I remember as a closeted teenager stumbling across a late night documentary called Lesbian Love Stories. The series was filmed in Sydney.

From the moment I saw it I imagined Australia to be a faraway island where the streets were lined with lesbian S&M clubs, girl bars and drag king shows. When I finally arrived here, nearlya decade later and hand in hand with my girlfriend, it was the day before the Mardi Gras parade and it seemed my fantasy had come true.

Watching the march I felt affirmation, belonging and absolute joy. The normal order of being one of a few gay people in a sea of straights was reversed for one glorious night. The city was full of queers and I was one of them. While I was experiencing this epiphany my girlfriend was being sick over a railing. Such is the magic of Mardi Gras.

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Pride and joy

Once the glitter had settled and the drag queens were once again safely contained in their designated gay bars, the city didn’t seem quite so pink. Don’t get me wrong, there are fantastic opportunities to flaunt your homosexuality all year round but Mardi Gras month is undoubtedly the gayest time of all.

Sydney offers the crème de la crème of LGBT nightlife and culture (that’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender for the uninitiated). Darlinghurst’s Oxford Street is the biggay strip. It has rainbow flags, “Lick Her” shops and fetish emporiums aplenty. You can also find loads of free gay magazines here to fill you in on Sydney’s same-sex social calendar (look out for the Sydney Star Observer, SX, LOTL and Cherrie). The slightly pricey but exquisitelygay Darlinghurst Bookshop is another useful resource.

The countless bars on Oxford Street make it the obvious choice for a night out. However even here you aren’t entirely safe. There have recently been increased numbers of gay bashings so be careful when clubbing.

On a brighter note, one of the best things about the scene in Sydney is that there’s not just onegay village. There’s loads! Darlinghurst is best for the boys. Potts Point is another hotspot filled with delis, boutiques and sophisticated gay couples shopping for soft furnishings and laughing over lattes.

My personal favourite is Newtown. Day or night, it’s always full of lezzers and a fair few gayguys too. It’s perfect for café-hopping, clothes shopping and people watching (alright, cruising). If you’re a baby dyke on a gap year do not miss Tuesday nights at The Bank, where you can barely move for gorgeous fauxhawked 18-year-olds.

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Leichhardt, affectionately nicknamed Dykehardt, is another Sapphic suburb great for Italian food and watching the girls go by. It’s not just nightlife on offer in Sydney. There are gay and lesbian owned cafés and restaurants, gay beaches, a gay choir and even a lesbian roller derby. If you fancy staying in, most of the DVD rental stores in the areas mentioned have decent LGBT sections for your perusal.

Sydney isn’t the only Australian city with a thriving gay community. Melbourne boasts its own excellent though more elusive scene. Venues are more dotted about than in Sydney but they are worth the hunt. Once you track down the party you’re pretty much guaranteed an awesome night. South Yarra’s Commercial Road is the closest thing Melbourne has to a gay district. Other key areas are Fitzroy, Prahran and East St Kilda.

Apart from Mardi Gras the main gay festivals are Melbourne’s Midsumma, held for three weeks in January, and Adelaide’s Feast, which kicks off in October. Both are crammed with arts events and parties meaning you can get cultured before you get blathered.

Brisbane’s gaytown is Fortitude Valley, brilliant for a trashy night out. The clubs here tend to have topless male bar staff, regular drag shows and gangs of territorial lesbians congregating round the pool table. The scene outside Sydney and Melbourne can sometimes feel like a time capsule from the early 90s but as long as you embrace it you will have a hilarious and fun-filled night out.

Byron Bay and Noosa are other gay getaway favourites because of their relaxed, accepting vibe and swoon-worthy beaches.

There are also a number of gay holiday resorts in Queensland worth checking out. Turtle Cove in particular is paradise in a parallel universe with nothing but sun, sea and queers as far as the eye can see.


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Land of Queens

As for the rest of Australia, be warned that in small towns you can encounter small-minded people and an abundance of scary, starey locals. Having said that, there are other rural areas with large and prominent gay populations.

In the Northern Territory’s Alice Springs there are more lesbians per capita than anywhere else in the country. Also, surprisingly full of gays is Maryborough in Queensland. I did my fruit-picking there on a gay nudist farm, obviously, and upon my arrival the very Queeny farmer informed me I would fit right in as the town was full of lesbians.

All in all if you’re a gay traveller there are few places more welcoming than Australia (particularly unwelcoming are those countries where being gay is punishable by death). Sure you still encounter the odd idiotic homophobe but it’s easy to ignore them when you’re busy being fabulous. Living and travelling here for the past two years, I have discovered that certain parts of this country are every bit as intoxicatingly homosexual as the Australia I dreamed of as a gay little girl.

Australia’s biggest carnival, the Sydney Mardi Gras parade, takes over the city on Saturday 27 February. It’s an electric event attracting hundreds of thousand of tourists and locals every year.

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Truckloads of gay guys and lesbian lasses march, strut and shake their asses through the streets of Sydney. There are leather-clad Dykes on Bikes, countless drag queens and flesh-flashing dance troupes. There’s a political tone to the revelry with some groups campaigning for equality – less being beaten up, more being allowed the same rights everyone else takes for granted, that sort of thing.

Originally the Mardi Gras was a political protest. The first one was in 1978. Despite having obtained permission from the police, 53 protesters were arrested and locked up. Most were released but the Sydney Morning Herald published a full list of their names, outing them to friends, families and colleagues. Many lost their jobs because homosexuality was still a crime in New South Wales (it wasn’t legalised until 1984). Since then, Mardi Gras has become an annual event and is now a far more joyous occasion. Thankfully these days the police march merrily in amongst the parade instead of trying to break it up.

You don’t have to be queer to enjoy the party. It’s a spectacle and a celebration for people of all sexualities.

It starts at Hyde Park and heads up Oxford Street to Moore Park Road. Start time is 7.45pm but get there early. Really early. Alcohol is prohibited but you can generally get away with it as long as you’re discreet. Book accommodation in advance as hostels fill up fast. Also be aware that homophobic violence peaks at parade time so, if you’re a gay traveller, still keep your wits about you. The only thing left to say is Happy Mardi Gras!


Photos: Getty