“The Princess and the Ice Monster”
Image by Hachiimon @ Deviant Art
Or, for a much more edifying, fond and generative depiction of ice use among
In the abysmal UK documentary Chemsex (2015), there’s a horrible moment where one gay man describes his peers who use drugs for sex as “the walking dead.” Let’s think about this derogatory imagery for a moment. What should we make of this abject figure, the queer zombie?
The walking dead are beings whose claim on life is so tenuous and wrong and desperate they’re regarded as a monstrous affront and threat to the living order. In fact, this characterisation of drug users is a well-trodden stereotype appearing in multiple sites, from judicial discourse to popular culture. Effectively, it demonises people who use drugs by suggesting their lives are unnatural and not worth living. It’s a callous and demoralising insinuation that is destructive of lives and hopes for the future.
Last weekend, Unharm‘s Queer Contingent decided to bite this bullet hard, and threw an outrageous party to celebrate sexy demons, queer community, the growing movement around drug use, and killer dress-ups. Held on the weekend of the Day of the Dead, UnDEAD brazenly embraced the figure of the zombie, inhabiting it playfully and irreverently, to throw this configuration of abuse back in the faces of those who project it so vomitously. A perverse and confronting strategy, perhaps – not everyone’s cup of tea – but the sort of manoeuvre that has long been critical for queer thinking and queer survival.
This wasn’t “just a party”, it was serious fun. UnDEAD aimed to pay homage to the role queer parties have played in promoting vital practices for wellbeing: lively communities; cultures of care; and the invention of forms of safety that respect the transformative powers of pleasure.
The gay club scene in Sydney helped build the communities that responded so effectively to HIV and which have continued to devise inventive ways of looking after each other. Queer parties have sparked initiatives encouraging the safer use of substances like MDMA and GHB and led to the development of new ways of taking care of people in party environments.
These spaces and the communities they helped forge have come under pressure lately from lockout laws and a longer history of harassment through drug detection operations. The onslaught is intensifying at a time when more and more people are beginning to realise ‘we can’t arrest our way out of’ drug-related problems, and that communities (rather than law enforcement) are the most effective way forward.
Queer communities have been breaking new ground in this domain, but bad laws and aggressive enforcement are blocking progress, and have the added effect of chipping away at the bonding possibilities that have been so significant within queer party culture and been the basis for care strategies.
UnDEAD was the brainchild of Fiona McGregor; who put the party on with the help of comrades from the Unharm Queer Contingent, their mates and supporters. Legendary Sydney queer DJs Ben Drayton, Steve Sonius, DJ Gemma and HipHopHoe electrified the dance floor with killer beats and sounds. Partygoers were also treated to deadly performances from iconic queer performers Glitta Supernova, Willow Darling and Matthew Stegh, who brought the house down.
But most of all, UnDEAD was one of those thrilling events that demonstrates how inventive, playful, daring and caring our community can be. We were blown away by the creativity, guts and sheer nerve of all the queer souls who came out in the middle of the night to claim the dance floor and support the growing movement. Renowned photographer William Yang captured some of the magnificent creatures who graced our party – check out his pictures of the event here (further snaps from SXNews here). To summon the ghost of Oscar Wilde, let’s just say that reports of the death of Sydney queer culture are greatly exaggerated.
Unharm is a grassroots organisation that campaigns to make drug use as safe, positiveand ethical as possible. That includes changing laws, like the criminalisation of drug use, that make it harder for people to live well.
The Unharm Queer Contingent formed in early 2016 and has gone from strength to strength this year, hosting a stall at Mardi Gras Fair Day; participating blocs in public rallies such as Reclaim the Streets and Keep Sydney Open; and convening community events such as Party safer and save our parties, Queer Chemistry, and a public screening of the documentary Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague that brought key figures in the debate over Sydney nightlife together to discuss how to apply this local history to present controversies.
The Unharm Queer Contingent wants to turn queer culture’s flair for wicked dance moves into something even more wicked – a dance/community generated movement. It’s happening right now, and it’s thrilling. Rise up, queer creatures of the night, and stake your claims! Let’s make a world where people aren’t criminalised for using drugs. Let’s get drug detection dogs out of our celebratory spaces, and pill testing happening at music festivals. Let’s work out better ways of looking after each other, whether friends or strangers, and put them into action.
If you want get involved, you can find out more by joining our online community discussion forum, or simply come along to our next event, to be determined.
Meanwhile, read this recently published review of some of the research literature on queer culture, drug use and sexual health to familiarise yourself with some of the facts, figures, issues and challenges that inform our work.
Dear Mike and Troy,
I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the deleterious effects of the lockout laws on our city. I’m a born and bred Sydneysider, a writer and performance artist. I was a musician in the prolific band scene of the 1980s; and producer and curator of events in Sydney through the 90s and 00s. I have met your sister Julia several times; she has read my books. I have published five, most set in Sydney. You may know my most recent Indelible Ink, which tracks the creeping conservatism of the early 21st century and how it has destroyed Sydney. It was a bestseller when released six years ago, won and was shortlisted for many prizes, and continues to sell well.
If most of my creative work has been about freedom, most has also taken place in the economies of the night. The economies of the night gave me wages that supported my artistic pursuits; in turn, I made art about them. From the early ‘80s I worked, as so many students and artists must, in hospitality. Glassie, waitress, kitchen hand, you name it. The band scene was huge: from the upper North Shore to the Shire, and west, the most humble band had two gigs a week. People are still listening to INXS, or Nick Cave’s early band Birthday Party, whom my band supported regularly when they were in Sydney. Our scene had a significant population of Brisbane musicians who had fled the Bjelke-Petersen regime, such as Ed Kuepper of the The Saints. They wrote songs about Queensland’s police state that are still being played, and earning royalties.
Such was my education, my formation as a young artist. It continued in the 90s with work in bars and restaurants around the Oxford Street area, home then to the most exciting progressive queer scene in the world. Working late shifts on weekends enabled me to get up on weekday mornings and write. My novel chemical palace was read beyond the queer party culture it paid homage to, by people such as your sister Julia, for whom it was emblematic of their own youthful experiences of a free, flamboyant, fun and safe city. The parties I co-produced in venues in and close to Oxford Street employed four DJs, half a dozen performance artists, a lighting designer and art designer, a cloakroom person, a security guard, and two people on the door. They brought in crowds that gave the bars revenue that paid bar staff, managers, and venue owners, themselves with substantial liquor licencing fees to pay. A portion of the takings always went to charity.
We danced until the sun came up – as humans have done since time immemorial. These were our corroborees. We told stories through song and dance, brought communities together, shared love, expressed our politics. We opened spaces for people to make experimental art that could not have existed in any other context. We lived all those great pop songs you still hear on the radio. Saturday Night Fever, Last Night a DJ Save My Life, and our very own Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind. Sydney was alive. People came here from all over the world to participate in this wonderful culture, which celebrated life to its fullest, which valued the ground on which it was made; where genders, generations and races mixed more harmoniously than anywhere else. You would have seen the Mardi Gras parade on television. This was the coalface, where the raw gems got hacked out.
Over the years, licencing and other laws began to strangle this culture. The Entertainment Licence pushed venues already in stress to pay amounts that encouraged corruption. And bands could no longer play as they once had. Musicians out of work moved interstate and overseas. (Subsequently, NSW Government did a $400,000 enquiry into why the live music scene had died … )
You are putting nails into our coffin. The youth of this city have been robbed; they will never have a fraction of the riches we had. Yet it isn’t just about youth. It is about economies, and culture. We didn’t stop just because we turned fifty. We are still dancing. But we are under siege. We have hardly anywhere to go now. We can’t employ musicians, artists, bar and door staff at even a fraction of the numbers we once did. The destruction is architectural as well. Our venues have closed. Entire buildings have been razed. Sydney, already gutted by Askin’s corrupt pro-development premiership of the 1960s-70s – has lost beautiful deco pubs, most significantly the Exchange Hotel, whose various bars and dancefloors were home to us for thirty years. We are afraid of the police.
We can’t pass our wisdom onto the next generation because this is not a material culture, it is one of ritual and constant reinvention. You have killed Kings Cross and Oxford Street, which lit up the Sydney night for decades, or a whole century in the case of the Cross. You have scorched our bora rings, held up a Not Welcome sign to visiting tribes, and punished us for nothing more than celebrating, storytelling, socialising and loving. Your actions with the lockout laws are stunning in their insensitivity and disrespect. That we pay your wages beggars belief in the way you treat us. What did the people do to deserve this?
I know better than you how violent heterosexual men can become on alcohol. Because these night-time economies I worked in, and wrote about, and still attempt to participate in, were in the frontline of that sort of behaviour. As a woman, I was frequently targeted; even more so as a queer. I saw bashings; many of my friends were bashed. But we would never have relinquished a fraction of our freedom to counteract this; to the contrary. The solution to the problem of violence is agency to the vulnerable, and education to the perpetrators. It was, and still is, punishment given when deserved, according to the law, which at the time was sufficient.
Who will write the songs your children will dance to? A fraction of the artist normally available to a city of this size, because so many have had their livelihoods taken from them. And they won’t be writing pæens to life in the southern Eden Sydney once was to the world, they won’t sing to freedom in the sun, to people who love and look out for each other. They will sing about a city that has become a mausoleum. A people who have been oppressed. A despot in thrall to an oligarch whose casino – the most violent venue in New South Wales – is the only one exempt from the lockout.
What are you going to do, Mike? And you, Troy? Are you even listening?
The figure of the resident is privileged in discussions about nightlife governance. But the ‘right to the city’ extends to those who use the city, and popular opposition to the lockout concerns questions of access to public space on the part of those marginalized from these policy equations. Opponents of the Sydney lockout object to qualitative transformations in the cultural atmosphere of the city. This article argues that nightlife is of greater value than governmental measures about the prevention of violence capture. Of particular significance are the constitutive omissions of the category of ‘alcohol-related violence’. A better analysis would investigate the attraction of ‘liminal experience’ that prompts violence on the part of certain participants. It appears that certain gendered identities have not been well equipped to handle difference. At a time of reduced support for sex and gender diversity education, the state must get better at modelling capacities to live with difference.
Keywords: Night-time economies; alcohol-related violence; homophobic violence; licensing laws; urban governance; anti-social behaviour; urban safety; drug policing.
On 21 February 2016 an estimated 15,000 people rallied peacefully in Sydney’s CBD under the banner, ‘Keep Sydney Open’. They were protesting Sydney’s lockout laws and their effect on the city’s nightlife and cultural atmosphere (McMah 2016). On 19 March, thousands danced and marched from the city to Star Casino in a bid to ‘Reclaim the Streets’, protesting the apparent hypocrisy of licensing laws that permit the Casino to remain exempt from restrictions that have shut down nightlife in other parts of the city (Roberts 2016). On 27 April, another protest – ‘Keep Newtown Weird and Safe’ – was held in response to a perceived increase in homophobic and transphobic abuse and violence in Sydney’s inner west. Organisers linked this mobilisation to the displacement effects of the lockout laws, which they claimed were dispersing hetero-masculine crowds, attitudes and violence from Kings Cross to the otherwise queer-friendly inner west (Ford 2016).
Taken together, these actions suggest that a significant number of Sydney-siders have sensed a qualitative transformation in the cultural atmosphere of the city since the introduction of the lockout laws. This perceived transformation is linked to the city’s orientation towards cultural and sexual diversity: hence the popular resonance of slogans such as ‘Keep Sydney Open’.
Nightlife, Difference and the Right to the City
The controversy surrounding the lockout laws is about more than the right to drink alcohol in the city at night, or the impact of licensing laws on jobs in the hospitality industry – though the latter is certainly significant (Cooke 2016). It is about the ‘right to the city’ claimed by youth and minoritized groups (Lefebvre 1968, Berlant & Warner 1998; Harvey 2008). Those opposing the lockout are crucially concerned with the cultural transformations associated with the state government’s clampdown on nightlife; the increasingly bullish policing of youth and social minorities in NSW; and the unprecedented increase in police powers that effectively reduce these groups’ access to public space.
Nightlife can be approached as a pedagogical space in which people learn to appreciate and take pleasure in difference (Young 1990, Jacobs 1961). The value of this space is not captured by governmental measures concerning the prevention of violence. Indeed, cultural opposition to the lockout laws can be taken as an urgent plea on the part of those who use nightlife space for state authorities to diversify their outcome measures.
Nightlife has been an important zone of community-formation for those who have been excluded from family and the cultural mainstream, such as sexual and other minorities (Chauncey 1994, Race 2011). The gradual closure of long-standing queer venues in the inner city represents one casualty of the current approach to nightlife governance: the lockout has effectively eradicated a key space of socialization for these communities, who are often targets – but rarely perpetrators – of nighttime violence
Measures of Violence
The situation is exacerbated by the reductive nature of statistical measures used to diagnose nighttime violence. A key measure has been ‘alcohol-related violence’, but it is unclear whether this category adequately captures the qualitative nature or causes of the violence it enumerates. A significant body of qualitative work in the Drug and Alcohol field questions whether particular effects, such as violence, can be causally attributed to substance use per se (Rhodes 2002; Fraser & Moore 2011; Duff 2012; Fraser, Moore & Keane 2014; Race 2014). This literature demonstrates that the effects of alcohol and drug consumption are contingent on a range of other variables, such as context, cultures of use, affective conditions, and the socio-material arrangements in which consumption takes place, among other factors.
One of the most influential texts for regulatory approaches to night-time economies has been the work of Dick Hobbs and colleagues, which links nighttime violence to the proliferation of markets in alcohol associated with post-industrial urban entrepreneurialism (2000, 2003). With its focus on the economic conditions within which night-time economies are promoted by urban planners, this research privileges market restrictions (licensing laws, business mix and density, policing) as key components of governmental measures to address nighttime disorder and violence. Hobbs et al. can be commended for their ethnographic attention to the socio-material arrangement of alcohol markets, its implication in violence, and the problems this can create for government. But certain elements of their analysis have been neglected in policy responses that are highly pertinent to current controversies in Sydney.
Hobbs et al. (2000, 2003) identify ‘liminality’ as a key appeal of night-time leisure precincts. This anthropological term refers to threshold experiences that involve some suspension of everyday social and sexual norms, and some experience of alterity. Liminal experiences are characterised by time-out from ordinary activities, a sense of play, and a desire for encounters with the novel and the strange. For this reason, they are sometimes characterized by a dynamic of attraction and repulsion; in certain circumstances they may prompt violence in certain subjects’ bid to reassert sovereign identity (Phelan 2001). Gail Mason and Levin Lo have used this category to understand the appeal of cultural events such as the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to heterosexual spectators (2009). For certain participants, the liminality of nightlife may be experienced as a threat to sovereign identity that is at once pleasurable and destabilising. Violence emerges as a way of re-establishing the sovereignty of the perpetrator in the moment he commits it: a way of re-asserting domination.
Qualitatively, little is known about the acts of rage and desire that perpetrators of night-time violence experience. Certainly, night-time economies are likely associated with many forms of differently motivated violence. Alcohol is no-doubt an element in the forms of liminal experience that attract huge crowds to party in the nightlife precincts of inner Sydney. But if some of this violence can be attributed to the dynamics of liminal experience, as I have speculated, then its persistence suggests that certain sorts of identity have not been well equipped to handle difference.
Crude measures such as ‘alcohol-related violence’ are unlikely to gauge the qualitative dimensions of these processes adequately. Nor do they capture the transformation in the affective climates of precincts such as Darlinghurst and Newtown that those who have rallied against the lockout laws complain of. It bears noting that a reduction in foot-traffic – or indeed, incidents of reported violence – in traditional centres of queer social life does not necessarily equate to safety for those most vulnerable to night time violence and abuse on the basis of sex, gender or racial difference (Jacobs 1969).
It is telling that the regulatory measures adopted by the NSW government and NSW police to address public disorder and ‘anti-social behaviour’ tend to take social difference the target, rather than beneficiary, of regulatory intervention. Authoritarian strategies such as the use of drug detection dogs position sexual and racial minorities as suspects rather than citizens deserving of state protection. Police stubbornly defend these strategies despite a wealth of evidence that their detections are inaccurate and disproportionately subject social minorities to invasive intervention (Lancaster, Hughes & Ritter 2016; Race 2014; NSW Ombudsman 2016). But as events such as the illegal policing of Mardi Gras 2013 indicate, police are often complicit in the intimidation, violence and abuse that has come to characterise Sydney’s night-time spaces (Mardi Gras, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Inner City Legal Centre, & ACON, 2013).
The lockout laws can be viewed as the latest episode in the increasing investment in regulatory responses to urban problems on the part of the NSW state. But there is a wealth of cultural creativity among Sydney’s youth and subcultural communities that the state could be drawing on to devise more creative, inclusive, and less authoritarian responses to the problems associated with night-time precincts. Australia’s internationally recognized response to HIV/AIDS demonstrates the value of including the denizens of nightlife in policy responses to social problems that concern them (Sendziuk 2003). It is a policy success story that stands in stark contrast to the state government’s top-down, police-heavy approach to nighttime violence. Certainly, authorities could do much better at modelling practices of handling difference in our urban centres. Authorities ignore the sexuality of the night – and its volatility – at their peril. Sydney’s reputation as an open, diverse, inclusive and dynamic city is endangered in the process.
In 2004 I wrote this piece (click on the link) that tried to figure out why the neoliberal state is so invested in drug enforcement despite all the evidence against its effectiveness as a public health measure.
Waking up to news today of NSW police officers engaging in obscene racial vilification and abuse, trolling the Facebook page of NSW Green MP Jenny Leong (who recently introduced legislation to stop the use of drug dogs in NSW parliament), I’m both alarmed and horrified at how prescient my analysis was.
All the signs indicate that the NSW government is doing whatever is can to funnel consumers into the Star Casino – one of the only venues in inner Sydney that is exempt from the NSW lockout laws. One mechanism they are using is the Sydney Lockout; another is the police use of drug detection dogs – among other, unprecedented, police powers.
In my piece, Recreational States: Drugs and the Sovereignty of Consumption, I try to work out why the neoliberal state is keen to give licence to and profit from once “immoral” forms of consumption (like gambling), but remains so intent on policing and punishing other forms of consumption deemed illicit (like drug use).
The term I use to describe these operations is ‘exemplary power’. Have a read, and if you’re as worked up about the current situation as I am, one way of developing and consolidating your thinking is to undertake research and training in cultural studies.
Or just get out onto the streets and protest while we still can.
This is so evil. And so transparent.
The strong arm of the increasingly militarised NSW government is tweaking the urban geography of Sydney so it becomes a cash cow that funnels money straight into the coffers of corporate oligarchs via gambling and pokie machines.
Basically, Baird, Grant and their cronies are playing the city to court the support and donations of corporate tycoons and ensure a constant stream of revenue from the gaming industry for their increasingly intensive and aggressive operations.
The once ‘independent’ – now ministerially controlled – Office of Liquor and Gaming is presumably cheering on the push to raze Moore Park and Kippax Lake (a precious habitat for wildlife in the inner city) to build a massive footy stadium in an area whose loutish drinking culture the government claims to be concerned about.
SO concerned, in fact, that it has taken it upon itself to impose an inner city curfew on all other signs of nightlife “for our safety”.
But no concern is evident in any of these decisions for the public culture of the city or what it might take to keep it friendly, diverse, collectively accessible, interesting, relaxed, open, relatively free and dynamic.
Meanwhile this state – newly weaponised with unprecedented police powers and immensely fortified by the opportunity to control all regulatory decisions on liquor AND gaming – is so addicted to gambling revenue that it is prepared to condone and profit from a commodity-system that is industrially designed to create compulsive attachments – highly lucrative ones at that – that are known to exacerbate socioeconomic inequality and destroy communal and family relations.
Despite its claims and protestations, the state is ultimately devoid of *real* concern for the health, welfare and safety of its citizens, as this licentious investment in industrial gambling demonstrates.
The only thing stopping the state from trying to monetise other commodities deemed ‘dangerous’ and ‘addictive’ – like, say, drugs – is the irresistible opportunity that drug enforcement provides to harass minortized groups, emergent communities – indeed anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the state’s self-proclaimed right to determine norms of consumption and forcibly populate sanctioned markets.
Indeed, so invested is the ‘casino state’ in the invasive powers it has accrued through drug enforcement that it expressly rejects and denounces (as criminal!) medical interventions and measures (like pill testing) that might actually reduce some of the harms associated with consuming drugs procured through markets that the state hasn’t or can’t or just couldn’t be arsed working out how to regulate.
In the case of gambling , by contrast, the state makes consumers directly responsible for managing the potentially destructive effects of consumption. Indeed, it’s very eager to put all responsibility on the consumer and disavow its own implication in gambling problems. We’re talking, remember, about a form of consumption that happens to appeal overwhelmingly to the most economically desperate, vulnerable, structurally disadvantaged citizens.
The message we’re meant to get from all this – the message the state is stepping over itself to send us – is that those who don’t comply with sovereign authority and its arbitrary decisions and determinations about what counts as legitimate consumption are basically just gonna get what’s coming to them. Comply or die. Necropower incarnate. Allow the body that consumes properly and profitably to live as long as it manages to (when fed a diet of shit), and let the bodies that don’t consume in profitable ways die. That’ll teach those masses a lesson or two about the unquestionable right and might of power.
Hypocritical, thuggish, and contemptuous of the social life of citizens. And of course Troy Grant, Minister of Police, is right behind it, doing the heavy lifting, flexing his might in plain view, just to demonstrate the power of the state to suppress any trace of difference or dissidence or enjoyment that is not immediately monopolisable and easy to cash in on.
So blatant. So transparent. A violent demonstration of power undertaken in plain view. Like a schoolyard bully. Or a drug lord. Both of which happen to be figures the state silently gives the nod to. Exemplary power.
Are we feeling safe yet?