Living Treasures of Queensland: Toye de Wilde


queensland lgbtiq legend toye de wilde
Photo: Amsnel Gorgonio

Queensland’s rainbow communities have been blessed over the years with a number of extraordinary people who worked to build a sense of community, to combat unjust laws and to protect us from a plague of biblical proportion. Over the coming months, Bill Rutkin OAM will profile the remarkable individuals whose efforts benefitted us all, starting with a woman of remarkable ability, the inimitable Toye de Wilde.

From the beginning, Toye de Wilde smashed stereotypes.

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She lived her life then, as she lives it now, on her own terms and never saw a glass ceiling she couldn’t put her stiletto through.

Born of Norwegian stock in Melbourne as ‘L.N.’, Toye grew up on Stradbroke Island at a time in Queensland’s history when rigorous social rules underscored by legal and religious fiat imposed inequality, racism and injustice on all citizens of the state.

Homosexuals were subject to violence and blackmail, often at the hands of the police. Private, consenting, adult male same-sex acts incurred longer jail terms than manslaughter.

As a child in the early 1950s, young L.N. high-kicked and danced the length of Ruthven Street Toowoomba leading off the very first Carnival of Flowers.

As a teenager in the late 50s, L.N. kept company with the notorious (according to the Murdoch scandal rags of the day) Gypsy, Rosa, and Mollie, three of the great characters of the early Brisbane drag scene.

At the time L.N. worked at Barry and Robert’s Department Store in Queen Street, commencing employment there at the age of fifteen. Soon however, a metamorphosis took place as the fabulous and unique Ms Toye de Wilde emerged from her youthful chrysalis.

Peter Cotterell told me recently that in the early 1960s, Brisbane drag legend Gloria Swanson christened young L.N. from Straddie, Bruna de Wilde, after the mythologicol Nordic plaything of the Gods.

Toye remembers the mythological reference as beyond the ken of most of the queens of that era. However, the ‘plaything’ notion caught on and in no time, she became known as Toy to which she later added an ‘e’.

At the time many nightclub performers subsidized their meagre earnings by providing personal services to gentlemen. However, Toye, in the habit of a lifetime, shattered that mould, seeking more reliable employment to enable her to live and work as a woman.

By 1963, she became the star turn at Pinocchio’s, a night club in Ann Street opposite the Empire Hotel, despite Noel Coward’s warning to her delightful, proud and supportive mother Verna, not to put her daughter on the stage. (Verna was later a much-valued drinking companion of your correspondent.)

She then took employment with the outrageous self-publicist Warren (infamous for blue eyeshadow and nail polish, and who always dressed as a male) working the bar at the National Hotel. I recall a photo of Toye in the Sunday Truth when she commenced work there — causing something of a sensation at the time.

With bar experience under her belt and now living as her authentic self, in 1967 Toye opened Brisbane’s first true gay bar at the International Hotel in Boundary Street, Spring Hill.

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Prior to this a few hotels and coffee lounges tolerated homosexuals when business was less buoyant but insisted on a code of behaviour that ensured the atmosphere was superficially straight.

In 1968, Toye flexed her growing commercial power and journeyed a hundred or so metres up the road to the Alliance Hotel where she established the Moon Lounge in the pub cellar.

I was almost legal age (for alcohol consumption, despite working in hotels since the age of seven) and recall with great joy the opening night. Seagrass matting, plastic palms, cane chairs, Polynesian décor, dimly lit with coloured bulbs.

The beer was cold — the atmosphere hot. I found myself mesmerized by the amyl and a darkened back corner.

Later there was finger food and a show. In those days sound systems usually consisted of a record player or a reel-to-reel tape deck with small speakers.

Seizing on trends from Europe and the US, Toye installed the very latest equipment and the thumping music dragged in the punters.

Combining the tasks of barmaid, hostess and entertainer Toye’s unique style heralded by her cry “more noise, more noise” transformed Brisbane into BrisVegas and the city never looked back.

Convenor of crowds, crusader for causes… The middle years

In 1969 Toye lived in Twine Street, Spring Hill with her pommie boyfriend Ian, and Gloria Swanson’s sister Pam.

She opened another gay bar in Adelaide Street on lower level of the Union Club Hotel.

When your correspondent learnt that many of Brisbane’s most notorious queens resided in eleven of the twelve flats of Wickham Terrace’s Pink Palace, conveniently adjacent to Twine Street, I wasted no time renting a room in Flat 2 from the wonderful Shirley Bassey — not the Shirley Bassey, you understand, but Shirley Bassey, the Innisfail version.

Bernie, Sybil Von Thorndyke and Toye de Wilde at the 1987 Queens Ball
Bernie, Sybil Von Thorndyke and Toye de Wilde at the 1987 Queens Ball.

Toye’s relationship with Ian deteriorated and she fled to Melbourne to open a gay bar at the London Hotel.

Previously, ‘Madam’ (as I respectfully called her) generously took this blushing, junior bush princess under her wing and introduced me to Bill and Gloria Bothwell (Mrs B to the gay community) and I filled in at Toye’s job until it was safe for her to return (just under a year).

To celebrate that momentous occasion, I purchased a small black tennis frock and plastic jewellery from Coles for the “SHE’S BACK” party.

My chosen accoutrements prompted Dame Sybil von Thorndyke (longest resident of the Pink Palace) to christen me with the drag name I still answer to.

In 1971 Toye actively supported the formation of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP — also the word we used to describe ourselves — ‘gay’ was then considered an Americanism and rather low rent).

CAMP’s club rooms opened upstairs at 379 George Street after the initial meetings in Toye’s bar at the Alliance.

HIV/AIDS

The first meetings held by the community to discuss the onslaught of HIV were held with Toye’s support in 1983 in the back bar at the Alliance.

Her indefatigable support of Queensland AIDS Council during those dark days was as heroic as it was generous.

The meeting places Toye created for the rainbow community provided refuge and rallying points for our communities and information centres in the days before social media.

She was the much-loved agony aunt for desperate people with no one to talk to or cry with. She was our fundraiser in chief, our recruiter of volunteers, the hostess with the mostest at community functions.

Toye chaired and drove fundraising for the David Kopp Foundation for many years.

This community charity fundraised to ensure that Wattlebrae, the HIV/AIDS ward at Royal Brisbane Hospital, was adequately equipped and comfortable for the many members of our community who passed their last days there in the late 1980s and early 90s.

For many years Toye wrote a column for Queensland Pride, a rainbow community newspaper with a huge content and an enormous readership.

Her insightful and practical commentary on almost every issue of the day played a significant role in helping the rainbow constituency understand that it was a significant and powerful community.

Espousing values of common humanity, integrity and kindness she was the unpaid uber-social worker that enabled many of us to survive and prosper.

Politics

In 1987, Toye agreed to run as a candidate in the Merthyr by election. There was a hunger for huge social change in the air, the tide had begun to turn against Bjelke-Petersen’s rotten regime.

A collective of over fifty Rainbow volunteers distributed policy statements to letter boxes across the electorate.

Opponents disturbed by the candidacy of a ‘crossdressing, homosexual pervert’ tore down her election posters but volunteers quickly replaced them.

One event is seared into my memory. Toye attended a large ‘meet the candidate’ event at the Hacienda Hotel, a meeting designed as an opportunity for the media to ambush and publicly belittle the candidates.

Toye’s long history of controlling huge drunken audiences stood her in good stead to deal with a cynical media pack.

The veteran senior political journalist from Murdoch’s rag (the Courier-Mail) actually subsequently wrote praising Toye’s grasp of the issues and of her ability to manage hostile questioning with calm good humour.

In our hearts, we always knew our Rainbow candidate couldn’t win. Nevertheless, Toye did surprisingly well.

Far more importantly, she very publicly proved a broad range of points in the arena of public opinion and in doing so, once again, smashed numerous shibboleths.

She was the first trans person in Australia to run for public office. She exposed herself to potential ridicule as a person who politicians and many conservative and religious folk maintained had made poor, sinful life choices.

Members of the public and many in public office discovered to their amazement or chagrin that they were dealing with a highly intelligent person who was extremely well informed about issues of public concern and clearly more than capable of articulating the needs and representing her community in Queensland’s State Parliament.

The general public for the first time, became aware of her as a trans person. At this time very few trans people lived their reality full time, an overwhelming majority of trans folk were forced to cross dress rather than transition.

People came to know Toye as a very decent, if somewhat extraordinary person whose life was beyond their experience.

Many also learned that perhaps the hidden demi monde of the homosexual had a relationship with their own family that they had never suspected.

In between opening and running bars, Toye worked with the Les Girls troupe in Kings Cross and was a star guest at numerous Queen’s Birthday Balls.

She was one of the first trans entertainers in Australia to sing in their own voice.

For more than forty years it would be difficult to conceive a single community cause that did not rely on Toye to endorse, promote, recruit or fundraise.

Toye was never on anyone’s payroll — she gave so fully of herself from her enormous heart. Everything she did, and still does, is done for, and with, love.

I am perfectly aware of the effusiveness of the words chosen for this report. I do not regard them as overblown in the least.

I shamelessly intend conveying the fullness of my love and respect for a remarkable friend, Toye de Wilde.

I do not think it possible that anyone else in LGBTIQ Queensland history has been so universally loved and admired.

I cannot imagine that a single unkind word has ever been uttered by or about this unique woman.

No one I have spoken to has ever informed me of a report of bitterness or slander linked to her name. If there is ever to be a living example of how our lives should be lived it is hers.

A paean to a living treasure of Queensland

How fortunate are those who have known her,
how blessed are those who have been touched by her grace and compassion,
how light is the burden of those who come after her.
This woman is our saint.
We are privileged to witness the amazing Toye de Wilde
radiating serenity of spirit, calmness and clarity of mind
her words touch every listener’s soul,
generosity and sensitivity flow from her open heart
she inspires us to be better than we might have been.
For five decades community initiatives have enjoyed her patronage, her ethical advice, her enthusiastic and unstinting support
which lost soul has not been comforted by her warm embrace and sound advice?
We can only applaud and love you, Toye de Wilde … Mother of our Tribe