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Qtopia: the queer utopia we’d love to see

The day I undertook my first shift as a volunteer at the QTopia pop-up exhibitions, the muggy air proved to be an oppressive adversary the whole walk to Green Park. Not only that, but it was also the day of the much-anticipated Mardi Gras Fair. Needless to say, I was expecting to go the entire shift without seeing a single soul. And yet, after my four hours were up, I had greeted dozens of visitors. People were still showing up at the doors of the Green Park Bandstand even after we’d begun packing up for the day. 

“This is a quiet day,” my volunteer supervisor told me. God help the volunteers on a busy one!

It’s a pop-up that might get lost amongst the glitz and glamour of the festivities leading up to World Pride 2023, but it is no less significant; both in terms of its current exhibitions and what it promises for the future of queer culture in Sydney. QTopia is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to commemorate, champion, and raise awareness about Australia’s vibrant queer history and culture – and to that end, they are embarking on a quest to establish Australia’s first permanent LGBTQ+ centric museum.  

QTopia, spearheaded by David Polson and patroned by Hon. Michael Kirby and Ita Buttrose, is the realisation of the vision of the late Professor David Cooper. Immunologist, prolific Australian academic, and one of the first responders to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Australia, Cooper helped set the stage for Australia’s groundbreaking approach to the AIDS crisis, which emphasised community outreach and education rather than prejudiced fearmongering. Beyond working firsthand with AIDS patients, Cooper also made several significant breakthroughs in AIDS research, and was the inaugural director of what is now recognised worldwide as the Kirby Institute. 

According to Greg Fisher, CEO of QTopia, Cooper was someone who “took [the AIDS crisis] so much to heart and was so determined to get on, not only with helping people and being that support medically at the time, but also getting straight onto research to see what could actually be done.” After dedicating his life to the research and treatment of HIV/AIDS, it was Cooper’s wish to see the formation of a museum that would honour the momentous response to the AIDS epidemic in Australia – but he died before that wish could be realised. 

“When David Cooper died,” Fisher says, “his wife said to David Polson: “You know, all that he would’ve wanted to see was a museum about HIV/AIDS. And David then made it his mission for that to happen.”

David Polson, friend of the late David Cooper and chairman of QTopia, is one of the first 400 men to have been diagnosed with AIDS in Australia, and one of only 32 still alive today. In his quest to make Professor Cooper’s dream into a reality, he has collaborated with the Honourable Michael Kirby, former Justice and first openly gay judge to serve on the Australian High Court. “They got[…]the Honourable Michael Kirby as our patron,” Foster says. “And Michael said: “That’s fantastic, but let’s expand it to being as it is now defined.”

This expanded definition, in the words of Fisher, is “a permanent exhibition of queer history from First Nations through to today with two pivotal moments. One being the HIV/AIDS period and another being inequality to equality. Of course there’s a lot of joy and celebration and determination that has occurred in the lead up to both of those pivotal moments […]That is obviously the big focus of what we’re doing, to ultimately create a safe place where people can come in and learn about their own identity.”

With the pop-up exhibitions being displayed for World Pride, we are one step closer to this combined vision. Within the old sandstone walls of the National Art School in Darlinghurst, inside the space known as the Red Room, is a recreation of Ward 17 in St Vincent’s Hospital: a ward dedicated to the treatment and care of HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and the first of its kind in Australia. In many ways, this installation is a memorial, commemorating those who lost their lives as well as survivors, and the tireless efforts of the healthcare workers who cared for them. The exhibition is a snapshot of our not-so-distant past, featuring interviews from those who lived through it, as well as images and objects from the original ward – yet  also serves as a stark reminder that, for many people, the spectre of the AIDS crisis is far from over. 

However, there is so much more to Australia’s queer history than the tragedy of AIDS, and QTopia seeks to remind people of that as well. If you make your way down from the National Arts School to the vibrant expanse of Green Park, you’ll come across the Bandstand: a heritage building that houses QTopia’s second pop-up exhibition. The ground level installation is a homage to Sydney’s queer nightlife scene through the 80s and 90s. You walk behind a curtain and into a time capsule, with authentic posters and club signs that have been preserved through the years. Going up the stairs, you’ll find an installation celebrating Sydney’s history of queer activism, from the inspiring to the outright outrageous. This exhibition is a breath of fresh air, standing as a reminder that we who identify as queer have always been here, in the back alleys, in the clubs, marching in the streets; in the pockets of a world pitted against us. We are here to celebrate, to scandalise, and to fight for our lives, this exhibition says. 

The hunger for this vision to be realised is palpable. Since its launch day on February 16, QTopia’s exhibitions have been inundated with visitors eager to explore this treasure trove of queer history. For me, this was an unparalleled experience: getting to witness just how many people, from all walks of life, were touched by QTopia’s vision. There were plenty of young people fresh from the day’s festivities, of course, eager to discover this chapter of their city’s history that failed to be mentioned at school. As a young queer person who’s had to learn everything I know about my community through self-study, I can vouch for their enthusiasm. Equally as touching were the allies who had come to educate themselves and show support – I particularly remember one woman who wanted to learn how to create as accepting a space as possible for her gay son. 

But what struck me the most were the amount of older queer people who attended – not to learn about the stories of their predecessors, but to relive their own experiences. The fingerprints of a shared history, their history, were over each exhibit. Queer men in their seventies shared their stories of surviving the AIDS epidemic as they walked through the instalments. My volunteering partner on the day had herself taken part in the struggle for queer rights, being one of the pioneers of the world’s first AIDS bus that was showcased on the Bandstand’s upper level. “I remember going there,” one older man told me as he pointed to one of the salvaged club signs, face alight with fond nostalgia.  

When I asked about the future of QTopia – if this permanent museum gets off the ground, where will it go? – I was told that, at the moment, the plan is to use the space left behind by the old Darlinghurst police station. The irony of this delighted me, and that same irony was a large part of the decision making process. “The Darlinghurst Police Station[…]has a bit of a horror past for the queer community when homosexuality was illegal,” Foster says. “It was policemen from that station that would go and gather up gay people[…]not only arrest them, but they would bash them and humiliate them.” This museum would be a radical act of transforming a space that had once been a suffocation of queer rights into a symbol of queer resilience and pride.

And, really, I can’t think of a better reason for the creation of a permanent museum: a place to represent what Sydney’s queer community is, has been, and could be in the future.