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Opinion: A Sydney ‘copshop’ with a dark history. And the gay community reclaiming it

Opinion by Gary Nunn

Sydney (CNN) — This week, the world’s biggest permanent LGBTQI+ museum will open in a venue that has, to say the least, raised eyebrows.

Qtopia, Sydney’s first center for LGBTQI+ history and culture, and Australia’s only queer museum, will be officially opened by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Friday at the former Darlinghurst Police Station.

Until now, a makeshift temporary museum was divided between several Sydney sites. But the move to a permanent home at the former police station has ruffled some feathers — especially amongst “‘78ers,” as they’re known.

These were the marchers in Sydney’s first ever Mardi Gras peaceful protest in 1978, which called for gay equality and a decriminalization of same-sex relations. Many marchers were brutally beaten by police. Fifty-three were arrested. Dozens were held in overcrowded cells at the Darlinghurst station.

“Darlo copshop has a very repressive, sometimes violent history,” ‘78er Steve Warren told me of the infamous police station.

“It has a history of torture to many diverse people, including me, and I feel I couldn’t go to a museum there,” another ‘78er Peter Murphy, who was arrested and beaten by police, also told me.

It was almost four decades later that the police made an official apology to the ‘78ers.

As my community’s solemnly respected elders — those who bravely fought for the freedom I enjoy today as a gay man — the ‘78ers are Australian gay royalty.

And they’re divided over the choice of venue for this landmark museum.

One cohort — including Warren and Murphy — describe this police station as “a site of routine, daily police bashings over decades — a state torture centre.”

A second, considerably larger cohort of ‘78ers, support the chosen venue. They spot an opportunity to reclaim a site of oppression, transforming it into one of remembrance and celebration. And, whilst respecting those who feel differently, it’s hard for me not to side with them.

The upcoming opening feels like the world’s most triumphant victory lap; a rare good news story for our times.

Qtopia has handled the sensitivities well. They’ve offered on-site therapists for those ‘78ers who wish to visit and videographers to record, off-site, the important stories of those who’d rather not.

A permanent place to learn and heal

There’s never been a more crucial time to record and display the stories and history of my LGBTQI community. Remaining elders were among the first to ever live ‘out’ lives.

Many mainstream museums have largely ignored LGBTQI history. Whilst visiting queer exhibitions do happen, my community deserves our own permanent spaces to learn, heal — and take heed.

Permanent LGBTQI museums are rare, relatively new and growing. Qtopia will be the world’s biggest by some way at 1,950 square meters, according to the museum’s press office. The next biggest is Berlin’s Schwules Museum at 1,600 square meters. Smaller venues have been opened in recent years in other cities, including San Francisco and London.

Qtopia’s historic opening will also happen in the same Australian state — New South Wales — which, two months ago, reported the findings of a world-first inquiry into homophobic hate crimes.

The Special Commission of Inquiry found that the deaths of 25 men between 1970 and 2010 — often, disgracefully, portrayed as acts of their own hand — were actually suspected LGBTQI+ hate crimes. Police were found to be “indifferent, negligent, dismissive or hostile” when dealing with such crimes — in some cases, losing key DNA evidence. Consequently, homophobic-hate motivated murderers could remain at large. It’s chilling.

Qtopia can now chart police failings towards LGBTQI+ victims in a former police station. This, folks, is what we call a full circle moment.

Next generation role models

Growing up gay, I was robbed of an entire generation of gay role models. They died of HIV, disproportionately higher suicide rates, or from homophobic violence.

If they lived, they led secret double lives — or remained closeted.

Hearing their stories will give meaning and context to my own past pain and shame. It’ll show me the community I missed growing up. And it’ll solidify the community my own LGBTQI+ generation is rebuilding from the embers, to give future generations both courage to be themselves and fair warning against complacency.

Those who survived have proven how they came from a generation poised to truly change the world.

One was David Polson, Qtopia’s founding chair, who undertook 28 grueling HIV drugs trials which helped discover combination therapy. His determination to honor his treating doctor will lead to a major HIV/AIDS memorial as part of Qtopia. It’ll remember those we lost — in addition to marking Australia’s “world-leading” HIV response which saved many lives.

Imprisoned simply for ‘being ourselves’

This police station is a symbol of gross injustice for the queer community because of the unfairness of the crimes for which they were arrested. Peaceful protest. Consensual private adult sex. Gay sex between men wasn’t decriminalised in New South Wales until 1984, 20 years behind many other countries. (That said, more than 60 countries around the world still criminalize same-sex sexual acts, including Uganda, Malaysia, Guyana, Dominica, Nigeria and Pakistan).

The law drove gay sex underground, and NSW police sent “young, attractive detectives” to act as agent provocateurs, enticing gay men with the prospect of sex in these very underground haunts. Police then arrested them for “homosexual offenses.” This entrapment happened during my lifetime. It ruined lives. (The police have not commented on the entrapment allegations).

Many arrested gay men were sent to Cooma — the world’s only known jail for gay men — also in New South Wales. Former employees told “The Greatest Menace” podcast that psychologists were sent in to “cure” gay prisoners of homosexuality. (The state government and police have not commented on the allegations).

How fitting that the same state to host the world’s only known homosexual prison will host the world’s biggest homosexual museum. Another triumphant full circle moment — and one that will be officially opened by a pro-LGBTQI+ prime minister who has voted consistently for same-sex marriage equality.

My gay community finally gets to tell their own history in a venue that imprisoned and beat us for simply being ourselves. And in a country which, in living memory, tried to “cure” and eradicate us.

David hasn’t just won over Goliath. He’s making Goliath host the victory party.

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