Long before debates on marriage equality dragged on, Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, in 1984 truly was the beating heart of gay and lesbian Sydney, its bars and clubs filled with social refugees cast out from the mainstream looking for a safe haven just to be themselves .
Just six years after heavy-handed police officers were arresting the gay rights protesters who marched in what became the precursor to the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which our city so cherishes today, 1984 was also the year the late Neville Wran decriminalised homosexuality in NSW.
But a dark cloud had also cast a gloomy shadow over the once feted Golden Mile, especially when a handsome and popular young gay man named Bobby Goldsmith succumbed to a terrible new disease called AIDS. He was just 38.
Mass hysteria and ignorance had turned sick young men like Goldsmith into pariahs.
“It was just so sudden … people were getting sick and dying very quickly around us. Bob went downhill fast. In three months he went blind, he couldn’t walk and people were afraid to come near us because they were frightened of the disease. Then he was gone,” recalls Ken Bryan, Goldsmith’s partner.
It was Bryan and his friends who banded together to try to do something practical for Goldsmith.
“He was bedridden and we wanted to get him a TV so he could at least hear something. We did a fundraiser at the Midnight Shift and hundreds of people turned up. It was overwhelming … that’s when we decided to form the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation and provide practical help for people, to help pay the rent and buy groceries. We paid for one young guy to go home to New Zealand to die with his family.”
As Goldsmith’s friend Allan Goodchild, a former navy man who became a bartender at the Oxford Hotel, the stigma of AIDS was frightening: “Undertakers would demand double bagging of bodies. Food trays would be left at the door of hospital wards. The front page of newspapers had headlines saying the disease was being spread by mosquitos… it was a very bad time.”
Before he became unwell, Goldsmith, a public servant who loved opera, was something of a local hero on Oxford Street.
A natural athlete, he represented Australia at the Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982 and came back with a staggering 17 of the 21 medals awarded to Australia.
Today, the foundation that bears his name is Australia’s oldest HIV charity. In the months after he died the Boys Own Bake Off fundraiser was started, and for more than 30 years it has been a day of high camp cooking, drag queens and disco, where contestants enter a variety of creations from muscled torsos fashioned out of marzipan to dumbbell cup cakes.
However, on Sunday, September 10, the last Bobby Goldsmith Bake Off will take place from 3pm upstairs at The Beresford Hotel in Surry Hills, bringing to an end one of the great social traditions of Sydney.
Times have changed and today the foundation is more focused on people living with HIV thanks to advances in drugs.
Bryan added: “I don’t know what Bobby would make of Oxford Street today … we lament the loss of the old gay bars and the wonderful community that existed there … but I know he would be very proud of all the people that have been helped in his name.”
Long may it continue.