Steve Ostrow OAM’s memorial to be held on April 13

Mature Age Gays founder Steve Ostrow OAM in 2021. Photo: supplied.

Steve Ostrow dedicated years of service to the Sydney LGBTQIA+ community after moving to Australia in his 50s.

Mature Age Gays (MAG) social group founder and Medal of the Order of Australia recipient Steve Ostrow died in his retirement home aged 91 on February 4 and will be remembered as a pillar of the LGBTQIA+ community in Sydney for many years to come.

Ostrow was bisexual and was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in September of 1932 where he served as a cantor in his local synagogue.

Later in life he would speak of the “confusion and frustrations” he had often felt as a bisexual man, “not understood by the gay or the straight world.”

As a young man he studied singing at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan before joining the New York City Opera.

There he met the American opera singer Joanne King who was his co-star in La Bohème.

They married in 1960 and had two children, Scott Ostrow and Maria Jaul, before divorcing in the 1980s.

The Continental

In 1968, Steve Ostrow opened The Continental Baths in the basement of New York’s The Ansonia Hotel, which quickly became the most popular gay venue in the city.

Ostrow opened The Continental after witnessing the conditions in other New York gay bathhouses, which he would later describe as “”sleazy, secretive, unkempt, not to mention unfriendly.”

Ostrow had a different vision, of “a gay fantasia,” “a palace devoted to hedonism,” reminiscent of “the glory of ancient Rome.”

There was a line to get in that snaked around the corner from the opening night and some patrons would boast of having 150 sexual encounters in a single visit.

Ostrow also installed a stage for DJs that some have claimed to be the first of its kind in the world and had Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles spinning tunes for patrons.

He also had live performers at The Continental and is credited with kickstarting the careers of stars including Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Labelle, The Manhattan Transfer and Peter Allen among many others.

Mildler and Manilow would perform together, with Manilow on piano, and Midler debuted her early hit Friends at The Continental and later released an album inspired by them, Bathhouse Betty.

However the popularity of the entertainment at The Continental was a two edged sword for the venue and the gay crowd dwindled as more and more straight people began attending for the shows.

Ostrow cancelled the live music at The Continental in 1974 but it was too late for the venue and it ultimately closed in 1976.

Recalling The Baths in 2007, Ostrow wrote, “The Continental was a phenomenon that came out of a pre-AIDS world that we will probably never experience again.”

“But more than just being a bathhouse and showplace, The Baths were a place where people came out of their closets and found out who they were. It was the first gay establishment to treat gay people as equals and not exploit them.

“It was instrumental in having the laws against homosexuality rescinded and gave birth, along with Stonewall, to a whole generation where gay was in.

“Beyond that it ushered in an era of sexual liberation and alternative lifestyles that, to this day, has never been equaled.”

Life in Australia

Ostrow had continued his career as a performer in parallel to operating The Continental and performed in operas for major music companies including the San Francisco Opera, Germany’s Stuttgart Opera and the Australian Opera which ultimately lead to him moving to Sydney in 1987 following his divorce.

In Sydney he worked as a vocal coach director at the Sydney Academy of Vocal Arts after eight years with the Ausralian Opera, before founding the group Mature Age Gays as a safe place where older gay, men could meet and socialise on his 59th birthday on September 16, 1991.

“Once AIDS came in, I became a volunteer operator on the hotline for ACON, the AIDS Council of NSW,” he recalled in 2013.

As part of that community work, Ostrow was tasked with identifying the needs and concerns of gay men over 40.

“Most of the health campaigns back then focused on young men, telling them ‘wear a condom, wear a condom,’” he said.

“However what [the men over 40 were more concerned about] was isolation, loneliness, estrangement from family and loss of partners.”

Ostrow remained president of Mature Age Gays until 2013 and also worked and volunteered for ACON over many years as well as being an LGBTQIA+ rights activist.

Ash Rehn, a former Education Manager at ACON in the early 2000s, recalled being given the task of convincing Ostrow to take his annual leave which had been accumulating over a number of years.

“Steve sat me down and gave me a brief history of his life,” Rehn wrote, following Ostrow’s passing.

“He didn’t have to do that and I’m grateful that he did. Not only did he have a clear rationale behind the way he went about his projects, he had commitment as well. He was a standout guy. If Steve wanted to do something, he was going to do it.”

“They can stop paying me but I won’t stop working!” Rehn recalled Ostrow telling him.

“That was who he was. I think we came to some arrangement about reducing hours on paper that, thankfully, I didn’t have to monitor. I hope he continues to be an inspiration to others both within and outside of the organisation.”

In 2007 Ostrow released his memoir Live at The Continental: The Inside Story of the World-Famous Continental Baths and in 2021 he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his work advancing LGBTQIA+ rights causes throughout his life.

Ostrow remembered

ACON President Nicolas Parkhill said Ostrow’s death was being felt throughout the organisation.

“Steve’s passing is being felt by many at ACON given his time with us, and it’s a sad and great loss for our community as a whole,” Parkhill said.

“Steve was a longstanding and much-loved member of the team at ACON during the late 1980s and early 90s, where he volunteered on support helplines and worked on safer sex campaigns during the most harrowing and challenging times of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“Steve was also a pioneer for many in our communities. He established the Mature Aged Gays project in 1991 – an organisation of which continues to flourish today and provide much needed support for older men in our communities.

“Many of us at ACON feel lucky to have met and worked alongside Steve, and we remain incredibly grateful for, and will never forget, all the work that he did for our communities, not to mention his charm, kindness, flair, and compassion.”

Mature Age Gays will celebrate their 33rd anniversary in September.

-A memorial service for Steve Ostrow OAM will be held on Saturday, April 13 at Pitt Street Uniting Church from 2pm to 4pm

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Andrew M Potts

Andrew has been covering LGBTQIA+ issues for a range of publications in Australia over two decades and was the Asia-Pacific correspondent for global LGBTQIA+ news website Gay Star News.

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

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