‘Beat queen’ Barry Charles recalls Sydney’s gay beat culture

Troughman, aka Barry Charles, appears on You Can't Ask That
Barry Charles on ABC's You Can't Ask That. Image: ABC

Longtime gay activist Barry Charles has said Sydney’s gay beat culture reflected the “indomitable spirit” of gay men in an era of secrecy, discrimination and homophobic violence.

The Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes, the first of its kind in the world, is examining suspected gay and trans hate crime deaths between 1970 and 2010 in the state.

This week, witnesses are addressing public hearings, giving evidence on social, cultural and legal factors affecting the gay and trans community in that 40-year period.

Asked about his life growing up in Punchbowl in southwestern Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s, Barry Charles told the hearing “you had to find your own way” as a young gay man.

“I had no knowledge of a gay community or visibility of gay people, certainly around our area,” the 72-year-old said.

“There was no visibility of where a gay community might exist, and even no knowledge of what it was to be a homosexual.

“There wasn’t a social scene or a way of meeting people as a heterosexual young person would have growing up. You had to find a secret place.”

Barry Charles proud of the moniker ‘beat queen’

Charles said he proudly wore the term “beat queen,” describing a gay man who used beats regularly and was immersed in gay social life.

“I couldn’t possibly begin to count [the number of beats]. In some cases it took me years to discover places that had been more or less under my nose,” he said.

“You learned where these places were mainly by your interaction with other people who were also attending the beats. You would exchange information in that way.”

Charles said, “With all those forces of society against us and not being able to come out to our families, we still had that urge to engage with each other and find and associate with each other.

“No matter what obstacles had been put in our way, we found that. It was an indomitable spirit.”

‘You knew you could be apprehended’

Barry Charles said he was also aware of the risks and violence against gay men at beats that was occurring.

“Hanging around for longer than necessary was dangerous, because you knew you could be apprehended,” he said.

“Or you were in danger of violence. Some men were at risk of being exposed as gay.

“You had to be constantly on the lookout, for two things. You had to look out for police and what they might do or say, and for violence from young people.”

Charles recounted a string of violent attacks and incidents he either suffered or witnessed in the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Sydney.

In late 1987, a group of “maybe five” teenagers assaulted him with lengths of plastic pipe at Alexandria Park.

The next year, at the same beat, a “completely frenzied” young man hurled slurs at him and beat him with a tree branch, requiring stitches.

One “busy” Saturday night in the 90s at Rushcutters Bay Park, a gay beat in Sydney’s east, Charles recalled a car with a spotlight careening towards a crowd of men, forcing them to flee.

Charles said to access the park by car required entry through a padlocked gate, meaning the incident “couldn’t have been just random bashers”.

“That had to be, in my opinion, possibly a police action,” he said.

‘In their eyes, you were a criminal’

He said interactions with police were “very common” and “you just had to live with it because that was the law”.

“It was frightening. But you understood that in their eyes, you were a criminal, and a very serious criminal,” he said.

“A criminal who, if you engaged in homosexual sodomy, would go to prison for 14 years.

“Their attitude was to treat you like a very, very serious criminal, worse than a bank robber.”

In addition, after suffering violence, Charles said gay men rarely reported incidents because you “couldn’t expect help from the police in these situations.”

“It was just general knowledge that you wouldn’t get a good reception,” he said.

“I was assaulted in King Street, Newtown, on Christmas Eve 1987. I went to Newtown Police Station and they just didn’t want to know.”

Before 1984, gay sex was a crime in NSW punishable with up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

From the early 70s on, Barry Charles was a founding member of the University of NSW’s Gay Liberation movement, after joining the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) a few years earlier.

Charles said in 1981, he joined the Gay Rights Lobby which some earlier CAMP members had started to “re-energise” the push for decriminalisation.

“Our object was to try and, politician-by-politician, turn them around and get them to support gay law reform,” he said.

Police ‘outed gay men to families and employers’

Brett Mackie from ACON also addressed the inquiry, discussing a 1993 report on gay beats.

Outreach workers and beat users had reported “increasing reports of police and council surveillance” at gay beats between 1988 and 1992, he said.

The report said police practices were at times “unnecessary” and involved “punishment by spectacle”.

Beat users were “not only arrested but made an example of in front of members of the public,” it reported.

“Police allegedly informed “suspects” families or employers they’d been apprehended at a beat – or that ‘they were gay’,” whether the men had been arrested or not, the report said.

“It was quite shocking and really devastating for the people involved,” Mackie told the inquiry.

Inquiry urges anyone with information to come forward

The inquiry, led by Supreme Court Justice John Sackar, continues in Sydney.

The inquiry earlier published a list of some of the cases being looked at on its website. More will be added as the hearing progress.

Investigators have also urged anyone with information on unsolved suspected gay-hate deaths to come forward.

“Any recollections or pieces of information that you might have, however major or minor, could provide a vital link in understanding what happened,” Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray said

“In some cases, it may ultimately lead to arrests and prosecutions.

“This may be the last chance for the truth about some of these historical deaths to be exposed. We need to hear from anyone who can help us do that.”

To watch hearings in full, read about the cases and provide evidence to the inquiry visit specialcommission.nsw.gov.au

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Jordan Hirst
Jordan Hirst

Jordan Hirst is an experienced journalist and content creator with a career spanning over a decade at QNews. Since 2012, the Brisbane local has covered an enormous range of topics and subjects in-depth affecting the LGBTIQA+ community, both in Australia and overseas. Today, the Brisbane-based journalist covers everything from current affairs, politics and health to sport and entertainment.

QNews, Brisbane Gay, App, Gay App, LGBTI, LGBTI News, Gay Australia

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