Australia’s biggest gay nightclub pulls the punters after 20 years

Australia

The newfound confidence of the city emboldened the club’s owners with a certain chutzpah, which characterised the defiant LGBTQI community when it still existed on society’s fringes. Campbell Bannerman worked for three months setting up the club’s bar and logistics systems when it came to naming the big night: “Official opening night was on Friday 13th [August] 1999: to deliberately defy the superstition that date attracts.”

In other ways, Sydney’s gay community was still hesitant. Club-goers remember a strict “no cameras / no unapproved photographs” policy enforced on the door. Regular clubgoer Adrian Karl, 51, says: “This was common in gay venues then – so people didn’t end up on newspaper front pages in the lunchroom at work. Even in the 90s, not everyone was as ‘out’ as now.”

One of ARQ’s first resident DJs, Jimmy Dee remembers: “Back in the early days it was a place you could go and express your sexuality behind closed walls. It wasn’t until gay characters started appearing on TV shows like Will and Grace that made it hip to have a gay friend that we saw the broader appeal ARQ can have to the wider community like it does nowadays.”

TV shows like Will and Grace made it hip to have a gay friend.

Jimmy Dee, one of ARQ’s first resident DJs and now marketing manager

As the iconic club celebrates its 20th birthday, ARQ continues to pull in punters; lengthy queues are common on Friday and Saturday nights. But it’s becoming somewhat of an outlier as it weathers a perfect storm of factors that has seen many other gay clubs in global cities close in recent years.

ARQ patrons outside the Sydney nightclub on Flinders Street.

ARQ patrons outside the Sydney nightclub on Flinders Street.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Gentrification, skyrocketing rents, hook-up apps like Grindr, “chemsex” parties hosted in homes, stay-at-home drugs like ice overtaking dance-floor drugs like ecstasy in popularity and Millennials preferring festivals have all been named as culprits. But one of the biggest factors might surprise: equality. In an age of same-sex marriages and other legal protections, there’s more integration and assimilation on the nightclub scene.

These factors have contributed to Australian LGBTQI clubs and pubs closing down in recent years. Melbourne’s biggest gay club The Greyhound closed in 2017. The 163-year-old venue was demolished and turned into 43 plush apartments, despite a Change.org petition organised by the LGBTQI community. Sydney has also in recent years lost after-hours gay club The Phoenix at The Exchange (the grungy club was transformed into an upmarket cocktail bar), quarterly gay party “I Remember House” and The Gay Bar. Oxford Street, like many gay villages, is slowly becoming a pink graveyard.

There’ll always be a need for a safe place.

Drag queen Charisma Belle

DJ Dan Murphy has been running regular major events on Sydney’s gay scene for 11 years, including the Mardi Gras pool party, the regular “Camp” party and club night “I Remember House”, which in recent years has moved from Sydney to Melbourne.

“Gay clubs around the world are being closed down to make way for developers building apartments,” Murphy says. “The gay community is being pushed out of established and iconic locations in favour of commercial interests, leaving less safe spaces for us to gather and connect. It’s a pattern that’s being seen all over the world, and it’s really sad.”

Just 53 LGBTQI venues in London were open in 2017 compared with 125 in 2006. London’s biggest gay club, XXL at Pulse, is due to close on September 22 – it’s being transformed into luxury flats despite London Mayor Sadiq Khan being elected on a promise to resist any further gay club closures. The appointment of a Night Tsar, something occasionally mooted for Sydney, didn’t help, according to XXL co-owner James McNeill: “The Mayor didn’t meet us. He sent London’s Night Tsar, Amy Lamé. But she’s a club promoter for [rival LGBTQI pub] the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and spent most of her resources saving that venue from closure, with little interest in saving the venue that houses the world’s biggest weekly party for bears [hirsute gay men].”

Drag queen Charisma Belle and Kevin Kaila with patrons inside ARQ.

Drag queen Charisma Belle and Kevin Kaila with patrons inside ARQ.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Add into the mix Sydney’s lockout laws, and rumours often circulate about ARQ’s potential closure. Dom De Sousa, 30, has been a resident DJ at ARQ since 2008 and it was the first nightclub he went to. He credits ARQ’s “resilience” but says the lockout laws and alcohol restrictions imposed by the NSW government are “a recipe for venue closures.” He hopes to see an end to the lockout laws which have “already wreaked havoc on Sydney’s nightlife.”

But Dee, now ARQ’s marketing manager, insists the club isn’t going anywhere soon: “The lockout laws affect us like every venue – revenue dropped. We’ve heard rumours for the last 10 years that ARQ’s closing; we’ve no intention of closing in the near future.” He names the seven production shows ARQ stages weekly – “more than any other Sydney venue” – featuring dancers and drag, in addition to ARQ’s “top-notch” light and laser shows and DJs – as enduring attractions. The atmosphere inside is a safe sanctuary for gay people after a week in an often exhausting heteronormative world: Dee compares it to a family, having only seen “one or two punch ups in 17 years – it’s hassle-free.”

We’ve no intention of closing in the near future.

ARQ marketing manager Jimmy Dee

He says ARQ has evolved with the times: “As a DJ, you’d see courtship start with a wink, then a drink sent over, then they’d connect. Now I see people on Grindr in the club hooking up that way with other clubgoers.”

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Drag queen Charisma Belle has been working at ARQ for 15 years and calls it an institution: “It’s like an old friend. You may not see it as often as you’d like but it’s always there when you need it. Even though we’re getting closer to equality, there’ll always be a need for a safe place.”

Regular punters single out what makes the 900 capacity club special to them: in addition to somewhere they can be themselves, clubgoers like the podiums and stages where they can show off their moves on elevated platforms, the fish tank as a meeting point and ‘trash alley’ – a double entendre: it’s where smokers go – and where the bins are put out.

But how long will those revolving doors continue to spin before ARQ succumbs to the global trend of gay clubs closing or being pushed out from city centres? Minnie Cooper has done drag performances at the venue for 17 years and says “I think there’s still life in the old girl yet; like everything, it’ll come to an end someday. The one thing that’ll last is the memories of the good times.”

For Murphy, though, the perfect analogy for ARQ is another gay icon: “ARQ will be like Cher – still here after all the nuclear bombs go off.”

Gary Nunn is a contributor to Executive Style.

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