A site for sore eyes at Empire Girls Party as queer spaces for women become far and few. Photo: @iamyungboi on Instagram (Xander Ryu)

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BY RHIANNON SOLIMAN

With the bright lights of Sydney’s once-bustling Oxford St dimming in recent years, one part of the LGBTQ+ community has been hit the hardest.

Bars and clubs that cater specifically to lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are far and few, with many iconic lesbian bars across the country having shut their doors for good.

“Queer men could step inside any venue on Oxford Street on most nights of the week and have a great night, but that doesn’t apply for queer women in Sydney,” said Xander Ryu, who founded Empire Girls Party, a regular nightclub event that caters specifically to women attracted to other women.

Oxford St has been a hallmark of LGBTQ+ culture since the 1960s, with one of the first women-only venues, Ruby Reds, opening in 1976.

A safe and inclusive space

Although more than 40 years have passed since then, the reason for opening these places remains the same: the need for a safe and inclusive space.

“When I was in high school, being the only gay kid, the only thing I really looked forward to was to go to a queer girls’ nightclub when I finished school so I could meet people like me,” said Xander.

“However, this dream was quickly ruined when I noticed the lack of diversity and inclusiveness within those spaces. As a South Korean lesbian, it was extremely hard to navigate the social circles.”

A recent survey by Sydney magazine Lesbians on the Loose found that 54.8 per cent of lesbians felt disconnected from Mardi Gras, and according to LOTL’s editor-in-chief, Silke Bader, Sydney’s nightlife is no different.

“I can’t even say… whether there is a vibrant pub scene out there. My gut feeling is there is not,” she said.

“We still love women’s only bars and clubs, but if you don’t support them, they won’t be around very long.”

Although a handful of Sydney’s lesbian events remain open such as Birdcage, Empire and Girlthing, popular haunts such as the Cricketers Arms Hotel, Zorba’s nightclub, and Ruby’s have either shut their doors, or are no longer as strongly associated with lesbian culture.

According to Rachael Cosgrove-White, who has grown up around Sydney’s gay club scene, a change in attitudes is one of the reasons why.

“I think the lesbian community has gone through a shift,” she said.

“The introduction of social media means that those [aged] 30 and under don’t need to frequent these establishments to meet like-minded friends.”

However, she also stressed the importance of such spaces for LGBTQ+ women, particularly for those who are older.

“I would love to see a club that invites not just the young ones, but us [over] 40 who still love a good night out that doesn’t have to start at 11pm,” she said.

“Most of the clubs very much cater to the lads … I’d still love to see a comeback of the old lesbian bars.”

Despite this, since Empire’s opening in 2017, it’s only grown more popular. “There’s never been a quiet night,” Xander said.

“I think it’s because we provide them with something other events have not in the past… we’re very inclusive and we encourage people to be themselves.

“Sydney’s nightlife has been under attack for quite a few years now…I’m proud to be part of a movement in the community that is trying to replenish and revive the city,” she said.