Queer spaces in Tasmania: Mourning their loss and celebrating their legacy
By: Jack Kelleher
It’s three o’clock in the morning and I am dancing.
Sweaty, warm bodies thrust themselves into one another like colliding waves, grinding and swinging under the neon club lights. A metal pole stretches from floor to ceiling, covered in handprints and lipstick marks. Batting its silvery eyelids, it glimmers for action, searching for purpose.
I do the same.
Image by shota James
I had never been to a gay club before.
Gay relationships were not legalised in Tasmania until 1997, just three years before I was born. Same-sex marriage was a hard pill to swallow in a small, tight-knit state, and an ever harder one for a tiny rural town. Ulverstone had a poisonous past; once titled ‘Australia’s most homophobic town’, it was a hotbed of inequity.
Queerness was few and far between in Ulverstone, and I was a nervous young thing who spent most of their time by the ocean. There wasn’t a single safe queer space in sight. I lived on the beach with my family for most of my childhood, and I often felt isolated.
I was trapped behind a dangerous, oceanic wall known as the Bass Strait. I could frequently be found at the water’s edge, daydreaming of making it across – at least somewhat alive – to the mainland. I yearned to escape my small town; to discover myself and bloom like a rose, or to transform like a caterpillar into a butterfly.
If only I hadn’t been born a writer, I often thought. Perhaps if I had made it my life’s mission to become a tradesman or a carpenter – a masculine figure – I could have built my own raft. Then I could have sailed out of Ulverstone with nothing in my pockets except for pride.
When it did come time for me to leave Ulverstone, however, I found that some part of me was root-bound.
Why did I struggle to let go of this place? I’d wanted to distance myself from it for so long.
Was it the memories I’d made as a young queer boy? Was it the sloppy, amateur kisses I’d handed out, like bruises, on the sand? Or was it the neighbours I often visited – and fucked – because there was no other choice?
The homophobia I experienced as a young gay man had left me bandaged and battered. I had been slurred at and spat on, mostly by cis men in passing cars. But living through these experiences had also made me resilient.
The truth was, I owed Ulverstone a lot. But all I knew was that leaving it was still my soul purpose. Ulverstone had taught me to move forward and keep my chin pointed toward the sunset.
Hobart was a chance to start over. To gain control of my life and spread my wings. Breathe.
Armed with a small baggie of cocaine and half a bottle of Amyl Nitrate, I ventured into the club scene astonishingly fast. There was only one completely safe, exciting queer space in Hobart – Flamingos – and everybody I spoke to treated it as a second home.
Pre-pandemic, there were lines outside the door that stretched a hundred metres down the street. It was a fabulous sight: a bright, feathery, latex-y congregation of eager partygoers. Smoking fat rolls of marijuana, they held their heads high with the strength of steel spines which they, too, had built with resilience.
All night, I paraded alongside groups of drag queens, lesbians, gay men, and many other queer people. Together, we felt strong and bonded.
We mourned our pasts with spectacular cocktails and make-out sessions in the lounge. The pressure and weight that had made its way up my back, over the years, had suddenly dismantled.
Finally, I felt at home. I felt free.
These days, safe spaces and queer clubs in Tasmania are dead.
In a post-pandemic world, LGBTQ+ events and venues have undergone mass extinction. What was once a playful pink playground of sex, drugs and pop music is now a skeleton of generations of queer families. Flamingos has been blocked out, the pride flags torn from the building’s masts.
Queer friends of mine stay home in fear of being attacked in cis and heteronormative clubs. Some have sacrificed their leather harnesses and swapped their heels for steel-capped boots, their ballgowns for cargo shorts and socks.
The new owners of the venue vowed to make the building a “club for everyone”. But it’s been two years, and we are still waiting.
Despite the slaughter of safe spaces across the state, the community remains hard-fought and faithful. We are resilient. We still come together on our phone screens to dominate and overthrow injustices, support one another emotionally, and celebrate our pride.
Queer spaces are necessary globally, not just in Tasmania. We need places that aren’t problematic or micro-managed, where we can feel stronger together. Places that aren’t over surveilled, but rather encompass safety and individualism.
We need spaces filled with people who do not discriminate, or judge, or spit at us from car windows. Spaces that empower and nourish the spectrum of identity. Loud, proud, beautiful queer spaces. We need these spaces in our state in order to completely thrive.
Tasmania needs to carve new paths; creative locales that are constituted by the social and physical boundaries of queerness and identity. We are deserving of love and safety and brutal honesty. It is pride that drives us, as humans, after all.
Pride is our legacy.
Jack Kelleher is a young, queer, Tasmanian writer. His debut novel, Songbird, captures monogamy and identity in a spiritual context. Kelleher’s work extends the boundaries of social ‘norms’ and explores themes of love and loss.
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