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The Mardi Gras Road Trip

Bernie's Bar, Newcastle, 1970s

If you are off to Sydney for Mardi Gras, chances are you will pass a rich bit of LGBTQIA+ history on the way. Here is the history worth stopping for, writes Hannah Head.

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Flicking through the collections from the Hunter Rainbow History Group, Newcastle’s rich and extensive queer history is dazzling. Highlighting both the vibrancy and pain of the LGBTQIA+ experience, Newcastle shows two opposing sides of the queer experience. 

Visiting Bernie’s Bar is a must. Located in the Star Hotel building, the LGBTQIA+ dedicated space is more than just a place to dance. The best part of Bernie’s is its history. The bar gets its name from another well-loved piece of LGBTQIA+ nightlife, a wine bar well-loved by the 1970s queer scene. The current Bernie’s is located in the Star Hotel building, home to one of Australia’s largest riots. 

Introduced as a safe space for patients and relatives, the John Hunter Hospital AIDS Memorial Garden was established on World AIDS Day 1994. In 2000, a time capsule was buried in the AIDS Memorial Garden containing up to date research on AIDS, to be opened 2025. 


If you are passing through Canberra, take a moment to appreciate the powerful history of the capital. If you have a spare two hours, consider taking an LGBTQIA+ History Tour by She Shapes History.

If you want a bite, Tilley’s Devine Cafe Gallery has a fabulous history. Named after a gangster, brothel owner, and one of Sydney’s wealthiest women, Tilley’s was established as a women’s only space. Restricting the entry of men created a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people to meet, particularly lesbians.

A very special stop on your rainbow history road trip is the AIDS Garden of Reflection. Located at the National Arboretum, the garden was created as a comfortable space for contemplation and reflection. On your visit you may meet Rachel, the original campaigner that put in over 20 years of effort to ensure a Canberra garden was established. Take a seat, feel the breeze and listen to the story of those that came before.


Once awarded by student’s 2004 Homophobic University of the Year, the University of Wollongong has been home to brilliant moments of queer rebellion. In 2000, after being displaced by new development at the university, the queer collective was placed in an off-campus repurposed garage with no security. Despite reports to the uni of death threats, rape threats, harassment and intimidation, no effort was made to protect group members. In 2004, a man attempted to set fire to a member in the queer space, prompting the group to occupy a campus function room in a campaign to be rehomed. After 47 hours, three group members remained when eight riot police broke into the room and violently arrested the activists. A year after the students were charged with trespassing, the university announced a new queer space on campus.



Though prison is often the last place you would consider stopping on a road trip, Cooma once was home to the world’s only prison for gay men. With misinformation rife about the purpose of the prison, a recent podcast series highlighted its use as a human testing space to eradicate homosexuality. For an impactful history lesson, take a look at the Cooma Corrective Services Museum and listen to the podcast ‘The Greatest Menace’.



Whether you go to Tamworth, or simply send a letter that way, the story of Vernon Marshall will sit with you. In 1972, Vernon Marshall advertised a post box in the local newspaper. The mailbox was established for the Camp-Gay Liberation Movement Tamworth with local LGBTQIA+ people writing to the box. The mailbox provided a space for community, solidarity, and liberation. When questioned if the box was being used for homosexual acts, Vernon assured the postmaster it would be very difficult to perform a homosexual act in a mailbox. 

In mid-2023, the mailbox was re-established. PO Box 727 is now dedicated to the letters once received by Vernon, providing a safe space for queer people to connect and find resources. 


The Northern Rivers has a rich tapestry of LGBTQIA+ love, defiance and activism. Tweed Regional Museum hosts Small Town Queer, an intensive lesson into the queer history of the region. The region was home to Australia’s first gay commune, a space described as ‘harmonious, vegetarian and ecologically sound’.


Port Macquarie 

On a remote mountain top near Port Macquarie lies Amazon Acres. The women-only community established in the mid ’70s banned meat, men and machines. The group divided the local community, with some seeing the group as a threat to the local way of life. Though now disbanded, the area remains a healing space for many, with 400 hectares of bush and views.