generally have a more visible spatial distribution than gay women.3 but that is beyond the scope of this paper. inner Sydney has been estimated to have a proportion of same-sex couples 14. visibility. community. this term has been contested as such places are usually deliberately constructed for politics or socialisation. many gay-owned cafés. with gay bars and shops attracting residents. visitors and tourists. it is these visibly gay suburbs which have been the location and focus of much of Sydney’s mainstream gay culture.27 Cheap housing. During the 1980s. Similar processes may. Moore Park and Bondi in the inner east. GAYS AND THE CITY Gay territories within Western cities have grown in prominence since the 1960s. white.”13 although in some instances high urban amenity and lower child-related rental premiums may make certain places attractive to gay residents. However. family and the high class: the old triad of social conservatism. community activity and political organisation have been widely used to defend gay rights and claim distinctly ‘gay’ urban space. thus.’ Contemporary commentary and statistics suggest that this locality is in a social state of flux. when many gay venues migrated there from nearby Kings Cross. nightclubs. a relatively tolerant local community and proximity to employment in the city centre increased the inflow of gay residents. locating away from “property. ‘How gay is Australia?’. Anglo-Celtic. Kings Cross.18 whilst providing social opportunities and protection from homophobia. health services and community organisations. gay men occupied urban space in San Francisco to express sexual identity and collectively challenge homosexual repression.7 In many Western cities. of course. nightclubs) were instrumental in Sydney’s gay history. nearby suburbs also have high concentrations of visibly gay residents. The focus here is on gay men. and Alexandria and Redfern in the inner south.12 Gay space usually arises out of cultural processes. However. commerce and entertainment. This imagined community and its leisure spaces (eg.8 reinforced by sexualised social practices and lifestyles. Processes of gentrification were then largely instigated by the gay population (see below). partners.

38 It has been argued that many inner-city gay territories generate an “urban renaissance”39 of gradual architectural improvements.42 However. Some gay bars have closed and many gay-themed shops have been replaced with ‘mainstream’ retail outlets. pricing-out some aspects of gay culture. mostly by gay men. Is the ‘Golden Mile’ tarnishing? Gentrification In recent decades. rather than through repression. partly the ‘survival of the richest.53 Footpath improvement activities in 2005 may have hindered retail growth. in a shift away from the “commerce of queer”50 along Oxford Street. Rents were rising in 2003. the vacancy rate on council properties was approximately 20%.37 Sydney’s gay territory appears to be losing some of its visibility and attractiveness to gay men. opened nearby. However. reputation and wealthy local population sustaining high rents and low vacancies. despite recent sales growth and declining vacancies. This has attracted many wealthier gay men and young middle-class heterosexuals to the Oxford Street area. Arguably. Oxford Street has experienced a ‘pricing out’ of independent gay shop owners45 and an influx of more ‘mainstream’ forms of commerce. Rents skyrocketed and adventure went west. such ‘gay gentrification’ processes exploit the class and gender positions of wealthier gays within society. Oxford Street’s gay territory is thus QUEER SPACE: CENTRES AND PERIPHERIES. unsafe sex and homophobic violence for its participants.’ and is captive to growing processes of urban renewal and uniformity across Sydney.49 Multiple retail chain outlets have emerged.51 In August 2006. Gentrification first occurred in 1960s Paddington as cheap. the ‘Golden Mile.’ Since the 1980s. anecdotal and media sources have indicated a decline in Oxford Street’s gay vibrancy. a number of empirical.33 It has also been claimed to increase risks of illicit drug use. gentrification and higher housing prices have thus acted to drive-out “the very people that lends parts of cities their ‘bohoness’ or edginess”43 that was initially attractive. Nevertheless. coffee and travel agencies. including fashion. facilitating gay community survival40 but ‘pricing out’ poorer gays from such areas. the convergence towards mainstream retail rendered many gay shops and bars commercially unviable. Gay matters have received increasing attention in the mainstream media. with its location. Changing attitudes are reflected in popular culture. the concomitant commoditisation of gay urban space and perceptions of ‘diversity’ have appealed to heterosexual property-buyers and gay tourists. Many gay political struggles of previous decades have been victorious (including legalised gay sex.47 partly due to wider property-market strength. to Newtown 44 Source: (Google Maps) Figure 2.48 and the Albury Hotel has been converted into a brand-name clothing shop.”32 This ‘scene’ has been criticised as favouring conservative social interests and protecting capital and heterosexual masculinity within wider society. a large shopping centre. Since the late 1990s more gay bars have closed than opened. much of inner Sydney has undergone urban renewal. it provided avenues for organised political activism and the consolidation of gay society and space. impeding shop access and reducing visual appeal. the long-term commercial viability of Oxford Street (and other Sydney shopping strips) is unclear.34 Nevertheless. However. UTS 2007 Wider social acceptance Arguably the most significant social transformation affecting Sydney’s gay space has been increasing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.41 Additionally. and the harassment of openly gay men in many places has generally declined in the past 30 years. stronger anti-discrimination protections and local council support). retail growth on Oxford Street has slowed markedly since Westfield Bondi Junction. is a common preoccupation in gay establishments along Oxford Street35 Recently. A map of Oxford Street’s western end.”59 With a many public figures (including sportspeople and BRAD RUTING 3 . thereby raising property prices and rents. problems with street crime and an atmosphere of desertion reducing profitability.ways narrowly conformist. inadequate parking space. The street was “one of Australia’s premier shopping avenues”46 until recently. with the “hegemony of liberal values and the normalisation of homosexuals”56 moving wider public opinion towards acceptance of gays.52 with competition from the Westfield. However.57 “Popular culture now embraces gay”58 and a generation of youth have grown up with “homosexuality no longer [being] a taboo subject. run down properties close to the city centre were purchased and then renovated.54 The Always Oxford Street festival. Oxford Street snowcloned itself under avalanching boutique and chainstore cliches. URBAN AND SOCIAL CHANGE Fear of the loss of identity through assimilation and integration.36 Gay migration to the area is reportedly falling. held in March 2006 and the recent opening of some gay bars55 have also had positive impacts. Commerce As success lead to consumerism. Many television programs and films (including the recent Brokeback Mountain) have incorporated gay characters and themes. and the number of gay couples living in Darlinghurst fell 25% between 1996 and 2001. in late 2006 City of Sydney Council (the largest retail property owner) lowered its rents by up to 50% to boost retail growth. One effect of this has been a gradual dispersion of visibly gay men away from Oxford Street.

87 The parade has been criticised as merely “managing success. politics and protest. Claiming territory through everyday gay lives was no longer “still profoundly radical. This development parallels the choice of some middle-class gays in San Francisco in the early 1980s to resist gay territory by living elsewhere.75 Mainstream gay culture often privileges affluent white men. with 43% of Australian men believing homosexuality to be immoral. homophobia is still prevalent. employment. have become increasingly profitable destinations for entertainment.83 Its original aim was greater civil rights for gay men and lesbians and increased acceptance of homosexuality. However. the onset of AIDS in the 1980s acted to delay the disintegration of the gay ‘community’ by posing an existential challenge to sexualised. with nearby ‘straight’ clubs66 and the visibility of gays around Oxford Street67 often blamed for attracting arbitrary physical and verbal homophobic attacks to the area. rising insurance costs and declining international tourism. Although Sydney’s gay territory has been instrumental in achieving political goals previously. Most assaults occur around Oxford Street. ‘Clones’ have become less defensive about their masculinity. or visiting the area less often. when improved medications and awareness had reduced the AIDS threat.”71 By the late 1990s. younger generations have become more accepting of homosexual people and. for itself by marching through it. gay territories became less unified as a major binding force eroded. However. investment and tourism.74 with the stereotype merging into one of young-looking. coinciding with a subsidence of gay political involvement and a growing standardisation of mainstream gay culture in places like Oxford Street. sub-culture or ‘queer-ness’ that are simultaneously competing.BRAD RUTING actors) having ‘come out’ and adopted diverse identities.81 a colourful gay rights march incorporating Oxford Street. anti-gay violence has reportedly increased around Oxford Street. Despite growing acceptance of homosexuality in society. resulting in some desexualisation of gay space and the treatment of its inhabitants as spectacles. Young gay men are increasingly comfortable about ‘coming out’79 and are growing up without experiencing widespread homophobia. to their class.”68 and the need for gay enclaves like Oxford Street has diminished. increased tensions between ‘straight’ visitors and the gay community. arguably the visibility of Oxford Street and Mardi Gras (see below) has been superseded by the media normalisation of homosexuality as the main determinant of public opinion on gay matters. Just as the ‘camp’ gay stereotype of the 1970s became replaced with that of the ‘clones’ who were more interested in nightclubbing and gyms than gay politics. including Oxford Street.000 spectators82 and injects around $100 million into Sydney’s economy annually.73 gay culture has further evolved. however. The influx of clientele from more diverse places and social backgrounds to Oxford Street has.62 resulting in the gradual exclusion and alienation of ‘undesirable’ gays from gay space itself as it becomes profitable to target wider markets. and to their race.61 Oxford Street’s sub-cultural spectacle has attracted wider audiences. mainstream gay culture has been increasingly rejected in the past decade.86 Attention has been given to its declining relevance for many gay men. Diversity and resistance Despite improved social attitudes towards homosexuality. the parade attracts around 800. many gay men are abandoning Oxford Street as a place of lifestyle and entertainment.80 Alternative forms of lifestyle and identity are being adopted. thin. Perhaps gays are still migrating to the city in big numbers. sleazy and dangerous rather than vibrant.’ and not necessarily to the Oxford Street area. many gays are rejecting the continued standardisation of gay culture and an ‘overcommercialisation’ of gay life.”70 Arguably.76 Further. Some have decreed the “end of gay.60 As gay spaces. greater social acceptance of homosexuality has been paralleled by the commoditisation of elements of gay urban culture. Many gays may no longer feel the need to proclaim their sexuality by wearing it on their sleeves and subsuming themselves into lifestyles based almost entirely on socially constructed notions of that sexuality. with gay liberation almost reaching its goal of individual freedom. Gay culture and ‘clones’ still exist and are somewhat popular. segments of openly gay populations across Western societies are increasingly resisting mainstream gay culture in place of other personal identities.85 in an ostentatious carnival of sexuality. Individualism is gaining prominence among openly gay men. due to financial difficulties. the festival’s organising body went into receivership in 2002. hedonistic and enticing place have reinforced this rejection of Sydney’s gay culture. but are losing ground to other forms of self-identification as the cultural commonalities of Sydney’s gay men erode alongside the declining spatial distinctiveness of gay Oxford Street. UTS 2007 4 . but towards lifestyles other than ‘gay. a number of ‘straight’ bars and clubs have recently emerged. indeed. Gay Sydney has claimed public space. mutually reinforcing and fluid. However.”88 reducing transgresQUEER SPACE: CENTRES AND PERIPHERIES.63 Recently. “without challenging a system that otherwise was highly favourable to their sex. of their own sexualities. It has become a political metaphor for tolerance84 and attracts substantial media attention. Earlier generations of gay activists have aged or died 69 and are not being replaced: “gay is passé. As a result. whilst deaths from AIDS “established homosexuality as a legitimate topic more swiftly than any political manifesto could possibly have done. religion. First held in 1978. Gay territories were thus reinforced as places of community support and health services. the presence of illicit drugs (such as crystal amphetamine77) in gay culture and a growing perception of Oxford Street as a dirty. reducing its claim to represent all selfidentifying homosexuals and resulting in a corresponding rejection of that culture by some gay men. and made many gay men reliant on wider society for medicine and assistance. hedonistic gay culture that meant homosexuality could be deadly. Sydney’s entertainment geographies are being further blurred by greater acceptance of visibly gay men in ‘straight’ venues. stylish men. based on ethnicity.”78 In Sydney. Oxford Street. and concerns have arisen over heterosexual women patronising gay bars.64 with visibly gay men estimated to be four times more likely than straight-looking men to be assaulted in Sydney 65.”72 Mardi Gras Many social changes affecting gay Sydney are evident in the history of the Mardi Gras parade.

Glebe and Chippendale has been observed. religion. challenging Oxford Street’s position at the centre of the mainstream gay ‘universe.104 Gay ‘westies’ often interpret their identity differently to gays on Oxford Street. A “pink shift”97 away from Darlinghurst and towards Inner West suburbs such as Newtown. Future growth is likely in retail and entertainment. whether more gays have ‘come out’ and are challenging Oxford Street’s central role. affordable and anonymous”93 features have enabled gay men to find friends. The achievement of many gay political goals has also rendered Oxford Street. It appears that individual nonBRAD RUTING 5 MOVING ELSEWHERE Urban and social changes affecting Oxford Street are also altering Sydney’s wider gay geography. and excluding some important gay issues. as Oxford Street has converged towards being just another shopping and nightlife locality in Sydney. rejecting mainstream gay culture in place of an “otherness prestige.95 Gay youth use websites to seek social interaction and discuss their sexuality. or both. creativity and ‘shock value. bars and few children). The Internet allows socially and geographically isolated gays to interact and form ‘cyber’ communities. middle-class or urban. it is likely that it will remain a focal point for gay culture. Mardi Gras appears to present humour more than activism to spectators. infiltrating the once vibrant gay atmosphere with mainstream shops and ‘straight’ clubs. have also been popular with gay men. gyms. its underlying appeal has diminished. Gay men are becoming visible in other inner city and suburban places. health information and counselling services online. cafés. CONCLUSION This paper has examined the gay geography of Sydney and social processes affecting its most visible space around Oxford Street.’ and as alternative socialisation avenues evolve. Forms of gay community organisation have been altered by the Internet.’ However. Although it still has political aims. However. Its “accessible. some gay services and a ‘gay-friendly’ local population being the main drawcards. employment. A number of smaller. if only because few other places have challenged its status as the “queer heart” of Sydney. is often presented as a ‘gay-friendly’ and ‘alternative’ place with a burgeoning gay community. Gay populations are simultaneously resisting Oxford Street’s culture. in an interactive and participatory manner. vibrant gay culture. thereby ‘pricing out’ segments of the gay community. Erskineville. and is becoming just another event on the ‘gay’ party calendar. there is “no density to the gayness that exists there. However.”103 Nevertheless. employment or location) should not be understated or dismissed. it has also provided opportunities for gay men close to Oxford Street to use gay bars to meet Internet friends. Mardi Gras and gay politics unappealing to many homosexuals. it offers entertainment rather than politics. Indeed.99 Other inner-city suburbs. it would be erroneous to conclude that no selfidentifying gay men exist in outside inner Sydney. providing opportunities for enhanced social interaction and information gathering from almost any location.’ concealing remaining inequalities faced by homosexuals and alienating some gays. many gays may reject it as a ‘fauxhemia’ (as in ‘fake Bohemia’) and seek identities and lifestyles through other means. Western Sydney is often imagined as a place of heterosexual masculinity. These have arguably eroded and restricted its political power. there are. diversity and participation in the gay community have been enhanced.’106 Despite the relative lack of gay-targeted health and social services in Western Sydney. such as Pyrmont and Potts Point. Newtown.92 retains a central place in Sydney’s gay identity and has become more financially viable recently (becoming part of a month-long arts and social events festival). raising questions of whether gay Sydney has dispersed. The Internet The Internet has been popular among gay men. even though gay urban spaces may be adversely affected. further straining Oxford Street’s gay culture. As such. despite occasional negative comparisons to Oxford Street by some gays. As such. with many openly gay men rejecting ‘the scene’ and adopting alternative identities. Gentrification and the wider social acceptance of homosexuality have increased the number of middle-class heterosexual residents and visitors to Oxford Street. For gays. Diversity within the broader gay ‘community’ (such as of ethnicity.91 captive to commercial and sponsorship pressures. as many (perhaps most) homosexuals do not live in gay territories and often conceal their sexuality. housing many social groups of low social status. diverse. it appears that the geography of gay identity in Sydney is. yet “lacking a space. many gays no longer feel the need to partake in the parade itself or fight for further civil rights.98 King Street. with relative housing affordability. appear to be emerging across inner Sydney. possibly reducing patronage at gay bars94 and dependence on gay territories.”101 For example.96 diminishing incentives to join ‘the scene’ or visit Oxford Street. Gay men on Oxford Street reputedly believe there are “no fags out there”100 in suburbia. and underlies the increased rejection of Oxford Street as central to visibly gay lifestyles.sive behaviour into the “commercialization and commodification of queer”89 and relying on “authorized transgressions”90 of Sydney streets by gaining prior council permission. and it is not inconceivable that its gay population may again expand. whilst residing in more ‘peripheral’ places. albeit targeted towards a less ‘gay’ market. While the impacts of Oxford Street’s relatively recent ‘decline’ on gay Sydney are still emerging. sex.102 As such. It has become largely a spectacle for wider society. Overall. with the emergence of online gay cultures and website profiles. localised gay enclaves QUEER SPACE: CENTRES AND PERIPHERIES.” 105 whilst embracing suburban values of friendship and the ‘fair go. Wider social acceptance and the Internet have reduced the need for gay youth to ‘come out’ onto ‘the scene’ to attain fulfilling lifestyles. Nevertheless. Mardi Gras has also been criticised for excluding gays who are not white. they lack a visibility.107 Many gays who have rejected Oxford Street nevertheless visit it occasionally. and always has been. UTS 2007 . the ‘Golden Mile’ may have permanently lost its once strong attraction for many gay men as it ‘de-gays. age. yet the gay culture that remains in the area has become progressively commoditised and standardised. It may appear to contain a distinctive. the existence of gay men and social organisations in Western Sydney has been increasingly acknowledged and is growing. most likely because of the lifestyle benefits such places offer (for example.

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