Toby Gay Brisbane 80's changing LGBT Queensland History via Fitzgerald Inquiry

Changing gay history

For better or worse, I (inadvertently) was directly involved in changing the face and fabric of LGBT history in Queensland, Australia, by creating and positioning The Beat publicly loud and proud, at a time when it was illegal to be gay while police and government were desperate to squash us.

Cockatoo Club iconic Gay bar in BrisbaneI was Founder and Manager of The Beat, which was created by dramatically expanding the old Cockatoo Club at the time owned by Tony Bellino where I was working.   Tony found that his Cockatoo Club licensor/manager, who had a history of insurance scams, now had his hand deep in the till to pay his drug habit.  Tony sold the Cockatoo Club to his brother Geraldo (Gerry/Geri) and Vittorio (Vic) Conte, in late 1983 at which time Vic and Gerry wanted a “clean” start with a fresh new young GM, so I was engaged as Founding Manager to establish and operate the new expanded space using a restaurant license to allow us to sell alcohol.

I had previously worked as bar manager at the Cockatoo Club for about a year, and had received my diploma in hospitality management, so I was elevated to the top job overnight, and with Vic and Gerry’s blessing (and budget), created an extremely theatrical nightclub space within the gay Brisbane Fortitude Valley club space, that over the years grew and physically expanded to be the infamous super mega-club.

Beat Club Vittorio Vic Conte Geraldo Gerry Geri Bellino entering courtClose by at 648 Ann Street, Tony Bellino also owned Pinocchio’s Restaurant (formerly Kitty’s Nightclub) and ran a gambling den upstairs managed by Luciano Scognamiglio.  The Red Garter bordello was across the access lane.  Gerry Bellino and Vic Conte also owned The Roxy (in partnership with Robert Chan at 210 Brunswick St), Manhattan (201 Brunswick St), Bubbles Bath-House (142 Wickham St), Oriental Social Club (235 Brunswick St) and the World By Night strip club (548 Queen St).

My club faced notoriety in the Brisbane nightlife scene, due to my owner/investors Vic & Gerry (fair and encouraging, yet very hands-off bosses) who years later would be under investigation for running illegal gambling clubs and massage parlors, and for how “out” we were, flagrantly proud to be gay (friendly). Combined, this partially resulted in unveiling a long trail of police corruption, assisted toppling the Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, and which started a chain of events that changed Queensland’s political landscape and brought in a new era of change to eradicate anti-gay laws, and forced Queensland to step in line with rest of country.

In the early 80’s, other gay bars included the Terminus (249 Brunswick St), Alliance Hotel/Ambush Bar (320 Boundary St), Zuloos Bar/Hacienda Hotel (Brunswick & McLaughlin St) and The Sportsman Hotel (130 Leichhardt St).  Each of these bars had a typically loyal and regular customer set, and generally would keep a low profile to fly under the radar.

THE BEAT club iconic Gay bar in BrisbaneAt a time when it was illegal to be gay, and against a backdrop of the Queensland Government creating laws specially to shut down gay bars, The Beat decided to be bolder, stronger and louder in the community, and not hide that it was a gay bar.  This was intentional, partially to divert attention away from the other business operations of my investors.

We decided to make the gay symbol at the time — the pink triangle (we were well before the rainbow flag was adopted) — the centerpiece of it’s logo (which I created) and painted it on the exterior of the building facade — it made no secret of what The Beat was — and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders over time, joined us.  The Beat is located at 677 Ann Street in the Fortitude Valley, one of the main streets of Brisbane, and nearly everyone coming to Brisbane from the northern suburbs or the airport would drive right past our pink triangled facade. For legal reasons I incorporated the words “mixed party” onto my logo design.

Historical perspective…

Australia was a rough and tough country in it’s cultural history.  In Queensland, same-sex sexual activity between men was considered a capital crime, resulting in the execution (by hanging) of people convicted of sodomy (although not practiced for many years). Different jurisdictions gradually began to reduce the death penalty for sodomy to life imprisonment.

Queensland Typical Metre MaidAt the time in the 80’s, the general media would glorify women as objects of desire, including full page color spreads of bikini girls in major papers.  ‘Meter Maids’ wearing only only bikinis would be hired to walk the streets and put coins in peoples parking meters to avoid tickets.  Pubs had separate rooms and entrances for women.  Society was seemingly, weirdly, segregated — the “blokes” who did the hard yakka (work) and their “sheilas” who would service their blokes.  It was all a little like parts of the middle east today.

Queensland Women in pubsAustralian culture evolved quickly out of this, but Queensland (& Tasmania) were behind the rest of the country.

Queensland derived its criminal law from the UK including the prohibition of “buggery” and “gross indecency” between males.  While other states in Australia fixed their anti-gay laws in the 1970’s/1980’s, Queensland was ruled by the conservative ‘National Party’ led by Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.  His government actively used homophobia for electoral advantage, linking all gay men to paedophilia & asserting all gay men are morally deviant.  At this time, government policy was very hostile – at the height of The Beat‘s success, in 1985, the government passed an amendment to the Liquor Act making it an offense to serve alcohol to “deviants, sexual perverts or child molesters” (with determination of definition to be up to the individual police officer) or to allow them to remain on licensed premises.

Anti-gay laws were intensly enforced by Queensland police throughout the 1980s, (lesbian activity was always legal).  Indeed some police would come to The Beat for “poofta hunts” [‘poofta’ being Aussie derogatory slang for gay] and turned a blind eye to “poofta bashings” – a common problem in Brisbane at the time – particularly in our back alley (which I coined “Lucky Lane” as a triple entendre based on adjacent Lucky’s Trattoria (whose owner Luciano was nicknamed “Lucky”) the “L” shape of the delivery lane, and the outdoor sex that would occur in our dark shattered beer bottle, used syringe and potholed rocky service alley – i.e. getting ‘Lucky’).  Some police detectives, out of uniform, would return to the The Beat later in the night to drink and have fun.  It was a weird experience.

The Beat club was, and is, iconic in gay AustraliaThe Bjelke-Petersen Government intended that the new licensing law be used to refuse service to gay men — and centred it on the 2 major gay venues in Brisbane — the Terminus and The Beat.  Police raids intensified.  Our payoffs with cash envelopes, cases of liquor and slabs of beer to local police, including the vice squad, softened the blow, but occasionally we had to be ‘seen to loose’ — so we would negotiate a Monday or Tuesday evening for a future raid, and ensure the club was had a smattering of lesbians and straight looking people that night.

It became a game of “us” vs “them” —  the “them” being the police, the politicians, the poofta bashers and often, our own families.   This stupid game helped however, helped solidify a gay Brisbane community united in just wanting acceptance.  The more the government and police pushed us, the more brazen we would become.

Queensland National Party politicians such as Geoff Muntz and Ian Sinclair made their anti-gay views very vocal, with Sinclair claiming that the Labor Party’s failure to condemn homosexuality was helping to spread HIV.  Then Welfare Services Minister Geoff Muntz said “homosexuals indulge in a deviant lifestyle” and did not think gay people should be allowed in public swimming pools. “You’ll never hear of a gay mardi gras or gay swimming carnival in Queensland.” Muntz said at the time.

Fear of HIV and AIDS were at their height in the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen Government used this fear to increase homophobic sentiment and demonize gay people further.

Action in changing gay rights

It was a rather ridiculous to-and-fro war played out on the streets of the Fortitude Valley, with larger and larger pay-offs to corrupt greedier and greedier police officials and politicians.   Various celebrities made The Beat an ‘in-place’ late at night after a local concert to unwind in relative privacy and/or show their support against the ridiculous antiquarian silliness of the government.  Drag queens upped their fabulous couture to hang around conservative cathedral doorsteps in their churchgoing finest on the Sunday mornings.  Young gay boys started to become activists, protesting the Queensland government and forming gay rights groups or joining local Queensland chapters of National Groups such as Campaign Against Moral Persecution (C.A.M.P.), fashion designers incorporated pink triangles into leather jackets and Beat customers brought VHS recorders to the club to videotape the police.

We stored signage and made space available upstairs of The Beat for creation of protest signage and banners.   Even journalists would regularly come to The Beat hoping to catch a police action against our customers or us.  Sometimes these journalists were friends, sometimes they were just after “the back story”.  One female investigative journalist from the ABC is a close friend on mine to this day.

ABC Four Corners journalist Chris Masters reporting on The Moonlight StateQueensland Courier Mail print journalist Phil Dickie and ABC TV Four Corners The Moonlight State (May 1987) reporter Chris Masters (who came up from Sydney to investigate) were likely the most famous for researching and reporting stories on organised crime and police corruption, with a substantial monthly bribery trail (called “The Joke“) which led to The Fitzgerald Inquiry.

The Courier Mail reporting in the Fitzgerald Inquiry how pay offs worked aka The Joke from 1979 until 1987Jack Herbert, known as “the Bagman” reportedly collected more than $3 million in protection money that allowed illegal gambling and prostitution to flourish in Brisbane as part of The Joke which would come crashing down after a series of stories in The Courier Mail newspaper and the broadcast of The Moonlight State on Four Corners in May 1987.  Herbert would become the Fitzgerald Inquiry’s star witness, telling all in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

I should also be clear that around this time, I was asked (not by Gerry or Vic, but rather by a vice-squad policeman) to help matchup Phil Dickie or Chris Masters with an underage date, presumably, to use as a silencing tactic — I never followed through.  It was around this time I saw the writing on the wall to leave, since the ‘wagons were circling’ a little too close to home.

In addition to owning the The Beat, and other clubs, Gerry and Vic ‘apparently’ owned illegal casinos and massage parlors and admitted making $1 million a year from gambling while police turned a blind eye.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry