TO CELEBRATE THE STAR'S 25TH ANNIVERSARY, EDITOR MARCUS O’DONNELL TAKES A LOOK BACK AT THE WAY IT CHRONICLED AND SHAPED SYDNEY'S GAY AND LESBIAN CULTURE.
Activist and social commentator Craig Johnston’s description of the milieu that gave birth to the Sydney Star in late 1970s Sydney makes clear the complex mix of cultural, commercial and political elements which saw the birth of Australia’s first local gay newspaper.
“The opening in 1979 of the first hotel which aggressively catered to the non-effeminate, non-closeted self-image of the post-Stonewall, subculturally identified gay man signalled a new openness about the subculture. It also catalysed a growth in the number of gay hotels, the emergence of the neighbourhood around Taylor Square, Darlinghurst, as a focus of gay-oriented small business generally, and the emergence of the ‘clone’ style as the dominant image within the gay subculture. With the publication of the Sydney Star, a fortnightly newspaper distributed free throughout gay venues and social clubs across the city which fused the interests of the movement and the subculture, and with campaigns in 1981, especially, for homosexual law reform, the basic parameters of political mobilisation by Sydney gay men were established – all against the background of a larger, more visible network of institutions called the ‘gay community’.”*
This interplay between the symbolic and the material expression of gay culture was critical in the development of the Sydney Star and the emergence of both lesbian and gay communities and political movement.
The “clone” culture, which celebrated images of masculine self-identified gay men, was the key stylistic marker in the early years of the Sydney Star. More than just an image, these masculine gay men with muscles and moustaches were icons of a newly found strength and confidence, which defined itself against the more closeted images of drag and effeminate gay men that had been the primary forms of symbolic representation of gayness until then. This image of gay self-confidence gradually took root and became part of the early Star brand.
The first issue of the Star featured a shirtless moustachioed man in Levi’s placed in front of Hyde Park’s fountain photographed by C. Moore Hardy. This image of the new gay man, proudly outside, in front of an iconic Sydney scene, epitomised the new look and feel of late 1970s gay culture. In contrast, the fountain’s classical design of bronzed naked figures epitomised history’s underbelly of unrecognised homoerotic culture.
The clone culture and image, adopted and promoted by the Star, was more than a mere fetish – it became a political badge. In an article that Johnston wrote for the Star in 1994 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of gay law reform in NSW, he notes that during the period 1980 to 1984 “the [Gay Rights] Lobby targeted clones as the newest expression of gay power”. (SSO 3 June 1994)
The emergent gay economy of small businesses and venues was also critical. It allowed both a developing sense of gay space and gay identity. These businesses were critical to the success of the Star and there are constant pleas in early editions for readers to “support our advertisers”. In his first editorial (undated July 1979), Star founder Michael Glynn introduces the product as “a gay business and entertainment guide, published fortnightly and distributed free of charge to businesses throughout Sydney”. Although the Star was later to style itself primarily as a political, news publication, Glynn’s early issues are very focused on serving and promoting the emerging gay commercial economy.
Step forward 25 years and the emerging certainties of Glynn’s world have been whipped away, reshaped and transformed. But somehow the Star’s still here.
Today the image of queer culture is more likely to be a lesbian mother than a macho clone. The movement for gay and lesbian rights has taken on an increasingly national and international flavour with campaigns for same-sex marriage in places as diverse as Taiwan, France and the United States framing calls for similar relationship reform in Australia.
Coverage of cultural and media representations of gay men and lesbians have always been important for SSO but over the last two to three years the explosion of gay and lesbian images on television has pointed towards popular culture as an important frontier for contemporary gay politics.
This move towards the cultural and the global in both gay and lesbian politics and in the Star’s coverage is perhaps the biggest shift away from Glynn’s original vision of the paper as a community noticeboard. But just as Glynn once argued that he knew there was a gay community because he saw it when he went out on Saturday night, many contemporary gay men and lesbians know there is a gay community because they have seen it on Will & Grace or The L Word.
In looking back at the “various Stars” of the paper’s first 15 years, our veteran critic Craig Johnston wrote about a change in emphasis from “advocate (Michael Glynn’s Star) to chronicler (Larry Galbraith’s Star Observer) to critic (Campion Decent’s Sydney Star Observer)” (SSO 15 July 1994). Johnston’s types have a certain validity as characterisations of the Star under the three editors he names. However, I think what is even more evident is that throughout its history the Star has moved backwards and forwards along the spectrum marked by those three words: advocate, chronicler, critic.
We may look different. We may cover different issues. But what has kept the Star vibrant is that each new generation of writers has found unique ways to be advocate, chronicler and critic.
* This paragraph is taken from an unpublished 1983 paper: Politicisation And Community Formation Among Male Homosexuals: The Case Of Sydney In The 1970s available at www.craigjohnston.com.au/gay.