Places to Avoid
Most of the areas in and immediately surrounding the city are extremely safe and only require the common-sense caution of any urban area. For better or worse, Sydney harbors a curious socio-economic gradient from East to West, with extreme wealth in the Eastern suburb beaches and increasing poverty the farther West you go. The Inner West (the home of most of the suburbs listed above) is very progressive, but take the train 30 minutes West, and you’re probably best to avoid making out with your partner on street corners. The Eastern beaches are wealthy and quite homogenous. They’re not exactly queer un-friendly, but every now and then, you may encounter someone not so open.
Lesbian Night Life
The King Street March
Wednesday night is lesbian night in Newtown. Three venues, all free and all within a kilometer radius, vie to be the night’s most popular spot. The typical marching order used to be grabbing drinks at Bank Hotel (324 King Street) (hotel means bar in Australia), followed by a 10-minute trek down King Street to Queer Central (199 Enmore Road) at the Sly Fox for late-night dancing. Recently, Zanzibar (323 King Street, just across the street from the Bank), has shaken the scene up by hosting an event called Birdcage that directly competes with the Bank.
While the Bank is mostly empty these days, the Zanzibar is packed with a very interesting mixed crowd, good music, pool tables, and lots of dancing. And $4 wet pussy shots and cheap jugs, in case you need liquid courage to approach to cute girl on the other side of the room. The rooftop deck feels quite tropical and is a perfect spot for pre-drinks on a warm night (in Sydney, that’s about 90% of the year).
For my money, though, The Sly Fox (199 Enmore Road) is still king. Wednesday night entertainment used to exclusively feature drag queen shows on the hour, but management has expanded to such varied acts as queer rock chicks and fire breathers. It’s quite the spectacle. Thanks to a fairly small dance space that almost always feels full and blares Top 40, I’ve had some of my best and most debaucherous nights at Sly. The crowd tends to be younger, with its fair share of 18-year-old baby dykes, and thins out between 2 and 3. This leaves behind a very selective bunch who have nothing preventing them from sleeping in and being hungover on Thursdays (take that as you will).
Oxford Street serves as the epicenter of gay nightlife in Sydney, and it buzzes with (mostly gay male) activity every night of the week. You can be assured of a party wherever you go. Clubs vary in their lesbian-friendliness, though. The Midnight Shift (85-91 Oxford Street), is a wonderful venue for watching topless gay men break out to Britney Spears remixes, but not the greatest for meeting other lesbians. Clubs like Stonewall (175 Oxford Street), ARQ (16 Flinders Street) and Nevermind (163 Oxford Street) tend to have more mixed crowds. The scene can be fairly intense and goes all night at many clubs, so be prepared for loud, rowdy and very inebriated crowds.
One of my favorite venues is Q Bar (44 Oxford Street), which no longer hosts a regular girls night, but is a massive space with several bars and rooms for dancing, lounging on comfy couches and playing pool or pinball. They’ve even hosted nights where they installed a mini skate park — it’s a fun place with some quirky events.
Beyond a few tried and true reliable monthly events (and the regular Wednesdays), plenty of occasional girls night crop up so it’s hard to keep track of exactly what’s on at any given time. But don’t despair, if you hang around the Inner West or Oxford Street, you’ll spot plenty of signs advertising the weekend’s events.
For my money, Girlthing is the highlight of the lesbian monthly calendar. Held on the third Saturday of every month, it’s recently moved to the Oxford Art Factory (38-46 Oxford Street) and is consistently packed. Sometimes it’s themed, sometimes not, but it’s always full of 20-something (and, erm, 18-year-old) lesbians who actually dance and always a good time. There is a $10 or $15 cover, but it’s certainly worth it to be around this many cute lesbians.
Held on the fourth Friday of every month at The Imperial (35 Erskineville Road) in Erko, Moist tends to be less crowded than Girlthing but is usually fun. There crowd can be hit or miss (I’ve been there on packed nights and on empty nights). If the dance floor gets boring, the Imperial has pool tables upstairs and really cool unisex bathrooms that are worth checking out.
I’ve never been to Sydney’s monthly pansexual BDSM night, Hellfire, but friends who have tell me the so-called “epicenter of fetish fashion and perverted performance” is well worth the $25 entry fee and has a large queer presence. It’s held at Q Bar (44 Oxford Street) and the dress code is “No effort, no entry”.
The monthly Lemons with a Twist caters to an older (30- or 40-something) crowd and is therefore held earlier on Friday evenings than other girls events. The venue, Oxford Street’s Slide (41 Oxford Street), is upscale and tends to be expensive. That said, it’s a great place to actually meet people: the music isn’t too loud, and the venue is set up to encourage conversation. After the event officially ends at 9 or 10, some people stay around for a dance party. The cover charge is fairly steep, though.
Dirty Talk at Nevermind (163 Oxford Street). When I’ve been, it’s always been quiet and the “scene” girls tended to hang out around table judging anyone who ventured to dance. But it seems now to be held on long weekends, when people don’t have to work the next day, and attendance can be high. Dirty Talk organizers also hold random girls nights throughout the year at traditionally straight venues throughout the city. These can be a good chance to escape the gay club rut.
Refreshingly, Chicks with Picks offers a low-key opportunity to chill out on comfy couches with a cider and enjoy live acoustic music. It’s held at 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month and is entirely open mic, so it attracts lesbian acoustic musicians as well as spoken word artists and the like. The venue, the Clare Hotel (20 Broadway), is very train-accessible and seedy in an endearing way
A group called Bitch also throws frequent parties at various venues around the city, usually Oxford Street. They tend to be very well-attended and draw people you wouldn’t normally see on a Wednesday night in Newtown. You can check out upcoming events on their website.
Pride: The Biggest Party in the Southern Hemisphere
Held in March of each year, Sydney Pride is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s not just a weekend: it’s a month-long extravaganza that begins with Fair Day and ends with the Pride weekend to end all weekends, including a “recovery party.” Fairday kicks off the gay Christmas season with a giant outdoor party in Victoria Park (Parramatta Rd), beside the University of Sydney. It features hundreds of stalls selling all number of queer products as well as a large stage with many local girl acts. It’s a great day to pack a picnic (complete with wine) and join a few friends on the large lawn for a day of queer heaven.
The Parade is a party to end all parties. Dykes on Bikes, a bunch of intimidating slightly older dykes wearing leather and riding Harleys, begins the parade every year by riding up Oxford Street. They’re followed by several hours’ worth of floats and marching groups. Anyone can apply to be in the parade — you just need a theme and a group of enthusiastic people. A group of friends and I marched (rather danced, ran and screamed) this year with nothing but a group name and some skin-baring costumes. The route runs just under 2 kms and ends near the post-parade party venue.
The post-parade party sells out every year with about 15,000 tickets. Last year’s headliner was Kylie Minogue. But almost every venue on Oxford Street also has its own party. Girlthing organizers host an exclusively lesbian parade viewing and after-party, which also sells out every year. So whatever party you’re interested in, it’s best to think about buying tickets at least a month in advance. Mardi Gras also includes a Queer Film Festival, presented by Queerscreen, which runs both Aussie and international gay and lesbian films and runs during the season.
Lesbian Day Life
Though the Inner West may be the epicenter of Sydney lesbian life, you won’t find the crashing waves and sunshine that make Sydney famous. When lesbians want sun, they go to the Coogee Beach Women’s Pool (Beach Street), a 20-metre rock pool that is built right into the shore and boasts a spectacular view of the beach while remaining secluded. The area has a changing area and is only open to women and children. Many elect to swim or sunbake topless or nude. Don’t feel intimidated: the attitude is very much every body is beautiful here.
There is a plethora of queer-friendly sports teams to choose from around Sydney. The Flying Bats is Sydney’s largest lesbian soccer club (the largest in the world, they proclaim) and has several teams depending on skill level. They’re also very social off the field, so it’s a great way to meet new people, and they are very welcoming of newbies. They usually play weekly games.
There are lesbian and gay leagues for just about every other sport as well — from basketball to water polo. Check out this website for a pretty exhaustive listing. Roller Derby is a big deal in Sydney, and the 90 plus-member Sydney Roller Derby league (a women’s league) has a large queer presence. You can try out for one of several teams (like Team Unicorn or the Screaming Assault Sirens) or cheer them on at one of their bouts. Tickets run about $15.
Newtown’s Women’s Library (8-10 Brown Street), located right behind the Newtown branch of the Sydney library, is a not-for-profit with a collection of 25,000 books and phamplets. It’s full of everything from fiction written by women to non-fiction on all things women: health, history, sexuality, etc. There are also several groups that meet monthly at the library, including a Tuesday lesbian open house, where lesbians convene for friendly, open discussion. The space itself is a bit shabby (it’s completely volunteer run and books are donated), but it’s a great community resource.
Though the dedicated Feminist Bookstore closed recently, Sydney is in no way lacking vibrant independent bookstores. In Glebe are Sappho Books (51 Glebe Point Road) and Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Road), which have large collections of books but with unique vibes. Sappho is also a wine and food bar, so you can grab a glass of red while you read a vintage volume from their very homey shelves. Gleebooks doesn’t have the food, but it also has a collection of new books and a large collection of feminist books.
Better Read Than Dead (265 King Street) is a great independent book store in Newtown. If you’re looking for quantity you can’t miss Gould’s Books Arcade at the edge of Newtown. It’s open late seven days a week and has floor to ceiling books in a giant warehouse space. It’s chaotic and frustrating if you’re looking for something in particular, but if you’re open-minded about your next reading adventure, it’s a fantastic place to browse. They also have old magazines and vinyl. Berkelouw (in Newtown) also has a great and often amusing Australiana section.
ACON (414 Elizabeth Street) is a non-profit that promotes LGBTQ health and community-building. Though many of their events and services are geared toward men, the organization does run a weekly young women’s group that’s a great place to meet lesbians outside of the club scene. It’s a low-pressure opportunity to chat about sex, relationships, coming out, or whatever issue is slated for the week. I joined one the of the 7-week courses during my first months in Sydney, and found it to be a great way to meet new people. There are also opportunities to volunteer for ACON to organize various events, particularly around Mardis Gras season. For something a bit less weighty, they also hold After Dark events for same sex-attracted women at the Maxx Black (sex store) (264 King Street) in Newtown, which includes Q and A, champagne, food, and 2 hours worth of fun with sex toys. Big discounts, too.
Twenty-10 (various locations) is another great non-profit that provides support services for young people and their families. They hold monthly dinners, have regular open houses where anyone can come hang out and enjoy free activities and food, and offer counseling and some accommodation for youth in need. There are also regular workshops on topics that are of interest to young LGBTQ community members.
Alternative Lifestyle Haircuts
In the interest of full disclosure, my hair is pretty darn boring, so alternative lifestyle haircuts are not exactly my forte. That said, Newtown is the land of colored, half-shaven, half-whatever hair, so I can recommend a few places that have come highly recommended to me. Furr Hair (168 King Street) on King Street in Newtown is both a hair salon and fashion emporium, and they specialize in alternative styles.
For a not-so-alternative lifestyle haircut that doesn’t cost the $200 or so that other salons will set you back, I recommend Toni and Guy Academy (255c Oxford Street), in Paddington. This is where professional hairdressers come to take a course before becoming certified Toni and Guy hairdressers, allowing them to work at the pricey salon chain. At the Academy, haircuts and color are about a third of the price. You need to block out 3-4 hours if you want cut and color, but the stylists are professional and totally supervised the entire time.
University Gay Life
The major universities closest to downtown Sydney (the central business district, or CBD) are the University of Sydney (Regimental Crescent, The University of Sydney NSW 2006), and University of New South Wales; both have active gay organizations. Both organizations sponsor various parties and events, but they tend to be dominated by gay men. On a last update, the UNSW gay organization meetings included just one gay female. Shades, the USYD organization, has a slightly larger lesbian following, and hosts lectures and parties throughout the year. Both groups are on Facebook.
Updated 8/15/2012: Since this article was published, the UNSW Queer Collective has gained a much larger female and trans membership. They also co-run No Homers, an atonomous social group for women, with the UNSW Women’s Collective.
What to Read
LOTL (Lesbians on the Loose) is the go-to guide for all-things lesbian in Australia. It is distributed at most queer-friendly establishments and features stories on all queer-interesting happenings around the country, events in various cities, and profiles. It’s also free. The Star Observer is also a weekly publication aimed at the gay community and also widely available.
If you think meeting people online is sketchy, you may be right, but it’s also the perfect way to become acclimated to lesbian life in Sydney. Groups of friends tend to be clique-y and exclusive here, so breaking into the scene can be rough. Fortunately, you can fine an inclusive online queer community at Sapphic Sydney. It’s not just a site about dating. Rather, it’s a meet-and-greet forum for lesbians who want to organize group activities, Wednesday night outings, and the like. There are also listings of monthly girls nights, though they aren’t updated regularly. The Sapphic girls tend to be fairly active and usually have an event like paintball, rock climbing, or clubbing in the works, and these events can be attended by anywhere from 2 to 30 people. You never know.
Cost of Living
For all there is to recommend it, Sydney is atrociously expensive (think Manhattan prices), particularly given the USD’s poor performance at the moment. That said, minimum wage for an adult tends to hover around the upper teens, so wages compensate somewhat. If you’re vacationing here, plan to spend large sums of money for the basics: food, accommodation and entertainment. A movie ticket runs around $19, a can of coke around $3, a basic pub meal around $16. Don’t even get me started on shoes.