Many buildings in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy are notable for their aesthetic and historic significance as part of a prominent late nineteenth and early twentieth-century residential, retail and commercial area. However, the street also reflects important aspects of LGBTIQ+ history. The 800 metres of Gertrude Street running from Nicholson Street in Fitzroy to Smith Street in Collingwood is a strip that has radiated queer and political history since the 1970s. Well before this, it had been a significant meeting place for Victoria’s Koorie population and is considered the birthplace of many influential Aboriginal organisations, including the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and Aboriginal Housing Board of Victoria.
A number of organisations particular to the lesbian, feminist and bisexual women’s communities were located on this strip, including Shrew Women’s Bookshop at 37 Gertrude Street (selling books ‘for and about women’), Gertrude’s Gift Shop next door at number 39, and the Women’s Liberation Building at 28 Gertrude Street. Located close together, these organisations contributed to a vibrant community.
Shrew Women’s Bookshop
Shrew Women’s Bookshop (once located at 37 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy) was considered Melbourne’s first feminist bookshop and from 1983 to 1997 was a vital part of the community, regularly hosting events as part of its annual calendar, talking all things lesbian on the local 3CR radio station and selling tickets to women’s events across Melbourne. At various times, the floor above the bookshop housed other businesses including massage for women and Great Sensations, offering pleasurable gifts for women.
Women’s Liberation Building
Diagonally opposite Shrew Women’s Bookshop was the Women’s Liberation Building at 28 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, which from 1988 to 1992 was a hub of political and feminist activity, providing ‘space and resources for various activist collectives to meet and plan actions and activities’.27 It housed support-based collectives Lesbian Line and Lesbian Open House, as well as the Women’s Liberation Archives, which later became the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives.
From the late 1970s, the Key Club at 22 Gertrude Street (then the Carlton Club Hotel) hosted a variety ofevents including ‘Squizzys’ – a women’s only night every Thursday, a ‘mixed gay’ night on Fridays and a ‘guys only’ night on Saturdays. The Key Club opened in 1978 and closed in 1989. David Menadue28 remembers the Key Club’s vibrant scene:
I remember one night in the Key Club in 1979, it was very crowded and there was no room for dancing. So all the men took their shirts off, put their arms around one another and moved up and down to Patrick Hernandez’s ‘Born to Be Alive’.
Builders Arms Hotel
Uncle Jack Charles, a gay Indigenous Elder born to a Bunurong mother and a Wiradjuri father, and a member of the Stolen Generations, remembers frequenting the Builders Arms Hotel at 211 Gertrude Street in the 1960s, and finding members of his blood family. The hotel was known locally at that time as the ‘Black Pub’29 or the ‘Black Senate’, a history that dated back to the 1940s and is commemorated in a historical marker affixed to the outside wall of the building. In 1996, the Builders Arms Hotel started hosting the popular Q+A (Queer and Alternative) nights, OutBlack events and various queer cabarets. Q+A continued at the Builders Arms Hotel until 2005 when it moved to A Bar Called Barry (at 64 Smith Street, Collingwood), winding up in 2007.
In the 1990s, the City of Yarra supported various events in the area as part of the Midsumma Festival, including exhibitions at Gertrude Contemporary at 200 Gertrude Street and nearby at the 69 Smith Street Gallery. The billboards on the corner of Smith and Gertrude streets have also featured the work of prominent LGBTIQ+ artists, including Deborah Kelly and Tina Fiveash’s ‘Hey Hetero’ public art project.
In 2014 a rainbow crossing was painted on the footpath near the small park at the intersection of Gertrude and Smith streets to welcome delegates to the International AIDS Conference held in Melbourne that year. In 2016, in response to the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the United States, the crossing became a makeshift memorial as Melbourne’s LGBTIQ+ communities gathered to honour the 49 people who were killed.
27 ‘Archive No 47: Women’s Liberation Centre’, Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives, http://www.vwllfa.org.au/bios-pdf/arch47-WLC.pdf, accessed 21 September 2020.
28 David Menadue, Positive, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2003, pp. 32, 122.
29 Aboriginal History of Yarra, Sites of Significance: https://aboriginalhistoryofyarra.com.au/sites-ofsignificance/?siteVar=16
37 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy is included in the Heritage Overlay of the Yarra Planning Scheme (HO361 World Heritage Environs Area Precinct)
18-22 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy is included in the Heritage Overlay of the Yarra Planning Scheme (HO361 World Heritage Environs Area Precinct)
200 Gertrude Street is included in the Heritage Overlay of the Yarra Planning Scheme (HO334 South Fitzroy Precinct)
‘Builders Arms Hotel’, historical marker, 221 Gertrude St, Fitzroy