Under the mango tree at Rusty’s Pub in Cairns


Rusty's Pub
The Author and friends at Rusty's Pub

Rusty’s Pub in Cairns was once the sole gathering place for the far northern LGBTIQA+ communities. And what a place it was!

On Saturday nights during the late 80s and early 90s, the beer garden of the old pub hosted the weekly Gay Night. By beer garden, I actually mean a patch of dirt out the back. And by dirt, I mean dirt, or in the wet season, mud.

A huge mango tree dominated the space. Squeals from fruit bats fighting over mangoes interspersed the disco beat.

Visiting academic Dennis Altman wrote of the place, “It looks like the part of a pub where they hose down the derros after closing time.”

It did. But Rusty’s was great fun regardless.

The venue began originally in a room upstairs. In the early eighties, Pat O’Hara, a local woman with a gay son and many gay friends, asked the pub owner about a space for gay people to party in safety. The owner also had a gay son and agreed. He told her the gays could do what they liked with the space.

They didn’t need to be told twice. Dormie McIvor, a former Sydney nightclub owner took charge of design. Jackie Frost, another local woman with a lot of gay friends, was dating a carpenter. They tore down walls, built new partitions and installed lighting. Finally, they painted the room pink.

However, by 1985, the local LGBTIQ+ community outgrew the room and moved downstairs to the beer garden for the weekly Gay Night.

But it wasn’t called that. Dearie me, no.

Officially, it was a gathering of the Cairns Hospitality Industry Social Club (CHISC). Homosexuality remained illegal and the Bjelke-Petersen government refused to register homosexual organisations. So the membership of CHISC consisted of gays, lesbians and some prominent local straight allies.

Ted Kelk

My then-partner and I first attended Rusty’s on a Saturday in late 1987, having arrived in town earlier that day. Entry was via a lounge bar, empty except for a single table. Behind the table, an elderly lady and Ted Kelk.

Ted would go on to form the Queensland Association for Gay Law Reform. The former closeted school teacher had tested positive for AIDS the year before. After a 40-year career, he quit teaching and came roaring out of the closet determined to spend his remaining time fighting for gay rights.

We asked if we were in the right place, the gay bar. Ted barely glanced up from his book.

“No.”

“Are you sure? We heard it was here.”

“No. This is a private function for the Cairns Hospitality Industry Social Club.”

Because of concerns about the police in that remote tropical outpost, CHISC required non-members to be signed in by two existing members. Luckily, someone walked by I’d known years before in Brisbane and vouched for us.

Once in the door, we discovered the inside section consisted of a bar, a few sheets of masonite thrown down as a the dance floor and a jukebox wired to speakers. With no DJ, the music selection was truly democratic. Patrons dropped 20 cents into the jukebox and chose a song. It worked well except when some drunk dropped in five coins and chose the same song, usually Bohemian Rhapsody, five times in a row. Wonderful song but who wants to keep dancing to the same song over and over? Only very drunk people. So, we drank and we danced.

Most of the space and the seating was outside under the giant mango tree. In its upper limbs, squealing flying foxes fought over fruit. Occasionally, a half-eaten mango plummeted into the chatting, carousing and cruising crowd below. An annoyance to most of the patrons. But it didn’t matter if the seed landed among the frizzled tresses of a notorious Tully drag queen. That abundant mass of plastic thatch had seen better days.

“Why don’t you get a new wig,” she was often asked, “That one looks like a half-sucked mango.”

DJs and Drag Queens

In later years, the night featured DJs and drag queens. During the nineties, as older committee members retired, CHISC endured ups and downs. All the usual community organisation shenanigans. But the night survived until the opening of a commercial gay bar around the corner.

And sure, the new bar had carpet, professional sound and lighting and clean toilets. But somehow, it was never quite as much fun as dancing ankle-deep in mud under that old mango tree.

For more Cairns history check out Ian Byford’s Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns.

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, Instagram and YouTube.

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3 Comments

  1. Cath
    17 July 2022
    Reply

    And then at night’s end the affectionately termed “ugly lights” would come on….. and yes “I’m a friend of Dorothy” …..much love

  2. Adrian
    17 July 2022
    Reply

    Thanks for this historical information, would be nice to do another feature of how it is today as a comparison

  3. tony walsh
    19 July 2022
    Reply

    i moved to cairns in 1987 from melbourne where i had been out on the gay scene since late 1973.
    initially a culture shock, but having holidayed here 4 times earlier before i moved here, i soon adjusted.
    sat nights at rustys were great nights and now in 2022 i’m still living here, but the gay scene like most places has pretty much died away, but i have many great memories of my gay life here in cairns.

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