San Francisco-Sydney: The value of sister cities

  • by Phillip Black
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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At the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, the "linked by the sea" gallery depicts the interaction of two English-speaking cultures on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. Both Australia and the United States share similarities of cultural origin and both depended heavily on the sea for trade, communications, and defense. For over 200 years the Pacific Ocean has been the major link and the USA Gallery exhibits fine objects regarding the strong shipping connections with Sydney and ports such as San Francisco as well as the Californian gold discoveries in 1849 and New South Wales in 1851. From this shared maritime heritage we enjoy close ties, but what is not told here is the strong LGBT links between our two cities.

The San Francisco-Sydney sister city partnership was established in 1968, this year being the 40th anniversary, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The latter is very significant as it was San Francisco gay activists who wrote to Sydney in 1977 requesting support for U.S. action against homophobia that initiated what in 1978 became the first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras.

From the 1970s a great amount of LGBT travel occurred between Sydney and San Francisco, greatly boosted by the Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982 and 1986. The consequence was a transfer of gay culture from San Francisco to gay men in Sydney �" the "clone" masculinity, Levis 501s, and even a San Francisco illuminated wall mural backing the disco dance floor in one gay venue!

The establishment of our sister city partnership was Sydney's first and it aimed to "stimulate the already existing friendship between two Pacific port cities and to strengthen civic, cultural, business, trade, tourism, and sporting ties." Over the years our relationship has not always been active, but the decision in 2007 by the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, to arrange for a "citizens group" led by Supervisor Bevan Dufty, to participate in the 30th anniversary of Mardi Gras, was the first step in rekindling our international partnership. It marked the first time that the city of San Francisco officially participated in the Sydney Mardi Gras parade.

But back in 1983, for the sixth Sydney Gay Mardi Gras, organizers decided to hold a festival to which they invited gay activist Harry Britt, then a San Francisco supervisor. Britt had, in 1979, replaced Supervisor Harvey Milk after his assassination, and gave a talk and led a discussion on gay activism. Also in 1983 the Reverend Jim Dykes came from the U.S. to Sydney to take up the position of pastor for the Metropolitan Community Church. He was among the earliest with an awareness of AIDS and began consciousness raising in Sydney working with the AIDS community groups.

The Australian federal government's minister for health during the 1980s, Dr. Neal Blewett, was responsible for several remarkable policy initiatives and he received international recognition by driving the effort to combat HIV/AIDS. Blewett became a strong advocate for the rights of AIDS patients and for the provision of humane assistance. The federal government's response to HIV/AIDS included an internationally acclaimed public education campaign to increase community knowledge about the virus in order to change behavior of people at risk of contracting the disease and to alleviate unnecessary concerns about its spread. Particularly raising awareness of the risk of contracting HIV from sharing syringes.

During the past 25 years my partner, former Californian Tom Hatfield, and I have both been involved in gay activism in Sydney. Myself as a volunteer and board member of the AIDS Council of NSW, my partner as treasurer and then a board member of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Both of us have been active with the Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force. In 1987 we opened a bed and breakfast guesthouse for LGBT travelers and have consequently been involved with LGBT tourism.

Since my election as a councillor on the city of Sydney in 2005, one of my areas of focus has been working on re-establishing Sydney's international partnerships, with San Francisco being an obvious one to rekindle for the sister city 40th anniversary. I am extremely pleased both Sydney and San Francisco have been able to facilitate this year visits from each city to the other to participate in our respective gay pride events.

It's an honor to visit San Francisco representing Sydney and continue the work on reinvigorating our sister city partnership, and as a result, continue to expand our political, commercial, and cultural links while acknowledging our LGBT ties.

Phillip Black is a councillor on the Council of the city of Sydney. Mayor Gavin Newsom's office will host a reception for Black today (Thursday, June 26).