The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association: doing business for 40 years

Charisma Bell celebrates SGLBA 40th Anniversary at Sydney Sheraton on the Park. Image: Ann-Marie Calihanna.

It is one of the longest running LGBTQIA+ organisations in Sydney and arguably one of the most successful. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association is a community of queer and queer-friendly business owners who get together to exchange ideas, run events, raise funds, and generally improve rainbow-coloured commerce. 

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association (SGLBA) began as a thought bubble in1980 when Michael Glynn, who had launched his gay newspaper, The Star (now known as The Sydney Star Observer) the year before, wanted to network with other gay business owners. He organised a dinner with an open invitation to see if anyone else was interested. Quite a few people were and in 1981 the Gay Business Association (its original name) was inaugurated with Glynn as its first president. 

From the very beginning the organisation had high ambitions and with prominent, influential names constantly involved, it was destined to achieve them. Here’s a brief timeline of highlights.

(L to R) Katherine Maver, Stephen Peoples, Mark Haines, Scott Quine, Terry Preeo, Giovanni Campolo-Arcidiaco. Image: Ann-Marie Calihanna

1982 – The GBA held the first ever Fair Day. It was held in Shannon Reserve next to the Clock Hotel in Crown Street Surry Hills. Mud wrestling was among the popular features that made this event a winner. It was next held in Green Park across from St. Vincent’s Hospital and included a section of Darlinghurst Road from Oxford to Burton Streets which accommodated street stalls. The event too big for GBA to manage and was ultimately handed over to Mardi Gras, though the association has always remained significantly involved. 

1983 – The Gay Business Directory is created providing a comprehensive listing of queer businesses in Sydney. 

1987 – 1989 – During one of the darkest periods of the LGBTQIA+ history, the HIV/AIDS crisis, the GBA barely functioned and almost ceased existence completely. 

1991 – A special dinner was held to help reinvigorate the GBA. One hundred people attended and celebrity food critic, Leo Schofield, was guest speaker

1992 – The very successful Gay Business Expo was launched. The Inaugural event was held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Double Bay and then at the Hyatt Hotel in Kings Cross before it found a long-time home at Centrepoint Convention Centre.   

1994 – As a reflection of its membership body, the association changed its name to Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association. At the AGM that year, Jeannie Little was the post dinner speaker and entertainer, singing  Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” while wearing wild leather and chains.

They are currently discussing another name change to better reflect the diverse membership base. 

Alex Greenwich giving a speech at the 40th Anniversary dinner. Image: Ann-Marie Calihanna.

1996 – Fruits In Suits, a monthly networking cocktail party mostly attracting men, was introduced. 

1999 – Lemons With A Twist, the women’s counterpart to ‘Fruits” was launched.

2001 – Governor Marie Bashir was the Guest of Honour at the 20th Anniversary Dinner held in the ballroom of the New Rex Hotel. She became the first Vice Regal Representative at a gay and lesbian event.

2016 – The association joined NSW Business Chamber.

2016 / 2017 – SGLBA worked with Australian Marriage Equality to promote legislative changes enabling all Australians to be married, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Bob Downe in full glory at the 40th Anniversary dinner. Image: Ann-Marie Calihanna

2019 – The SGLBA Education Fund is created. It is the only scholarship in Australia provided to members of the LGBTIQ+ community aged 30+ to help them improve their career by furthering their education.  

2020 – The QBE Foundation gives a $10,000 grant to the SGLBA Education Fund.

In the same year, the a regular Supper Club event is established as a fundraiser for the Education Fund.

2020 / 2021 – Unlike the previous pandemic, COVID fails to impede the function of SGLBA and events continue online. 

2021 – A glitzy dinner is held at the Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park to celebrates SGLBA’s 40th Anniversary. 

Scott Duncombe has been the president of SGLBA since June 2021 and a board member for three years. He actually attended his first Fruits In Suits event about eight years ago, which is when he first became interested in the association. 

“It is all about the community – and the business community as well. It’s about mixing business with pleasure,” says Duncombe, describing the ethos of SGLBA.

When SGLBA began in 1981 it was illegal to be gay and few people were out. This was one of the early queer organisations that allowed people in the community to connect, to share grievances and discuss business in a way they simply couldn’t with similar mainstream groups. 

SGLBA is very inclusive and encourages business owners, no matter how they identify, to join.

“[Membership] gives you access to all of the networking events for free, so you don’t have to pay at the door. It also gets you your first drink on the association, and it also allows you to be part of these events whether they be Fruits, Lemons, or Long Table Breakfast, and it also gives you discounts to any major events that we have.” Those events include high profile guest speakers and prestigious venues. 

“We go to somebody like Deloittes or PWC or Google or anything like that and they put on an information night for us based on their industry – what are the trends, market updates, networking and all that as well.”

The 40 Year Anniversary dinner at the Sheraton Grand hosted 200 members who were treated to entertainment from Bob Downe and Charisma Bell and a speech from Member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich. 

“That we’ve been going for 40 years is just a testament to our members and to all the volunteers who have worked over those 40 years to keep it going,” says Duncombe about reaching the milestone. 

To find out more or join, visit www.sglba.org.au.