Destiny Rogers recalls a misspent youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. In the mid-1970s, she met some of Brisbane’s most exotic creatures — the drag queens of Fortitude Valley.
About quarter past ten every Saturday night, the jeering and catcalling began. It only ever lasted about five minutes. Generally busy reading a book, I never took any notice. I knew where the noise emanated though.
Most of the Sunday Sun newspaper comprised of magazine-style content printed in advance. On Saturdays, we printed the outside wrap — front cover, inside front, back cover and inside back. Later that night, the building came alive as hordes of male teenagers worked a conveyor belt and assembled the completed publication.
Indeed, it was those young men who made the racket at quarter past ten every Saturday night.
On one of those nights, I partnered with an older, very straight-laced gentlemen who usually only worked weekdays. For Errol, the 1960s and 1970s never happened. Perhaps the times were changing, but not for him.
He seemed oblivious to my various oddities. Unlike fellow workers, he never commented on my bleached and permed hair. He apparently never noticed my plucked eyebrows or observed that I wore blouses, not shirts.
He also never inquired after my sexuality. Sex was not a subject he tolerated, leading to a hush almost every time he entered a room.
But on this Saturday night, the subject arose.
The catcalling began right on time at 10.15 pm.
“Goodness me,” he said, “Don’t tell me those homosexuals still parade down the street every Saturday night.”
“The homosexuals. They leave that bar across the road and parade down the street in women’s clothing. What an unholy spectacle! That’s what the boys are calling out at.”
“Really?” I asked as I bolted out the door.
I reached the windows at the front of the building just in time to glimpse the tail end of a small gaggle of drag queens crossing Ann St.
Within weeks I joined them.
The Fortitude Valley Drag Queens
Of course, I’d already seen Freda, Amy and Marina at Romeo’s and even spoken to them after their show at the Silver Dollar.
But after learning about the Siesta Bar, I quickly talked my friend K into taking me there. It turned out she had at least passing acquaintance with many of the regulars. After initial introductions, I was invited on a date to go op-shopping.
Drag queens loved op-shops. Even a quarter of a decade later, Freda still welcomed other drag queens into any bar in which she was ensconced with the same greeting.
“Here — Sister!”
Then she’d point frantically at whatever ‘new’ item she was wearing.
“Lifeline — Two dollar.”
She never embraced the plural of dollar. Freda regarded spending multiple dollars on a single garment as wildly extravagant. She also only paid in coins at second-hand shops. Notes would feel like throwing money away.
Drag queens of the Valley: Freda
Freda worked during the day as a hairdresser. In fact, as President of the Master Hairdressing Association, she judged hair shows all around the state — but out of drag. She was one of the very few out gay men in those days, though not really by choice. After her early 1950s arrest by future Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, the Brisbane Truth plastered her face across its front cover, in and out of drag. (She never forgave me for that, despite the fact I only began work at the renamed paper more than two decades later.)
Freda owned a hair salon at Stones Corner. La Moderne was anything but modern. She specialised in blue rinses and perms for pensioners. In the days of less advanced hair dyes, mature ladies covered grey hair with either blue or pink rinses. Sometimes purple… though not intentionally.
Many people on the gay scene despised the old girl, and for good reason. She had a cutting tongue and enjoyed renown as a mean cantankerous old bitch. But for some reason, I seemed to get on okay with her.
A new family
Suddenly I had a new family. They welcomed me in and embraced me. There was no audition, no probationary period and no initiation. Simply if you were gay, lesbian, drag, full-time drag (trans women), a sex-change (trans women who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery) or of any other diverse sexuality or identity, you were family.
And what a family it was.
J was a short, beautiful woman with red curly hair cascading down over her shoulders. I was gobsmacked to learn she was a sex-change. She seemed no different to the other lesbians she hung with.
“Why does she hang around with lesbians?” I asked in my ignorance.
“Because she’s a lesbian.”
And so began my education in the glorious diversity of human sexuality and identity.
People struggle to understand sexuality and identity because we so often judge everything from our own perspective. We assume everyone wants what we want… or should. One of the greatest failings of a supposedly intelligent creature! Anyway, at least I was not the only person who struggled to believe J was a trans woman.
She hung with a tough mob and previously fronted court for housebreaking.
The police conspired to provoke the magistrate into handing down a harsher sentence by shocking him with the announcement of her gender.
When the gorgeous diminutive woman took her place in the dock, the prosecutor introduced her by her birth name.
The magistrate was shocked alright. Shocked that the police could believe this beautiful woman was a man. He dismissed the case and refused any further discussion.
“Utter nonsense,” he muttered in his last words on the subject.
Crime was no biggie for us.
We were criminals by virtue of our sexuality whether we committed any real crimes or not. Certainly, society and the police treated us as such. So be it.
We all knew who our own community crims were.
Merv was infamous. A life-long crim, he gained notoriety for his flawed logic. He once decided he wanted to pull off a big job. The big money, he knew, was locked away in safes. So, if he could find a lot of safes, he would find a lot of money. The police found him on the roof of the Chubb safe factory. Apparently, he failed to comprehend in his drunken stupor, that safes are not manufactured already containing money. That gets placed there sometime later.
I stumbled across Merv’s name just a few years ago. On a visit to the State Archives I requested a single document I needed for some research, and as often happened, received the entire box of documents it resided in. Glancing through the contents, I discovered the box contained embargoed documents from the Fitzgerald inquiry.
Making hay while the sun shone, I disregarded what I came for and dove into the Fitzgerald trove.
Merv’s name came up via an interview with a young homeless man he befriended and took in. Eager to impress his quarry with his criminal bonafides, Merv confided in him about the pornographic movies he claimed to recruit talent for on behalf of the local ‘gay mafia’. The movies supposedly starred Valley street kids. I chuckled as I read the names of the alleged gay mafia. While one, in particular, was not averse to criminal activity, the idea of these guys cooperating with each other on anything was hysterical. They fucking hated each other.
Anyway, the kid sold the information to investigators, who subsequently hauled Merv in for questioning. Merv kept his trap shut until he learned the kid made money out of the story. So he then embellished the fuck out of the tale himself in search of a quick buck. He described pornographic snuff movies with young homeless men paid to have sex on film and then killed as the cameras continued to roll.
While I couldn’t help but chuckle that the investigators seemed to take his bullshit seriously, I also realised what a difficult task the inquiry must have been. How much nonsense did fantasists like Merv feed investigators, that they needed to sift through to reach the truth?
Then there was Peter, one of the best-looking men that ever graced the Valley. He could be a Hollywood movie star, said everyone, over and over. He was straight, although all his relationships were with men, mainly drag queens. Sadly for his career in crime, his drug use meant he often fell asleep on jobs. His most recent arrest at the time, occurred when police found him asleep behind the counter of Wallace Bishop at two in the morning with $10,000 worth of jewellery in his pockets.
He lived for a while with Harriet, one of the most eccentric characters Brisbane drag ever saw.
Drag queens of the Valley: Harriet
Harriet came of age around the time of World War II. She cherished memories of servicing American servicemen in public facilities in Queen Street.
Disabled as a child by polio, Harriet used a crutch to walk. She also had diminished hearing and eyesight, wearing thick reading glasses and a hearing aid. On top of all that, she had a speech impediment.
Luckily, she enjoyed the support of a loving mother and none of those disadvantages stopped her living a full life.
A couple of years later I shared a flat with Harriet and Chris, a beat queen from Tully. I knew very little about beats, but Chris regularly made a courtesy call at a public convenience after working the nightshift as a nurse.
A police raid
Once, I woke in the middle of the night with police in my room. They’d nabbed Chris on a beat — good enough excuse to search our home.
“I’ve got to be at work at seven in the morning,” I told a burly young cop, meaning to take full advantage of my place of employment.
“Oh, squeal like a bitch,” he said, “We’re still searching the place.”
Harriet usually locked her bedroom door. Because of her impaired hearing, she couldn’t hear anyone knocking.
Disappointed to not find drugs elsewhere in the flat, the cops were determined to search her room. Thus, the burly young cop climbed out a third-floor window and reached a leg over onto her balcony.
After gaining access, he opened the door and we looked in to see Harriet disoriented and confused. She looked on in a daze as the copper searched her room.
He lifted something out of a bedside drawer and said, “What the fuck is this?”
We all looked curiously at the long slender object — Chris, myself, the cops and Harriet. She seemed to have snapped out of her daze. In fact, she looked quite flushed.
Suddenly, we all comprehended what the copper had in his hand. A peeled cucumber, lavishly coated in Vaseline from the jar atop Harriet’s bedside table and showing visible signs of use as an anal sex toy.
As our mouths dropped open, the cop flung the cucumber across the room and squealed like a bitch.
I enjoyed that… immensely.
Harriet only indulged in anal sex. She thought oral sex disgusting.
“I don’t know how you can put those filthy things in your mouth,” she often told me.
“That coming from someone who ensured I can never again put a cucumber in my mouth in this house,” I responded.
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