COVID: Queer Nightlife skipped a beat for my generation

Harry Hadley remembers what it was like to enter the queer scene during COVID

QNews’ youngest contributor reflects on the experience of the generation who entered the queer scene in the middle of COVID restrictions.

It has now become a regular saying in the Sydney gay scene that the strip “isn’t what it used to be.”

Talk to anybody over the age of 25 about how they think nightlife on Oxford Street is faring in 2024 and their response will more than likely involve an eyeroll.

The pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt in 2020, and now that we are on the other side of what is perhaps the biggest global event since WWII, it is no secret that much of our society is still in recovery mode.

This is very personal for me. As someone who works five nights a week as a bartender on Oxford Street, and as a journalist for a queer magazine. I live and breathe the gay nightlife scene in Sydney.

But I have only ever experienced Sydney’s queer nightlife post-COVID so will never be able to compare the pre and post pandemic experience.

So what exactly happened to the scene over COVID?

The lasting impact of the pandemic seems to be a topic that we can never escape, but simultaneously hate to talk about.

We are all dealing with a collective trauma that few could have seen coming.

We are still coming to grips with how to handle this, and the fallout is evident.

Hospitality has been one of the industries that is taking the longest to bounce back.

The pandemic was a kill shot for nightlife all over the world, and that still poses a significant problem for the queer scene.

For so many of us licensed venues are the beating heart of our community and where we find our identity: not just in Australia but all over the world.

The queer scene in every major city is defined by the nightlife district they have to offer.

Sydney has its Rainbow Precinct, London its Soho, New York its West Village.

Having worked on Oxford Street for 12 months, if there is one thing I have learnt about the scene, it is that one weekend will never be like the previous one, nor will it be anything like the next.

The strip is influenced by so many different factors that it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what any given night will look like.

This is what gives Oxford Street its charm, as one of Sydney’s most vital arteries keeping the city’s nightlife vibrant and intoxicating.

When travellers visit Sydney, any local who really knows the city will tell them to pay Oxford Street a visit if they want a good night out.

That is because we do it like nobody else, and have that chaotically unique reputation to uphold. This energy never left Oxford Street.

Even In the middle of the pandemic we all still found ways to connect, even if that meant watching drag shows over Zoom with a bottle of wine or Face Timing our Good Judies for hours on end just to have the decent shit talk with friends that we would normally enjoy on a good night out.

Queer nightlife returns

Despite its unpredictability, what has been a trend in the scene is its steady regrowth since the pandemic.

What started as embers when lockdown was lifted has very slowly been fanned into a bonfire, which we are now working hard to maintain.

Most of Sydney’s iconic queer venues have reopened, a plethora of new shows and events seem to be appearing almost every day, and through 2024 we should have the other side of the strip reactivated after many years behind construction hoardings.

Yet there is still constant talk of the scene being “dead,” as if it is unable to even light a candle to what it used to be.

I have several responses to this. To start with, these conversations more often than not have some type of blame attached to the younger generation; something along the lines of “they don’t know how to have fun anymore.”

And to be fair, the scene shrunk significantly post-COVID. Since 2020, we have been putting a Band-Aid over a bullet hole in our best attempt of breathing life back into the hospitality industry.

The state of the world that we are still in today is the result of a disease that ripped through society and kept us inside for two years straight. This was not something any of us could control.

For my generation, our first experiences with bars involved one person per square metre, seated only, no dancing allowed, masks mandatory unless drinking.

Most of us never saw the need to find a fake ID, because even if we did, there would be nowhere to use it. We celebrated our 18th birthdays over Zoom.

And when the pandemic finally lifted, we walked into a world that had one of the worst economies we have seen in the last hundred years.

For many of us that means there is less money going around – and especially for 18 to 20 year olds who have no previous experience in the workforce to rely on and often have to balance work with our studies.

That means we go out less to save money, and pregame harder than generations before us. That in turn means less drinks being bought on a night out, and less money for the venues.

Generational experiences

For those who experienced pre-pandemic Oxford Street, nightlife is never going to feel like how it was, simply due to their own experiences of nostalgia.

There is a magic to the first few years of being an adult, something about the uncertainty and ‘newness’ of everything which we will always reminisce on.

Those who were going out in the 90s and early 2000s will tell you that is when the scene peaked, because that is when they became of age.

You will get the same response from those who had their heyday in the 2010s because that is when they were having the most fun.

Each generation will never be able to compare how the scene was before they started coming out, because they didn’t experience it themselves.

The same can be applied to discussing the scene pre and post pandemic.

Speaking for myself now, I am having the time of my life.

With all the above factors considered, knowing that I will never see a ‘pre-pandemic’ scene, and considering the state of the world, I think my generation is genuinely making the most of what we’ve got because we don’t know any different.

And that’s okay. I believe personally that there is a beauty in this, and we should be celebrating what is being offered to us considering it is the best we can get.

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Harry Hadley

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

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