Party or Protest? Mardi Gras (Forum)

By Sienna Merope

By Sienna Merope

This Saturday, Sydney will celebrate a dazzling spectacle: the annual Mardi Gras parade. Since its beginnings as a protest march in 1978, the Mardi Gras has been a symbol of the fight against oppression, a celebration of diversity and a platform to raise the visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQI community. However, the decision this year to drop the words “Gay and Lesbian” from the title and instead rebrand the festival as “Sydney Mardi Gras” has highlighted many of the controversies that surround the event.

Parade organisers defend the name change on the ground of inclusiveness. They argue that having asked Sydney to embrace the LGBTQI community, it is now right to invite the city to fully join in – rather than just observe – what is essentially a celebration of love in all its forms. A more inclusive approach, they say, will send the message that LGBTQI pride and civic pride have become uniquely intertwined.

There is also the pressing issue of diversity and inclusiveness within the LGBTQI community. As noted by Helen Razer, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has long faced problems in accepting and promoting the rights of bisexual, transsexual, queer and intersex identifying individuals. Bisexuals for example, were not allowed to be members until 2002 and “intersex” was only officially included in the Mardi Gras charter in 2011. Although lesbians have been involved from the very first Mardi Gras and “dykes on bikes” lead the parade each year, even lesbian voices have arguably been marginalised. There are only two female staff members on the Mardi Gras organisational team for example.

Overwhelmingly, popular representation of the parade focuses on drag queens on the one hand and buff men in hot pants on the other. In part, this may reflect the parade’s historical focus on the criminalisation of male homosexuality, but it also fails to fully capture of the diversity of the LGBTQI community today. As noted by former board chair Steph Sands, a name change could be seen as an important symbolic step to improving inclusiveness on many levels.

Critics, however, point to the fact that consultations showed a significant majority of the LGBTQI community opposed dropping the words “Gay and Lesbian” from the title and argue that the festival could equally have been renamed “Queer” or “Pride” Mardi Gras. Rather than a step towards greater diversity, many activists, including original ’78ers such as Ken Davis and former Mardi Gras President Richard Cobden, see the rebranding as part of the continuing depoliticisation of the festival.

The first Mardi Gras, held as part of International Gay Solidarity Day to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, was met with a full scale police assault and the arrest of 53 protestors. The event galvanised the LGBTQI community and led to further protests and arrests. Mardi Gras has had a proud political history since that time, highlighting social issues such as the AIDS epidemic, satirically critiquing accepted norms and presenting images of radical sexuality in sometimes confronting ways.

However in recent years, the festival has become increasingly commercial and mainstream. In part, this may be due to an understandably increased focus on financial viability following a bankruptcy in 2002. It is also no doubt influenced by the significance of the parade as a generator of tourist and other revenue. Today, Mardi Gras is largely just a party. Parade floats by specifically LGBTQI organisations are the minority and the participation of organisations like ANZ has led to concerns that the parade is largely being used as a publicity and marketing opportunity.

Discrimination on the basis of sexuality continues to be prevalent in Australia. In the absence of full equality and acceptance, many in the LGBTQI community bemoan what they see as Mardi Gras selling out to ensure its broader commercial appeal. As one person put it: “It is not Sydney’s Mardi Gras. It is our Mardi Gras. We’ve just invited Sydney along too”.

What do you think? Is Mardi Gras forgetting its roots as a protest march? Or is removing “Gay and Lesbian” being more inclusive? Join the discussion by leaving your comments below.