Party safer and save our parties - first meeting for Sydney LGBTIQ initiative

For a long time, LGBTIQ communities have recognized the need to develop and maintain cultures of care at dance events and beyond. The idea behind this initiative is to pick up on the thread of party and drug related LGBTIQ activism in Sydney and bring it together with the growing drug policy reform movement. We began with a meeting in Sydney in January 2016.

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At the start of the meeting, Kane Race talked about the importance of community spaces to survival, safety and shared pleasure, and the positive role of ecstasy in cultivating vibrant queer culture and collective pleasure in Sydney. He also described the negative impacts of 10 years of intensive and alienating policing of community spaces, under the guise of drug detection operations.

Oxford St in Sydney was one of the earliest and most intensely targeted areas for drug detection using dogs. In 2006 the Ombudsman slammed the program in a report that was ignored by government and police. Within a few years the number of searches had doubled.

Physical assaults by police at the 2013 Mardi Gras provoked protests and a public forum. When the issue of drug detection operations in LGBTIQ parties and spaces was raised, it led to a flood of stories about their intrusiveness and damaging effect on community spaces. Ending these operations became a recommendation of the subsequent report published by the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.

An excerpt (above) from Kane Race's comments opening the meeting - Kane begins here by reading from Kathy Sant's account of police brutality at Mardi Gras 2009 and the parallels with 1978, moves forward to an account of MG 2013 and its aftermath, then to the destructive impacts of drug detection operations on queer parties and culture, and how to push forward with the campaign for queer spaces free from intrusive drug detection operations.

We live in a world with drugs. Unharm's vision is a world where drug use is as positive, ethical and safe as it can be. Right now there is very little positive political leadership on drug policy. To make change we need a movement of people to push politicians towards reform. Unharm’s role is to destigmatise drug use, empower people, imagine a better future and run campaigns to make it possible. 

Notes from the discussion

The priority is drug detection operations and the impacts that they have had on public LGBTIQ spaces, drug-taking practices, and the party scene.

In the past, LGBTIQ campaigning on this issue was based on a claim that these operations were targeting LGBTIQ spaces in a discriminatory way. Now that detection operations are being used so widely, we need to use a more fundamental argument against the program: that drug use should not be a crime, that drug detection operations push people to adopt more risky drug taking practices, and that pill testing would be a much more positive intervention by government.

It was noted that part promoters can’t speak out on this issue but many would be keen to support us to do so

We talked about strategy and a few people made points about how we need to identify the key influencers on keeping drug detection dogs in place. Related ideas were that we could present pill testing as a ‘doing something’ alternative to the counterproductive status quo, and that economic arguments may get traction (e.g., cost of drug detection operations, lost revenue from depleted party scene). There is a good opportunity here to bring this initiative together with some of the background research and strategic planning that’s been done in Unharm’s other work on drug detection dog operations.

We talked about the challenges of working from the margins, and the need for messages that motivate activists while also making sense to convincible people in the ‘middle’.

We discussed some strategy ideas, particularly a combination of protest and lobbying

  • Many people don’t realise how widespread illicit drug use is and have punitive or dismissive attitudes towards people who use drugs. We need to humanise drug users and destigmatise drug use by coming out as illicit drug users. A fair few people were keen to ‘come out’.
  • We talked about the role of public protest - humanising, challenges discrimination, talks back finally!, breaks the silence that makes it seem like everyone condones the current laws and the way they are enforced. At least as important as the the protest is its social and other media afterlife, where it can be even more influential and inspiring for people.
  • Media releases based on professional polling on carefully framed questions can help build the media reach and impact when run alongside protests.
  • A few people spoke about the usefulness of combining protest with ‘quiet’ lobbying, e.g., taking the example of the LGBTIQ parliamentary working group in NSW and their action to expunge convictions for gay sex crimes, driven by people getting organised into delegations and targeting the right politicians
  • We need to put real people and their experiences in front of decision makers, and show that people who use drugs are people with rights and reasonable expectations of government.

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Next steps 

Start getting organised

  1. Identify people who can help drive this initiative as community organisers. Please get in touch if this could be you (Will: will@unharm.org, Madilen: madilen@unharm.org).
  2. Sydney organisation The Change Agency are holding a community organising training event on March 13 and a few people from this initiative have already signed up. Please join us! Details are here
  3. Work out who else we should involve - people and organisations. Please get in touch with Will (will@unharm.org) or Madilen (madilen@unharm.org) if you think there are particular people or organisations that have something to contribute.

Build community support

A presence at Fair Day would be a great way to do this and we've begun planning. Listen out for more on this and please get involved!

Develop strategy and how we can make it happen

A follow-up meeting should focus on campaign strategy and how we make it happen.


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