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When the docks were a haven for the queer community

26 Feb 2020

When the docks were a haven for the queer community Image

By Meg Hill

Before Docklands had a residential or business community, and even before the stadium was built, it became a place for those who wanted to escape society. 

Victoria Dock’s Shed 14 was their haven.

“People look back to the ‘90s and say it was the golden era. The gay and lesbian community was fighting for rights and recognition, and the parties were one way of self-expression within that,” said Rohan Shearn, who attended and worked at LGBT-run parties in Docklands.

“We could come down to the docks, away from everyone, away from the peering eyes of general public and be ourselves.”

Rohan said the area was right because of the lack of development and because it was treated a bit like a “backwater” – the lack of attention meaning the community could escape unwanted attention and persecution.

“These days we can go to normal parties and no one bats an eyelid. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t do that, we needed an environment where we were guaranteed to feel safe and be ourselves,” he said.

“It was awkward to get to, and because it was really out of the way we were left to do what we wanted. It was a very interesting time.”

“I think we saw the heyday in the scene. We had four to five thousand people congregating in those parties at Shed 14 on Central Pier.”

The biggest crowd at the docks was drawn by Grace Jones’ performance at one of the parties during her Australian tour in the late ‘90s – thousands of people cramped in to see her. At one point she fell off the stage and into the crowd.

Although the parties reached their peak at the docks, they began at a smaller level in some of the other sheds and warehouses around the harbour. From parties with attendance in the hundreds, the scene exploded into sustaining thousands of attendees at every party.

And they weren’t hosted by private operators, but by a LGBT community organisation called the ALSO Foundation.

Rohan Shearn began as a volunteer at the parties while he studied theatre at university. He became a stage manager and went on to have a career in the industry.

The shows at Shed 14 were big productions that gave him grounding.

“You covered various roles within production. There were three or four shows at each dance party that had a particular theme, so each show had to be set up and managed,” he said.

Some nights he slept at the shed waiting for the untracked delivery of the show’s equipment.

Occasionally there were pop-up venues brought in to complement the shed – like shipping containers set up around the dock. The biggest parties each year were New Year, RedRaw, Winterdaze and Easter.

But it wasn’t all just fun. Rohan recounted the community trying to navigate the presence of undercover police at the parties following a now infamous instance of police abuse at an LGBT club in the CBD.

“The Tasty raid happened in 1994 and everyone knew about it. Everyone kind of expected it to happen as well, it was just a matter of when,” he said.

“The police were always at the parties but not in uniform.”

Eventually, however, the scene faded out for other reasons.

Once Docklands began to be developed, the out-of-the-way nature of the area disappeared. It made the escape less real and put new limitations on noise and light.

Parties were costing more to produce than they were making, and little money was made to go back into the charity work. Rohan remembered that one of his last parties only broke even at two in the morning.

And the party scene moved on from huge warehouse waves to smaller shows run by competitive private operators.

“But while they lasted, the parties were kind of like a baptism for me,” Rohan said.

“It was like a rite of passage for me in the queer community, and it was an environment where everyone was accepted. Many of these people were very quiet people in their normal workday lives, but they came out and were very loud drag queens.”

“You could come in an outrageous costume, or you could come in shorts and a t-shirt. You had the permission to be what you wanted to be but couldn’t in everyday society.”

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