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Mug shot

Mug shot of Neville McQuade (18) and Lewis Stanley Keith (19), North Sydney Police Station, June 1942. Source: Justice & Police Museum Collection, Sydney Living Museums, 31234.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras parade happened on Saturday night and it was just as vibrant as it has been since it started 37 years ago. About 10,000 people and 150 floats spanned five kilometres covering themes including marriage equality, and half a tonne of glitter was used to adorn its participants, many of them dressed in drag. This morning I thought I’d delve into the Dictionary of Sydney and take a look at the city’s history of drag and cross dressing on 2SER Breakfast.

Cross dressing might be an integral part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras parade today, and indeed one of our most famous films, Priscilla Queen of the Desert (image above), made the world take notice of our city’s drag queens back in 1995. But during the 19th century, wearing the clothes of the opposite sex was considered deviant behaviour.

In 1835, the convict Edmund Carmen was caught by police near Wollongong ‘dressed in a woman’s gown and cape’. He was found guilty of improper conduct and received 50 lashes. However in 1839, police arrested a woman for drunkenness in George Street only to find that she was actually a he. After this discovery they released him without charge.

Winifred Wilson / George Rocake

‘Alleged Man-Woman’ Winifred Wilson / George Rocake, 1921. Source: State Library NSW

By the end of the 19th century, the activities of the famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde had caused a scandal in London and even reached Sydney’s newspapers. They published details about his homosexuality and extravagant dress. One scandal sheet objected to what they called ‘The Oscar Wilde’s of Sydney’ ‘whose presence is advertised by an effeminate style of speech and the adoption of the names of celebrated actresses … and that part of College Street from Boomerang Street to Park Street is a parade for them.’

Despite the strong objections to those who chose to dress in drag on the street, men who donned women’s clothing were more readily accepted as long is they appeared on the theatrical stage. In the early years of World War II, nightclubs featured local stars such as the burlesque performer ‘Lea Sonia’, who would appear in drag at the Diamond Horseshoe Club in Oxford Street.

Despite this supposed freedom, there were some instances which served as a harsh reminder of the intolerance for drag and general homophobic attitudes. In 1942 at the Ziegfeld Club in King Street, ‘accomplished nightclub dancer’ and cross-dresser Harry Foy tried to kiss an American sailor who then knocked him to the ground. Foy tragically died the next day ‘from the effects of a fractured skull’ and his assailant was never convicted.

But gradually, as clubs increasingly featured drag shows during the postwar era throughout suburbs like Kings Cross, Redfern and Newtown, attitudes began to change. And not all drag shows featured feathers and sequins, one satirical show, The Sound of Mucus was a send-up of the Sound of Music and used to play at the Purple Onion in Kensington. Some of these drag performers became stars in their own right, including Carlotta and Carmen. Our city certainly has come a long way since the 19th century and the arrests, floggings and imprisonment of cross-dressers and so-called ‘Oscar Wildes of Sydney’!

Check out Garry Wotherspoon’s original article at the Dictionary of Sydney and listen to my segment at 2SER radio. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.