The Tennis Club celebrates 40 years in 2018. This makes it Canberra’s longest running gay group and arguably one of Australia’s oldest gay sport groups. During that time it has provided the opportunity for hundreds of men and women to play tennis, and to socialise and make friends.
Many thousands of people have enjoyed the annual Bushdance held at the Yarralumla Woolshed every year since 1984.
The Club’s contribution to the Canberra LGBTIQ community has been recognised with Canberra Pride Awards in 2000 and 2003, as well as the AIDS Action Council community award in 2002.
1970s and 80s
In September 1978 some friends decided to get together regularly to play social tennis at the O’Connor tennis courts. They included Bill Bailey and David Wheeler, Michael Pollard, Eric Savage, Stuart Day, and Noel McCumstie amongst others. This quickly became a regular event every Monday night and numbers increased.
The advantage of the Monday night was that it was possible to book all four courts and to have the clubhouse just for the gay tennis group. The social aspect of Monday night tennis was important from the very beginning. Gay men and women had few safe places where they could go to socialise. There was just a small bar at the Hotel Ainslie which was gay on Friday and Saturday nights. Monday night tennis provided a place to come out, to meet other gay men and women, to chat, make friends, and even fall in love. Tennis was also the catalyst for organising other social events such as picnics, BBQs, weekends down the coast, and various balls.
In the very early days someone organised trays of sandwiches for Monday nights, however this was soon replaced by dinner at a cheap restaurant after tennis. During the 1980s while playing at the O’Connor courts, many of the players would go to the Mee Sing Chinese restaurant at the Lyneham shops for dinner after tennis. There was a good relationship with the staff and food would appear on the table quickly.
In 1979, the tennis group organised the first social dance, which was held in the community hall in Tharwa, the small village to the south of Canberra. The dance was not just for the tennis players, it was for the gay community in Canberra. There were two dances held at Tharwa.
In the early 1980s there were several dances/balls held at the Albert Hall. The 1982 Arts Ball at the Albert Hall had everyone in their finest clothes dressed up enjoying the evening. Despite the name of the event on the ticket, it was not held at Tharwa. The ticket was designed by Ian Hunter.
There were other social events such as a weekend down the coast at the Narooma caravan park in April 1980. There were a dozen or more who went and onsite caravans were booked. It was a great weekend on the beach.
Another activity in 1980 was a softball match at the Giralang oval, held on the ANZAC Day weekend and with both men and women participating.
1986 was the year of Haley’s Comet and several events were organised. There was an evening BBQ at Black Mountain Penninsula and later the same month a camping weekend at Mt Clear in the Namadgi National Park. The intent was to be able to see the comet clearly in the night sky.
There were no other campers there and it was a very enjoyable weekend in the bush, and provided a good opportunity to cook and eat together and enjoy each other’s company.
1984 was the year the first Bushdance was held and this has since become a major annual event. The concept of a bushdance to be held at the Yarralumla Woolshed was the idea of Mike Howard, who with his partner Tom Hughes and a group of friends, worked hard to ensure the success of this event. From the start its purpose was to provide money to support Monday night tennis. Surplus funds were donated to other gay community groups.
The first bushdance was a gamble as Mike did not know if people would turn up and it was a financial risk to the Tennis Club. There was heavy promotion of the event at the then gay bar at the Dickson Hotel every Friday for several months and tickets were pre-sold. Some 250 people turned up at the Yarralumla Woolshed for that first Bushdance.
The event has been a success ever since and many of the bush band members have been playing at Bushdance since the late 1980s. They come together each year for the event and say that it is the most enjoyable bushdance they go to.
Mike was the chief organiser of the Bushdance from 1984 to 1998. Despite leaving Canberra in early 1999, he comes back every year for Bushdance. The profits from Bushdance continue to support Monday night tennis and for more than 30 years financial grants have been given to other LGBTIQ community groups.
Over the years other groups have assisted with Bushdance. For many years the Canberra Bears ran the bar at Bushdance and benefited from the profits made from the drinks and food they sold. In more recent times the Tennis Club has run the bar itself, though the food stall has been outsourced to another group.
In 1993 Monday night tennis moved to the Yarralumla tennis courts. Dinner after tennis continued but for awhile was more usually pizza at Mike Howard and Tom Hughes’ home in Deakin. This was the time of the Absolutely Fabulous TV series and it was on Monday nights so was watched with much laughter while eating pizza.
Several social events were organised with a Sydney tennis club. There were two in Canberra and one where members of the two clubs met in Bowral for a weekend of tennis and a Saturday night dinner with a talent quest.
By the late 1990s Monday night tennis moved to the Barton tennis courts as it is was no longer possible to book all the courts at Yarralumla. At Barton the group had access to all four courts and the clubhouse.
There have been many people involved in Monday night tennis since 1978. It would not have continued without the commitment of a small number of people who ensured courts were hired, tennis balls provided, money banked and the Bushdance held successfully every year. Another couple who worked hard for many years to support tennis and the Bushdance were Keith Seyer and Mark Wittich who were involved from the 1980s until their move from Canberra in the late 2000s. Keith and Mark met at the 1988 Bushdance and that was the start of their relationship.
Wayne Beasley and Paul Willis were another couple who worked hard to make Bushdance a success in the 1990s. Wayne was the creator of the giant rainbow flag, which several decades later is still hung up every year in the Yarralumla Woolshed as a backdrop to the band at Bushdance.
In 2004 the Monday night tennis group became a formally incorporated community association, the Canberra Gay and Lesbian Tennis Club. This has not changed the nature of what is still largely an informal group of people who turn up when they feel like playing tennis.
In 2007 the Barton Tennis Club put up its fees and the decision was made to find new courts. Mark Wittich and Heather Dornoch investigated the options and the choice was the Turner Tennis Club. The move took effect from September that year.
Around the same time Keith Seyer and Mark Wittich left Canberra to move to Queensland. They had been involved with tennis since the 1980s.
Heather Dornoch became Club President for six years. During this period there were a number of changes made. Importantly the decision was made to build up the club’s reserves so that it could fund Bushdance costs itself and not rely on anyone lending money to pay the upfront costs. To achieve this, there were no community grants made one year. This has since put the club in good financial position which has continued. There continued to be co-operation with other community groups and organisations.
The committee also set out to make the club more social with monthly BBQs and picnics at Uriarra Crossing in summer.
Fenkil Abraha and Joel Mallet became involved with tennis and took on important roles in the club. They paid bills, bought tennis balls, organised BBQs, and ensured that the tennis courts were opened up by 6:00pm and locked again at 9:00pm every Monday.
During the 2010s winter numbers slowly increased to 12-16 players most Mondays despite the low temperatures.
Bushdance profits increased and it became possible to provide more funds to a wider group of diverse organisations. This community grant programme has been in place for over 30 years and has provided thousands of dollars to projects aiming to benefit the LGBTIQ community. Co-operation with other community groups has continued. The Canberra Bears, PFLAG, Qwire, CampBerra, and the Aids Action Council have at various times assisted by running a food stall at Bushdance.
Continuing a tradition started in the 1980s, most Mondays after tennis a group goes to a restaurant in Woolley St, Dickson, for dinner and conversation.
The SpringOUT association organises a festival of events in November. The Bushdance, while still run by the Tennis club, features as a major event in the SpringOut festival programme. The opening event of SpringOUT is the Canberra Fair Day organised by the Aids Action Council. The Tennis Club has a stall every year at the Canberra Fair Day to introduce people to the club, to encourage tennis players to come along, and to advertise Bushdance.
Tom Hughes, who had been involved many years before, returned to tennis and joined the committee in 2012.
Player numbers had been down through much of 2019; however, this changed with Peter MacDonald joining the Committee in late 2019. Peter actively managed the facebook group and was key to getting people back on the courts, including many new players.
2020 started with the summer of bushfires and then continued with the corona virus pandemic which for the first time necessitated the cancellation of Monday night tennis for an extended period from the middle of March to the end of May that year.
The key objective of the Canberra Gay and Lesbian Tennis Club is still that of the original group which first met in 1978 – to provide a venue for people to come and play social tennis and socialise on Monday nights. There continues to be a good relationship with the Turner Tennis Club which provides the tennis courts, and funds have been given to that club to assist with the upkeep and improvement of the tennis courts, the clubhouse and the carpark. The Bushdance has become an important annual event but its primary purpose is still to be a fund-raising event to support Monday night tennis. Spare funds may be then granted as appropriate to other community groups by the committee.
The popularity of Bushdance has continued. Online ticketing was introduced in 2017 so as to be able to limit attendance. While unfortunately this has meant that some people miss out, it provides greater control. It also revealed that only about 50% of attendees come from Canberra, with some 40% from Sydney, and 10% from the rest of Australia. For the first time, credit card facilities were made available at the bar.
Over the past 40+ years many people have volunteered to be on the club committee and have worked hard to ensure the ongoing success of Monday night tennis and of the Bushdance. The club would not have survived without the dedication of a small number of key people over this time and they have been mentioned above.