QUEER HISTORY: THE PURPLE ONION

By Rosie Hancock

A fortnightly series examining the history of LGBTIQ people in Australia and worldwide: vignettes of events of significance to the LGBTIQ community, historical figures, and organisations. Why this series? Because knowing our history—transferring the stories of struggle, heartbreak, triumph, and love from generation to generation is our way of building a rich, strong, and proud LGBTIQ community.

In 1963 The Beatles ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ spent 7 weeks on top of the Australian music charts, Hitchcock released ‘The Birds’, and at 83 Anzac Parade in Sydney’s Kensington, Sydney’s first ‘gay bar’ – The Purple Onion – opened.

Originally run a group of friends including Dormie McIver and Rose Jackson, the Purple Onion changed hands a few times before Beatrice (David) Williams took over the club in 1965.

Under his direction, the club staged lavish, complex productions satirising the contemporary culture and featuring multiple cast members, not to mention multiple costume changes. You can hear a rather wonderful snippet of him talking about the legendary show ‘The Sound of Mucus’, and reminiscing on The Purple Onion, The Jewel Box, and Les Girls (two other drag clubs of the 1960s and 1970s) on the Sydney Pride History webpage.

The Purple Onion gained momentum – and notoriety – as a camp, glitzy drag venue. Their Sunday night specials were renowned, and popular with international celebrities visiting Sydney – reported sightings included Shirley Bassey, Sammey Davis Jr, and Dusty Springfield.

Homosexuality was still illegal in Australia – NSW repealed its sodomy law in 1984, while the Commonwealth law decriminalising homosexuality didn’t come into effect until 1994. Cross-dressing was legal – but only if you wore men’s underwear.

The Purple Onion left crates of liquor in the back lane to try and smooth over their relationship with the police. It wasn’t effective – police officers often waited outside the club to arrest drag queens and punters with considerable violence.

In a 2002 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Anthony Dennis, drag diva Carmen remembers: ‘They beat us badly … I got beaten up there four times a week, either as a gay man or in drag. They used to pull our wigs off as we walked down the street. We were beaten up so badly it’s amazing I still have a face left.’ It must have been a love/hate relationship for some police officers. Apparently, it wasn’t unusual to find tables of officers inside, enjoying the show when they were off duty.

You know the place was legendary when Justice Kirby has fond memories – in an article on Australia’s gay history, he’s quoted talking about the Purple Onion: ‘It was great fun and a respite from the oppression that went on outside the doors. The place was magical, intimate and democratic. If only we could reverse the time machine and go back to those delicious nights.’

In later years the club morphed into the KKK sauna – which has it’s own share of stories.

The venue closed for good in 2012.

Additional information for this article came from James Waites blog. Interested in the history of drag in Sydney? The Pride History Group has released a book ‘Camp Nites, Sydney’s Emerging Drag Scene In The 60s’. You can find it at The Bookshop Darlinghurst and Cross Books. 

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