I get harassed by strangers almost every day. People stare as I walk past, dressed in men’s clothing. Drunk men shout dyke after me on the street, sober men tell me I need to try some cock, every intelligent person ever groans at how clever their remarks are. Others try to be nice: “So that’s why you cut your hair”, or my favourite disclaimer, “I’m not homophobic, I have heaps of gay friends”. When I’m walking down the street and a car horn blares, it’s always followed by the same remarks and gestures I’ve endured a million times. I’ve grown to ignore them. I’ve become used to the fact that being out, in a visible and unambiguous way, means daily verbal harassment. So when that horn blares I brace myself, grit my teeth, and attempt to turn my ears off.
But not on Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is the one day of the year a car horn doesn’t cause my heart to sink. The one day derogatory drunken shouts are replaced by salutations from strangers. It’s the one day I am celebrated, even thanked, for braving every other day.
I grew up in a small coastal town where lesbians don’t exist. The sexuality spectrum was not so much a rainbow as a monotonously clear northern New South Wales sky. When federal MPs were asked to canvas their electorates for opinions on marriage equality, five people wrote to my MP. Five. And two of them had written to say the issue was irrelevant. Yes, people actually bothered to compose that letter: “Dear Sir, this issue is bullshit. Who cares about gays. Why don’t you fix my highway and lower my taxes instead.” Fair enough, why would you care about gays when there are none around and there’s a pothole on the highway?
I couldn’t wait to get out and move to Sydney; for Oxford St, for Newtown, for Mardi Gras. In high school I would take a train for 7 hours to visit gay Mecca for the weekend. I knew I’d found my place, and it was 500km down the track.
I participated in Mardi Gras for the first time last year. It rained most of the night, as per Fred Nile’s annual wish. City skyscrapers turned College and Oxford streets into giant wind tunnels, as if the city was designed with the sole intention of messing up all carefully styled hairdos. There were more erect nipples and undescended testicles in that 400m radius than the rest of Australia combined. And yet, no one cared. Those to my right were hula hooping constantly while, ahead, a team of male marchers practiced their dance to a 30 second clip of Vanessa Amorosi’s ‘Absolutely Everybody’ – over, and over, and over again, until ‘Absolutely Everybody’ was scarred into my brain for the first time since Sydney 2000. To fight the cold and the (rainy) wet, friends were engaging in a three-way make out under an umbrella. On my left were a group of spectators, cheering even though the parade hadn’t started yet.
I felt like a celebrity. As I approached the Hyde Park marshalling area in the afternoon from Market St, a crowd of tourists parted, flanking me on either side, taking photos from all angles. People asked me to pose for photos, spectators screamed from the sidewalks, beckoning me like I was Justin Bieber and they were True Beliebers. It felt strange, being celebrated for being myself – albeit myself in sequinned gold booty shorts.
They call Mardi Gras Gay Christmas, and the analogy works pretty well. Like its December cousin, it’s way too corporate and seems all too forgetful of its true origins. Mardi Gras has a fighting past, and this year, on its 35th anniversary, it felt like 1978 again, with horrible acts of police brutality echoing times past. But with the bad comes the good, and like Christmas, the excitement of Mardi Gras is cheesy but irresistible. Not even those potholes could wipe the smile off my face on that first Saturday in March.