By Iki Minogue
Oxtravaganza is a conglomeration of local artists and businesses coming together to celebrate the gayest suburbs in Sydney, and the gayest night in Sydney. Spread across Darlinghurst and Potts Point, from Friday, February 18 through till Sunday, March 6, Oxtravaganza elongates the pulsating energy the city shines with during the time of Mardi Gras. Whether you are interested in visual or performance art, speed dating, cabaret, supporting local bars, having a gay bevvy, or a discount on retail-you will find something at this celebration of the historical area, and the locals who add to its rich cultural makeup.
In 2020 it was decided to move the ever loud, bold and fierce parade of Mardi Gras from Oxford Street in an attempt to keep the event more COVIDsafe, the first time Mardi Gras was celebrated away from the legendary Oxford Street since the epic conception of the parade in 1978. But this did not stop the local businesses and local hooligans from coming together to celebrate and collaborate through their passion project, Oxtravaganza. In fact Oxtravaganza was one of the first COVIDsafe outdoor events which occurred in 2020, unintentionally paving the way for other outdoor events which later followed, showing that the gaycommunity remains innovative and ahead in many different ways.
Like many others, the local businesses of Darlinghurst have been greatly affected by COVID, but there are contesting narratives on whether it can be seen wholly as negative or positive for the community. One local business owner tells us that residents and business owners greatly feel the absence of the once bustling nightlife which is now replaced with a loud silence as we all wait to return to some semblance of normalcy post COVID. He tells us that over the last two years, Oxtravaganza has helped the local community come together, lifting the spirits of locals and small business owners who have otherwise struggled both with the effects of COVID and with the decision to move the Mardi Gras parade away from Oxford Street. During the two weeks of Oxtravaganza the area once again see’s people gathering on the street, flowing in and out of the local stores and bars – both creating and enjoying the colourful and vivacious energy that Oxford Street is well known for.
Speaking to another local business owner however, we talk about the different creative ways the gay and queer communities of the area have had to adapt and grow due to dancing restrictions, a lack of a nightlife, and restrictions on large numbers gathering indoors. As a community which has historically, and with tangible reason, gathered around dance and live music, the ban on dancing has encouraged queer locals to innovate and approach connecting with community in a new and different way, reaffirming the many different ways there are to connect. This has taken shape via local performance artists partnering with local bars as opposed to the larger venues they may have hired in the past. Or visual artists choosing to showcase in local retail stores, all strengthening the bonds within the gaybourhood.
This strengthening of community is very much in line with Oxtravaganza’s purpose, having started off with one local business owner who had a small grant he didn’t feel was fair to spend solely on his own business, thus choosing to spread it across the local businesses, in a Mean Girls Spring Queen crown moment. This notion for building community and supporting each other continues to this day, an ethos popular amongst the board being that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’. The board consists of almost a couple of hundred volunteers, mostly small businesses around Darlinghurst, who are all dedicated to supporting each other, keeping Oxford Street alive and bustling, and keeping the spirit of community alive and gay.
Oxtravaganza and the celebration of Mardi Gras in the areas of Potts Point and Darlinghurst are extremely valuable and important to both local residents and the broader gay and queer community. AlthoughOxtravaganza serves to highlight the areas rich queer heritage, there is still space in the festival for younger queers. Program director Lorraine Locke has done an incredible job of connecting with a younger cache of artists and highlighting the fresh approach they can bring to these spaces. For example, you can experience the renaissance of drag at Chingalings on Sunday, February 27 and see the range of talent present in the younger generation who will carry forward the work of those who cemented what is now known as the celebration of Mardi Gras.
Sydney’s relationship with its queer identity is rotted in the suburbs of Darlinghurst and Potts Points, this is where the 1978 protests originally started, and this is where Australia’s views on gay rights were originally contested. There is a rich queer history and it is ingrained in the identity of the gay community, and Oxtravaganza is another way of championing this history in the present.