This is the eleventh post in the series, Succession II: Queering the Environment, a fourteen-part series in which contributors explore topics related to unruliness, care, and pleasure. Succession II centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.
On a hot, muggy December night, the close Sydney air sticks to the faces of joggers as they do laps on the track around Centennial Park.
The park, situated in a soggy depression surrounded by undulating rocky ridgelines, is about 4 kilometres south-east from the Sydney city centre. It was named in honour of the 100 years of British occupation in Sydney, a celebration that sought to erase the presence and resistance of the region’s Gadigal and Bidjigal (Beddegal) peoples. From its sandstone gates to the neatly manicured fields to the rose garden, the space seems to offer very little in the way of nuance – except for the dark, still swamps in the park’s interior. Apart from this stretch of slightly sulphurous water, the park is mostly a culturally ‘flat’ geography: clean lawns for a ‘clean’ society. However, if one knows where to look, if one listens carefully – to the shadows, grunts, and moans – then the park can offer an altogether more voluminous experience. It can, for example, offer liberation and solace from the confines and the violence of a pervasively repressive society.
As one moves off the puddle-dotted running-track that circles the park, the soggy grass squelches underfoot. A thick wall of paperbark trees towers in front, evening dew saturating the spongy bark. The evening light filtering in between the pale vegetation highlights the outline of flying foxes heading off to feast on sweet nectar, succulent blossoms and juicy fruits. As a jogger trots past, a man standing with one leg bent up resting on a tree behind him raises his head in a suggestive upwards nod. One can see the figures walk off together, through the mud and into the swamps.
The Lachlan swamps are a significant part of the park, often thought to represent a ‘remnant’ ecosystem of pre-invasion Sydney. This belief isn’t quite accurate, as work by Rebecca Hamilton and Dan Penny has shown. Instead of the dense swampy paperbark forest that now engulfs those who walk through it, a shrubby, more sparsely vegetated bushland would have nurtured the area’s Indigenous communities pre-invasion. Today, the swamps are vital to those (both human and nonhuman) who make use of the place in ways that aren’t entirely welcomed by city planners.
“I was there I was too wet I left”: Queer Waters, Wet Queers
The figures in the paperbark swamp, now, might be those coming to look at the local flying fox colony that has taken to roost in the high branches. Or, more likely, they might be coming to fuck. Lachlan swamps is, and has been for decades, a well-known gay beat. A beat, or a cruising spot, is a place where, typically, cis-gender men go to have sex with other men. They might identify as gay or bisexual but can often be men who see themselves as straight (men-who-have-sex-with-men). Beats are places that generally meet certain criteria: they typically provide some degree of privacy or cover, whether that be a toilet cubicle, shower blocks, a cave or rocky overhang, or dense shrubbery; they are often places where a person’s identity remains anonymous; they are places where people loitering won’t draw too much attention, where they might be thought of as having a ‘legitimate’ reason for being there (going to the toilet, walking the dog, taking a shower after a swim, looking at flying foxes at dusk, etc.); and they are places that have multiple exit points if something starts to go wrong. Most of the time, in Sydney, these places are also wet.
Acknowledging the history of queer ecologies presents opportunities for us all to reflect on how we engage with spaces often neglected and considered peripheral.
To work through this connection of why so many of Sydney’s beats are watery places, there are a few things to know about Sydney’s geography. The urban area across the Sydney Peninsula, on the east coast of Australia, is built on the unceded lands and waters of the Eora, Dharug, and the Dharawal Nations. It is also, mostly, built on top of the Botany Sands aquifer. Atop the aquifer, sandstone hills rise into ridgelines that circle across and form the towering cliffs of eastern Sydney. Together the aquifer and the undulating surface topography across Sydney results in low-lying areas typified by soggy sports fields, pond-dotted golf courses, parks intersected by stormwater canals, and remnant wetlands, swamps, marshes, and creeks. These hybrid spaces – partially dry but yet also not always fully wet – sit at the interface of the surface/sub-surface ecologies of the region. They offer a window into what Sydney looked like before the dredging, the damming, and the covering-over took place. And they are home to a vast array of more-than-human critters challenging heteronormative biologies and ecologies.
Water that flows through the mud under the feet of those in the swamps flows too throughout the volumetric waterscapes of Sydney. These environments nurture critters which are often described as odd, dirty, strange, dangerous . . . queer. Emblematic of these queer ecologies is the eel. For thousands of years, thinkers and scholars have been perplexed by the sexual lifecycle of eels. At the heart of this conundrum is that, when analysed, eels don’t have observable sexual organs. They also seem to arrive at sexual determination after their birth and so offer much to the rich academic work being done of queer sexuality of animals. Eels, together with other queer critters across the surface/sub-surface interface of Sydney’s swampy places highlight the tenacity of queer beings to take up space and to assert their awkward identities in the world. But, seemingly, always in the periphery.
These fluid spaces are also, quite often, beats. They connect queer biologies and queer ecologies with queer practices of fucking in the bushes. Looking through the comments of a well-known cruising website, most posts are calling-out for times of ‘action’. Every now and then, dotted throughout the comments, a user will make an acknowledgment of the beat’s wateriness. Highlighting the challenges that rain brings to those who engage in public sex, the comments below showcase the palpable queerness of these ecologies. The margins are, for queer eels and for queer folk, safe places – places of liberation and pleasure.
But not always. Whilst pleasure dominates many of the representations of Sydney’s glittery queer façade, Sydney’s queer history has been underpinned by a series of violent events that took place in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Parks and beats across Sydney became locations of institutionalised violence – queer people were targeted by ‘poofter-bashing’ gangs1 looking to enact heinous crimes on people based on their sexuality.
Across Sydney, from Alexandria to Rushcutters Bay, Enmore to Bondi, swamps, creeks, wetlands, and lagoons became parks and in the borders of these soggy geographies, where queer people met and explored their sexuality and pleasure, they became the target of vile, homophobic attacks. Mostly, these attacks went unreported – to approach the police prompted questions. Up until the late ‘80s, in the state of New South Wales, it was still illegal to be homosexual, and today (2022) it is illegal to engage in public sex (classified under indecent exposure).
On the sheer sandstone cliffs at south Bondi, one particular beat – Marks Park – has become iconic for all the wrong reasons. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, in the shadowy shrubbery of the park, many gay-hate crimes happened here. The victims were sidelined by the authorities – marginalised in life and in death. Recent movements have garnered huge wins for the community. Just this year the murderer of one queer man, Scott Johnson, was convicted and sentenced, three decades after Johnson’s death.
Queering Environmental History
In recent years there has been an increase in researching the history of queer people and the lives they lived. Particularly carefully done queer history might expand to contextualize the broader cultural and political settings in which individuals existed within. Very rarely, however, would there be an environmental history that focused on how environmental transformations have come to shape and be shaped by queer cultures.
Similar to the hybrid, non-binary, volumetric waterscapes where they take places, I affirm that the act of engaging in sex in public spaces like parks and swamps can be viewed, through environmental history, as offering a new way of contextualising urban processes, including settler-colonialism, sanitisation, and gentrification. In focusing on the relationship that gay men have with queer environments, I call for us – queer and non-queer communities – to consider how these histories might advance common causes like addressing intersectional environmental injustices, generating spaces of communal healing.
The margins are, for queer eels and for queer folk, safe places – places of liberation and pleasure.
By queering environmental history, addressing the violence that ‘othered’ environments and ‘othered’ peoples – including queer people – have experienced can be considered against a kind of normative agenda. Engaging with this justice-centred agenda through the lens of environmental history the goal doesn’t only work to advance a queer environmental history of Sydney waterscapes. That the process by which environmental history is done also becomes representative of the act of ‘queering’.
Sydney is wet and queer, as much a swamp city as it is a harbour or beachside city. The waters that flow over the rocky ridges and into the soft, sandy earth have nurtured queer geographies for time immemorial. The eels, mosquitoes, worms, frogs, spiders, snakes, bats, and lizards that move through and with the waters in the city are a queerness that extends beyond the confines of sexuality and biology; they represent rejection, marginalisation, and vilification. But, fundamentally, at the same time they also represent liberation, tenacity, and an unmistakable pleasure in taking life as it comes and making the most of what is on offer. Acknowledging the history of queer ecologies presents opportunities for us all to reflect on how we all engage with spaces often neglected and considered peripheral. They call on all of us to pause, to feel the water . . . to feel the rhythm of the beat.
- I am fully aware that this is perhaps a triggering term. However, for myself, a gay man, this term offers a point of reclamation – to take ownership of a slur that has been used to repress and marginalise people like myself. I also have used it here because I want to shock readers into paying attention and to acknowledge that these weren’t simply incidentally gay-hate crimes, but deliberate, targeted acts. The gangs reflect, in everyway possible, the organised systemic violence that was seen throughout Sydney during this time – by society in general, and in institutions like the NSW Police and the media.