This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras in Australia, an iconic expression of queer pride. For many in our community, it is a time of celebration, acceptance and pride in our identities. However, the Mardi Gras we celebrate today is far removed from the Mardi Gras of the past. The Mardi Gras of today does not evoke strong feelings of pride for me – it’s a hollow celebration that makes me ache for a return to a powerful, activist queer movement that fights for true liberation; not for us to be little more than objects to be paraded around by a pink capitalist hegemony. In the fight for recognition and survival, our movement has been co-opted and weakened by insidious forces.
It was tireless and fearless activists who first fought for our right to express pride – in the face of police brutality, political indifference to our plight and near-universal discrimination, brave activists fought for the right of queer people to exist and survive in a world that despised us. Here in Australia, women were dragged off the streets by their hair, queer people were beaten bloody by police, and anyone seen at Mardi Gras was publicly shamed by the media and forced out of their jobs and families. There were decades of brutal struggle before we won the right to march down Oxford Street – it was not given to us by anyone or anything; we had to spend years in the dark fighting and dying for it.
The police violence against our community sparked a response – years of staunch resistance by anarchists, feminists, communists, unionists and anything in-between – from a united left fighting for their right to exist against the dominant belief that to be queer was to be subhuman. The 78ers who fought to organise that first Australian Mardi Gras paved the way for generations of activism and change for our community, and it’s their experience of protest and defiance that inspires us to take up their legacy and organise within our community. It was only through direct action and a united struggle that we were able to take that first step and force the state to properly acknowledge us; only after we protested and bled on the streets was the government forced to decriminalise our existence.
That was then, so what changed? How did we go from Mardi Gras being a radical protest of the state and its treatment of queer people to the commercial, tame and apolitical parade that it has become? This year’s Mardi Gras welcomed the likes of the NSW Police Force, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten and countless others to march and smile for the cameras. The militarised arm of the state that continues to brutalise and torture us, marching in pride? The people who refuse to legislate or fight for us while we suffer, marching in pride? They have no place in my pride. Their very presence is an affront against our struggle and the history of not only Mardi Gras, but our entire movement. These groups and these people have done nothing to help us, and yet show up now when it’s convenient for them to appear like progressive champions of the downtrodden? We don’t want you here. Fuck off.
You may think that our struggle is over – we won marriage equality! So why shouldn’t Mardi Gras be a celebratory and happy occasion? We do have reasons to celebrate; but celebrations can still be protests, and protests can still be celebrations. We’ve come so far since that first parade in ’78, but we still have so much further to go before we are even close to being free. There are so many battles that need to be fought – but our historic tool of protest has been co-opted by companies and groups that want to present as progressive and profit off our struggles. Our parade is dominated by shameless promotion and self-aggrandizing groups that do little for our fight, all managed by a corporate board.
Depression, homelessness, suicide, abuse – our community suffers and yet we are expected to believe that a horde of rainbow flags once a year has fixed all our problems? We deserve to have control over our pride again. We deserve to have a strong, fighting Mardi Gras that is true to its roots. Queer people are still kicked out of home and forced onto the streets. We are still sent to conversion therapy. We are still subject to public hate and vitriol when we leave the house. We are not equal. We are made to believe that we live in a safe and accepting world – yet I still get looked down upon and called a faggot for leaving the house wearing nail polish, or for daring to hold my boyfriend’s hand. Pride is a protest – and we need it to be so now just as much as we did in ’78. We need to challenge the views of those who look down upon us, not wear a rainbow flag once a year and parade around for the cameras so a bunch of straight people can feel good about themselves and their own inaction.
Fuck cops. Fuck Liberals. Fuck Labor. Fuck the banks, fuck corporations, fuck anyone who tries to profit off our pain. GayTMs and rainbow logos will not help us; in the face of a corporatized and pinkwashed pride, we need to remember that they only gave us rights because we gave them riots. Pride and Mardi Gras began as a brutal resistance against a state that wanted us to die. We need to return pride to a political protest and reaffirm that we will not be pawns – Mardi Gras is ours, and its current iteration is an absolute joke. It’s time to challenge the state and make our voices heard again.
This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.