“There was an escalating feeling that the police weren’t finding what they were looking for. They knew they couldn’t find anything. They were getting angry.”
In the early hours of 7 August 1994, Victoria Police raided Tasty, a nightclub in Melbourne’s CBD with a predominately queer clientele. Hundreds were strip-searched under the pretence of a drug search. The police didn’t find a thing.
Ron Van Houwelingen is now a Melbourne LGBTI activist, but in 1994, he was a 27-year-old hospitality worker and Tasty regular. “You went down a laneway and the thumping music would get louder. It was a place for gays, lesbians, trans people, drag queens, artists – it was a place for freaks!” He describes the mood at Tasty as one of euphoria, of celebration. “We’d survived the ’80s, losing our friends to HIV. This was the start of something else.”
The venue managers had been tipped off several weeks prior that there would be a raid, but according to Van Houwelingen, no one had anticipated its scale. “Before it happened, it was just another fun night. The bar staff seemed apprehensive but the party went on.
“I happened to be in the ladies toilets, about 2am, with a friend having a chat. Suddenly we heard sirens and a female police officer stormed in and immediately separated my friend and me.”
What happened next was an ordeal that went for hours. Each of the 463 patrons at Tasty was made one-by-one to strip and bend over for Victoria Police to perform a search.
“I was one of the first to be stripped”, said Van Houwelingen, “but there were a couple of hours before of just standing with our hands against the wall, waiting to be searched. Anytime you got tired and your hands would slip, an officer would yell out: ‘Hey faggot! Hands back on the wall!’”
There was an added level of humiliation for Tasty’s drag queens and trans patrons, who were also forced to undergo a full strip-search.
By the time everyone was out of the club, a group of patrons had already begun planning their next move. Among the group was Melbourne lawyer Gary Singer, who mobilised activists to meet at LGBTI radio station Joy FM’s studios the next day. “We knew it was wrong, so we started the ball rolling, making some noise”, said Van Houwelingen.
The media backlash around the event was an embarrassment for the Kennett government at the time. There was disbelief in the LGBTI community and the wider public. Singer led a successful class action for some 250 Tasty patrons, on the grounds of false imprisonment and assault, winning each $10,000.
Tasty wasn’t the last time police assaulted queers in Australia. Last year, NSW police assaulted Jamie Jackson Reed, a young gay man attending Sydney’s Mardi Gras. The incident was followed some days later by a march of 1,500 people to a Sydney police station, against police brutality. Police around the country now routinely employ gay and lesbian liaison officers, but it’s clear from recent incidents like the one involving Jackson Reed that these liaison officers are nothing more than pinkwashing.
The police have a long history of terrorising the queer community. The first Mardi Gras itself was a political protest commemorating the Stonewall Riots. Although the protesters had originally obtained a permit to march, this was revoked, and the police violently suppressed the demonstration, arresting 53 people.
For many decades, day-to-day harassment of LGBTI individuals was par for the course. As homosexuality was widely criminalised until the 1980s, many men who were arrested for homosexuality still have that charge listed on their record.
Recently, Victoria Police apologised for the Tasty raid. While Van Houwelingen welcomed the apology, he had mixed feelings. “Why has it taken 20 years?” More than an apology, the best thing to have come out of Tasty is the lesson that our strength lies in our ability to struggle collectively. For the patrons at Tasty, collectivity was something learned through the AIDS crisis. “AIDS was the reason we became active. There was a general camaraderie based on lost members of the community, lost friends. We were already a wounded community, but that gave us our strength.”