Can an LGBTQ+ museum redeem a notorious Sydney police station?

Thursday, 3 August 2023 00:30 GMT

L-R NSW premier Chris Minns, Qtopia Sydney board member Ian Roberts and CEO Greg Fisher, and curator Liz Bradshaw are pictured in an undated handout photograph. Qtopia Sydney/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Some gay rights activists questioned the decision to open the city's first LGBTQ+ museum in a 'house of horrors' ex-lockup
  • LGBTQ+ museum to open in former police station
  • Activists say space is marred by violent history
  • Some campaigners have called for a halt to project

By Gary Nunn

SYDNEY, Aug 3 (Openly) - It is a place some older Australian LGBTQ+ people remember with horror - where they were detained and say they were even brutally beaten, just for being who they are.

Now, the old Darlinghurst Police Station in Sydney's gay village will host the city's first dedicated LGBTQ+ museum, called Qtopia Sydney.

Supporters say the museum is reclaiming a space, while critics say the former lockup is too tainted by a history of violence and the project should be halted for more community consultations.

"It's a building of absolute horror for some," Greg Fisher, Qtopia's CEO, told Openly.

"We're claiming it because we were maltreated there. And it now should be ours. We should be able to have a better future with that property."

Gay sex was not decriminalised in New South Wales until 1984, well behind a wave of countries that made consensual gay sex legal in the 1960s and 70s. A nationwide bill was not passed until 1994.

The former Darlinghurst Police Station - soon to become the Qtopia Sydney museum - is pictured in an undated handout photograph. Qtopia Sydney/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

In June 1978, a group of people gathered to stage the city's first Mardi Gras parade as a peaceful march to call for gay rights and the decriminalisation of same-sex relations.

The protest was marred by police brutality, with 53 people arrested. The New South Wales Police Force apologised in 2016 for the violence and arrests around the march.

The Original 78ers Association – a group representing some of the 1978 protesters – said some LGBTQ+ people can never go back to the station due to the trauma they endured there.

They described it as "a site of routine, daily police bashings over decades – a state torture centre" in a statement to local media.

"Darlo copshop has a very repressive, sometimes violent history, not only to '78ers but to First Nations people, street workers, homeless and youth," said Steve Warren, one member of the group.

"It is not as simple as just 'reclaiming the space as ours' to put events in a house of horrors."

A spokesperson for New South Wales police said the force "remains committed to building and strengthening relationships" with the LGBTQ+ community.

A spokesperson for Qtopia said they had spoken with a number of LGBTQ+ groups and 78ers, and are continuing to engage with the community, including exploring the possibility of providing counselling to discuss people's experiences of the building and the possible impact of revisiting it.


Numerous spaces linked to human rights abuses or atrocities have since been converted into museums, from former slave markets to prisons like South Africa's Robben Island and headquarters of the Soviet Union's KGB security services.

Supporters of Qtopia including Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore have long campaigned for an LGBTQ+ museum in the city.

"Qtopia will be a place to celebrate the glamour, confetti and outrageous fun of parades and parties, but also to reflect on hard-fought gains and unite in the ongoing fight for equality," Moore said in emailed comments.

"While this building contributed to injustices suffered by many LGBTIQA+ people, transforming it into a significant community resource will support the healing of past injustices, address past wrongs, and celebrate the community's resilience."

The museum has secured 5.5 million Australian dollars ($3.7 million) in funding, including 3.85 million from the government and 1 million from the Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch Foundation.

It is due to open in time for Sydney's next annual Mardi Gras in February 2024, and will include exhibitions that explore LGBTQ+ history, culture, art and contemporary issues.

"I'll be telling curators to go big," Fisher said. "I want people to walk in and say 'wow'."

He said the project will not shy away from the more painful or challenging aspects of LGBTQ+ history.

The museum staged a pop-up exhibition at this year's WorldPride festival, hosted in Sydney, which included a recreation of Hospital Ward 17 that hosted Australia's first dedicated HIV/AIDS unit between 1984 and 2000.

Qtopia will also have material about a nearby former toilet block where gay men 'cruised' for sex.

"There's no way we'll ignore that," Fisher said. "It's part of our history, part of who we are."

Fisher says they will ask LGBTQ+ people to tell their story with a videographer ahead of the museum's opening – "even if it's to say why they'll never set foot in there again" - to highlight huge progress in securing rights.

But some LGBTQ+ community members see the project as a missed opportunity.

"I really want a quality museum for the LGBTQI+ communities in Sydney, but I think the Darlinghurst Police Station site is the wrong location," said Peter Murphy, one of the 1978 marchers.

"It has a history of torture to many diverse people, including me, and I feel I could not go to a museum there. More consultation is needed."

($1 = 1.4806 Australian dollars)

(Writing by Gary Nunn; Editing by Sonia Elks and Jon Hemming. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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