LGBT folk have migrated to Oz's Emerald City from all over Australia, New Zealand and the world, adding to a community that is visible, vibrant and an integral part of the city’s social fabric. Partly because gay and straight communities are so well integrated in central Sydney, and partly because of smartphone apps facilitating contact, the gay nightlife scene has died off substantially. But the action's still going on and Sydney is indisputably one of the world’s great queer cities.
Sydney Mardi Gras
The famous Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras is now the biggest annual tourist-attracting date on the Australian calendar. While the straights focus on the parade, the gay and lesbian community throws itself wholeheartedly into the entire festival, including the blitzkrieg of partying that surrounds it. There’s no better time for the gay traveller to visit Sydney than the two-week lead-up to the parade and party, held on the first Saturday in March.
On the big night itself, the parade kicks off around sunset, preceded by the throbbing engines of hundreds of Dykes on Bikes. Heading up Oxford St from Hyde Park, it veers right into Flinders St, hooking into Moore Park Rd and culminating outside the party site in Driver Ave. The whole thing takes about 90 minutes to trundle through, and attracts up to half a million spectators ogling from the sidelines.
For the best views, make friends with someone who has an apartment above the street. If you’re forced to stand on the street, bring a milk crate (oh so suddenly scarce) to get a better view. The gayest section of the crowd is between Crown St and the first part of Flinders St. If you’re running late, the crowd thins out considerably near the end – although by this stage the participants’ enthusiasm is on the wane. Another fun option is to volunteer as a marshal: you’ll need to attend a few meetings and arrive hideously early on the day, but you’ll get the best view and a discounted party ticket for your efforts.
You can also buy a ticket for the Parade Sideshow, positioned near the end of the route. Not only is this a handy option if you're heading to the party, but you'll also have seats, toilets and bars at your disposal and entertainment while you wait.
The legendary Mardi Gras Party (tickets $145 to $199 through www.ticketek.com.au) is an extravaganza in every sense of the word. With around 16,000 revellers, it stretches over several large halls, and showcases the best DJs and lighting design the world has to offer.
Best Gay-Friendly Straight Bars
- Beresford Hotel Gay-friendly all the time, but on Sundays play spot-the-straight.
- Sly Fox Working-class pub welcoming lesbians for many years.
- Dolphin Hotel Mixed as they come in the heart of Surry Hills.
- Marlborough Hotel Home to Tokyo Sing Song, an underground hideout for the kooky and queer.
- Green Park Hotel A proper local pub for Darlinghursters of all persuasions.
- Bookshop Darlinghurst Long-standing gay bookshop and a great source of local information.
- House of Priscilla One-stop-shop for gender illusionists.
- Sax Fetish Racks of shiny black leather and rubber gear.
- Gertrude & Alice Named after literary lesbians and packed with interesting reads.
- Sappho Books, Cafe & Wine Bar Part bohemian cafe-bar, part rag-tag bookshop.
Best LGBT-Friendly Accommodation
- ADGE Boutique Apartment Hotel Fabulous apartments just off the Oxford St strip.
- Medusa Darlinghurst boutique hotel, well positioned for eating, drinking and carousing.
- Adina Apartment Hotel Darling Harbour Large chain that actively courts gay business.
- Meriton Suites Kent Street Bag yourself your own city pad.
Best Gay Venues
Best Lesbian Hangouts
Ain’t no denying it, Sydney puts on a good party. By good, we mean big, lavish and flashy. Some party animals treat it like a professional sport, spending months preparing for the big fixtures, which can resemble endurance events.
While Mardi Gras is the city’s main Gay Pride festival, Darlinghurst’s Stonewall Hotel organises a minifestival around the late-June anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, such a crucial event in the LGBT rights story. Catering to more niche tastes, Harbour City Bears (www.harbourcitybears.com.au) runs Bear Pride in August.
Other special events:
- Daywash (www.daywash.com.au) Regular day parties (usually noon to 10pm on a Sunday).
- In the Dark (www.itdevents.com) Runs various parties.
- Extra Dirty (www.extradirty.com.au) A chance for the leather, fetish and rubber crowd to delve into the darker reaches of their wardrobes.
- Queer as Fvck (www.facebook.com/queerasfvck) Monthly live music from LGBT artists in decadent Lazybones in Marrickville.
Drinking & Nightlife
Sydney’s gay scene has been impacted heavily recently by three factors. The level of acceptance around the inner city means that LGBTQ+ folk will feel comfortable in almost any bar; dating and hookup apps have made it easy to find other people; and the lockout laws have had a heavy impact on the Oxford St party strip in the Darlinghurst area. Still, there are several venues in this area.
Most venues attract a predominately gay male clientele. Despite Sydney’s size, there are no permanent lesbian bars, but rather a series of lesbian nights at pubs, bars and clubs around town.
It would be very surprising (not to mention illegal) for gay couples to strike problems finding rooms in any Sydney establishment. Accommodation fills up fast and prices shoot through the roof during Mardi Gras month, particularly around Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Paddington.
Oxford Street in Darlinghurst has the biggest concentration of stores targeting Sydney’s LGBT shoppers. You’ll find everything here from sex shops to bookshops and fashion outlets.
Star Observer (www.starobserver.com.au) LGBT-focused news and events.
ACON (www.acon.org.au) AIDS Council of NSW website.
DNA (www.dnamagazine.com.au) Monthly glossy gay men's magazine, available from newsagents.
LOTL (www.lotl.com) Monthly lesbian magazine, aka Lesbians on the Loose.
Grindr (www.grindr.com) Probably Sydney's most popular gay dating app.
Scruff (www.scruff.com) Hook-up app catering to rougher tastes; also very popular in Sydney.
Gay & Lesbian Sydney by Neighbourhood
- Sydney Harbourside Some of Sydney's most popular gay beaches including Lady Bay and Obelisk.
- Newtown & the Inner West The fabled lesbian homeland, also popular with gay men.
- Surry Hills & Darlinghurst Sydney's main gay ‘ghetto’, with most of the bars, clubs and gay-targeted businesses.
- Kings Cross & Potts Point No gay venues but loads of gay guys live here.
- Paddington & Centennial Park The home of the Mardi Gras Party and lots of well-dressed dudes.
- Bondi, Coogee & the Eastern Beaches The beautiful boys gravitate to North Bondi.
Need to Know
Gays and lesbians living in New South Wales enjoy legal protection from discrimination and vilification, and an equal age of consent. A law passed in late 2017 means that they can now legally marry.
Best LGBT Beaches
- North Bondi Where the buff lads work on their tans.
- Lady Bay Pretty nudist beach tucked under South Head.
- Obelisk Beach Small, secluded nude beach with a busy, bushy hinterland.
- McIver's Ladies Baths Women-only sea baths, extremely popular with the Sapphic set.
- Murray Rose Pool Harbour beach close to the gay ghettos.
Parades & Politics
On 24 June 1978 a Sydney icon was violently born. There had been other gay-rights marches – in 1973 activists were arrested in Martin Place – but this one was different. Two thousand people followed a truck down Oxford Street in a carnival-type atmosphere, encouraging punters to come out of the bars to join them.
After harassing the participants for much of the route, the police corralled the remaining marchers in Darlinghurst Rd, Kings Cross, beating and arresting 53 of them. Worse still, the names of all of the arrestees were published in the Sydney Morning Herald and many of them lost their jobs.
The following year 3000 people joined the march, dubbed the ‘Gay Mardi Gras’, and in 1981 the decision was made to move the event to summer. Though acceptance is now much more widespread, the parade still has a serious political edge; more than just a protest, the parade is considered by many to have helped transform Australian society into a more accepting place for lesbians and gay men.