For more than 35 years, Colin Edwards has been agitating for change and advocating for love from within the heady parlours of his renowned adult shop, Sweethearts. Yet, as Edwards and his team ready for a grand re-opening post the January 2019 floods, many of Sweethearts’ fans will be unaware that this rebirth is but one story of survival in the face of adversity.
The legend of Sweethearts is woven with equal parts passion and hope, tyranny and conflict. Though, in meeting Colin, one can’t help but think there’s been no better man for the job. Edwards is plus grand que la vie, larger than life himself, with his journey to this point also describing his character. He is bombastic change-maker, scandalous risk-taker, tender philosophiser, and most enduringly, an activist for love.
Like all grand tales, Edwards journey began at sea.
“I joined the Navy as a young man. I loved the sea and Australia, and I wanted to serve my country. But I made the mistake of answering a question honestly. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but yes, I was a gay man. So I was kicked out. I was very bruised by that.”
Edwards returned to his home town of Rockhampton, seeking solace through the Pentecostal church. “They admitted me through what was known as ‘conversion therapy.’” Colin’s face turns retrospective, pinched with old pain. “I won’t describe what they put me through, but suffice to say that it has an acidic effect on a person’s mind, body and soul.”
“One Sunday afternoon, they called me out; they made everyone in the congregation face the wall, turn their back to me, and asked me to leave.”
On that fateful day, Colin made his way out of the Pentecostal faith, and indeed, organised religion, through a faceless aisle of condemnation.
“That moment? That killed me.”
“My sexuality was my ‘minority.’ I began to understand persecution. Whether it’s our race, gender, culture, age, class, ethnicity, we all understand what it’s like to be rejected.”
Yet Edward’s ostracism led him to open a business underpinned by acceptance, connection and an abiding human drive for love. “Because doesn’t everybody have the right to intimacy and relationship?”
“So that was my grounding, and that’s why I came to Townsville and opened Sweethearts.”
Sweethearts launched in 1986, however, Colin’s battle against persecution had only just begun. While over 70% of Australian society at the time still believed homosexuality to be ‘a mortal sin,’ Edwards championed Townsville’s very first ‘sex’ shop in a microcosm of conservative, regional Australia.
“When I opened, I had no idea what I was starting. I had the media, the courts and the law come down on top of me.”
“In the first year, the local newspaper ran an article proclaiming ‘homosexuals deserved to be lined up against a wall and shot.’ Then they began the raids. In those first six years, they raided my store every three weeks. I appeared in court 23 times. They confiscated half of what I had in the shop, and then all the products would disappear.”
“I felt I was a good person, with dignity and honesty, and I was doing the right thing, so I defended that. No matter how many times they took me to court, I kept winning.” >>
“The shop gave me a platform to represent minorities; the LGBTI community, people with HIV Aids, sex workers and the transgender community. Funeral directors wouldn’t bury people with HIV. The Queensland AIDS office in Townsville was even bombed at the time!”
With his publicity and evolution into activism, Edwards found himself running for State Parliament in 1992 and then for Federal in 1998. He also became a founder and eventual part-owner of Queensland Pride, the first Gay and Lesbian newspaper, along with having a regular segment on 4TTT with Saturday Night LGBTI.
So, is Edward’s advocacy for marginalised groups the only customers reflected in Sweethearts patronage? “Interestingly, over 70 per cent of our customers are women or couples, who are seeking to improve how they connect with their partner.”
“A huge part of what we do here is offer guidance and direction. We focus on helping people feel comfortable, not selling them a product.”
What differences can customers expect of the refurbished store? Building Designer David Townsend explains, “It’s much more technologically advanced, with everything in LED and leaning toward a high-end retail layout like you’re walking into a jewellery shop.”
Colin expands further, “One of the first corners in the shop is the Community Service Area with information about sexual health. A contingent of the medical community refers patients to Sweethearts for this reason.”
“We help older couples reconnect, men with erectile dysfunction issues, people recovering from trauma or managing a physical disability. No question or need is silly or stupid here. We’ve heard it all before.”
“The majority of staff are in our 50s and 60s; we find that life experience counts for the issues people seek assistance for.”
The shop itself is a far cry from the gaudiness associated with the likes of Kings Cross. “We don’t have ‘secret rooms’ here! Our store is comfortable, clean and accessible. It always smells good, our staff are expertly trained, and we put a smile on your face.” When it comes to confidentiality, Edwards is direct, “Our reputation lies in our discretion.”
As Colin looks to the future, how does he reconcile the role Townsville has played in his past?
“Sweethearts has been an important part of Townsville maturing into a young adult, proving itself prepared to deal with it and have a go. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m so proud of about Townsville. The city finds a way to put its best foot forward, and come out liking itself and finding its place in the world.”
As to his activism, Colin declares with a cross-my-heart quality, “I will continue to persist until we finally end up with a community where everyone is respected, valued, and lives with dignity.”