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Gay dens and denizens of the West End


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You may think you know Adelaide’s West End, but a stroll with Dr Gertrude Glossip exposes a colourful hidden history of which many South Australians would be unaware – including queer secrets and scandals dating back more than eight decades.

Every year since the first Feast Festival in 1997, Gertrude (the alter ego of Adelaide speaker and performer Will Sergeant) has hosted walking tours which highlight the area’s importance to the gay and lesbian community through stories that are both entertaining and enlightening.

“Traditionally, there have been lots of gay venues in the West End – even going back to the early days in the 1930s,” Sergeant says.

“A notable one with a very significant story was the Newmarket Hotel, on the corner of North and West terraces. The licensee of that in the ’20s was the famous MP Albert Edwards, who was sent to jail in 1931 for sodomy.

“The irony was that as an MP, when Labor was in government in 1921, he was introducing a probation system for prisoners – and then he ended up in jail himself.”

Gertrude-2Another place visited on the Gertrude Glossip tours is the site of the former South Australian Hotel, opposite Parliament House, which was popular during World War II with servicemen who liked men.

Prior to the war, when there were no gay-friendly pubs or clubs, outside toilets at hotels were one of the few means homosexual men had of making contact with each other.

“The strip from the Town Hall down to St Peter’s Cathedral was known as the ‘dirty mile’ and all the way along there were various encounter points,” Sergeant says.

The Walking the West tour, which draws partly on research conducted by the late John Lee, also highlights the significance of the West End in the gay rights movement. It takes in part of the route of the first Gay Pride March, which this year marks its 40th anniversary, as well as Bloor Court, where the first gay liberation meetings were held in the early 1970s.

“They were really seeking to change society,” Sergeant says. “It was about people accepting themselves, coming out, declaring their sexuality, and confronting society about their attitudes to sexuality and homophobia.”

At the time, he was in his early 20s and working for a chartered accountant in Leigh Street.

“Every Friday night the boys would go to the Duke of York to drink in the front bar, so one night after that I slipped across to Bloor Court and attended my first gay liberation meeting and my life was never the same again … it was a watershed moment.”

“Queer, gay and lesbian history has often been hidden and hasn’t been told, so I think it’s important to tell these stories so they aren’t forgotten.”

There are shades of Priscilla in the story of how Sergeant adopted the persona of Gertrude – who claims to have a PhD in formal drapery from Curtain University.

In the early 1990s, the gay men’s group the Urania Society decided to take a bus trip to a tiny town on the Yorke Peninsula called Urania [a 19th century term for men who were attracted to men] and invented the character Gertrude Glossip for their tour guide, nominating Sergeant to play the role.

“The funny thing was that a few residents came running out because no one stops in Urania, let alone a group of 40 men in a bus being led by a character called Gertrude!”

When the Feast Festival began, Gertrude was the obvious choice to host a gay walking history tour. The “Queen of the Walk” has since taken on a life of her own, penning a regular column for Adelaide gay newspaper Blaze, leading tours during Feast and Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival, and hosting Wildsex Zoo Tours which expose the secret sex lives of animals.

While Gertrude seeks to make history lively and entertaining, Sergeant believes the tours also serve an important role.

“Queer, gay and lesbian history has often been hidden and hasn’t been told, so I think it’s important to tell these stories so they aren’t forgotten.”

Walking the West, Dr Gertrude Glossip’s 90-minute walking tours of Adelaide’s West End, will take place on November 10 and 17 during the Feast Festival, which begins on Friday.

More Feast Festival previews

Beccy Cole and the ‘queer of country’
In Vogue: Songs by Madonna – with Michael Griffiths

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