Protest to parade: Mardi Gras from 1978 to today

Mardi Gras has evolved since 1978 — gone are the days when the community was close enough to simply take over Oxford Street with little oversight.

The first Mardi Gras was a protest. The queer community faced extreme criminalisation in the 1970s: police would often attempt to entrap gay men by soliciting sex, then arrest them, and make deals to expose other gay men. Gay bashings were virtually ignored by the police. The death of Dr George Duncan, a gay man who was found on the banks of the Torrens River, drew national attention. Though police were known to have been present at the time of his death, they stood back and did nothing.

In the wake of this systemic violence, the budding queer community in Sydney received a letter from San Francisco. Queer activists in America asked community organisers to put together a rally to commemorate a year since the Stonewall riots. Protesters met in the morning, marching to end police brutality and homophobia, then paraded down Oxford Street in the evening. The parade was met with an extreme police presence, and 53 people were arrested. The Sydney Morning Herald published the names and occupations of each of the people who were arrested, outing them to the whole city. There are multiple accounts of people being brutalised in jail cells following the arrests, and charges were pursued on each of them.

Today, Mardi Gras continues as a symbol of hope and progress for the queer community, but is this all it should be? Corporate sponsors attempt to obfuscate issues facing the queer community by donating exorbitant sums to the organisation — despite this, Mardi Gras, as it stands, relies on their financial support. Further, the gradual transition from a night of resistance against a repressive police force to one in which the police are invited to preside over queer pride necessitates a closer look. The Mardi Gras board is also under scrutiny for its opacity, and some argue that it is repressing activists and their vision for the future. As one of the largest organisations for and by queer people in Australia, it is essential that we examine its governance.

Since the very first Mardi Gras, much has changed. Homosexual sex has been legalised, anti-discrimination laws are now in place, and the movement for same-sex marriage has come to fruition. A wide array of queer people now enjoy the same protections as heterosexuals, and many would consider their lives to be no different from those of straight people, bar their attraction to a similar gender. At the same time, violence against trans and non-binary people is increasing as the far right gains control of our media outlets. A veritable war is being fought against some of the most vulnerable members of the community, but many queer people (often privileged in other ways: white, upper class, cisgender) have stepped back from the fight.

Today, Mardi Gras is an organisation with incredible influence on the Sydney queer community. Moving the date to late summer, Mardi Gras is synonymous with revelry, an explosion of glitter and rainbows and unfortunate slogans. For an entire month, there are festivals, theatre shows, installations, exhibitions, performances, talks and films which serve to showcase the queer community. Corporations sponsor enormous floats during the parade, with their most well-groomed employees dancing or marching in formation. Through the years, Mardi Gras has evolved from a grassroots community to an enormous event rife with pinkwashing and virtue signalling. 

1. Corporate Sponsorship

As with any supposedly community-oriented organisation, corporate sponsorship can provide freedom to publicise and develop the month long event that is Mardi Gras. From buying floats to forking out sponsorship money, some of the corporations that participate in Mardi Gras are seeking to reduce their negative public perception by parading their supposedly pro-queer agenda. QANTAS, for example, is complicit in off-shore detention of refugees and asylum seekers, refusing to cease transfer of refugees to offshore detention despite public lobbying. American Express, Mardi Gras’ principal sponsor this year, has previously locked the credit cards of sex workers for suspicious activity, destroying their livelihoods and autonomy.

Taking direct inspiration from the first Mardi Gras event, parade and partying is an essential tenet of the Mardi Gras story. Organisers not only protest, but take to the streets to show pride in their identities and budding queer culture. Corporate sponsors, despite their many pitfalls, can facilitate this. The organisation can grow from a group of unpaid volunteers to a team of salaried roles, meaning that greater effort can be put into coordinating one of the biggest nights for Sydney’s queer community. Mardi Gras has always been an expression of hope: hope that one day, queer people would not face violence or discrimination, but instead be welcomed into the streets with open arms. Today, this is the image of Mardi Gras which has endured: an outpouring of glitter, rainbows and the word “slay”.

Furthermore, there is much to be said for queer representation itself. By taking visibly to the streets, queer people subvert heteronormativity. It is incredible that, in the 45 years since the first Mardi Gras, people now comfortably take to the streets in drag, proclaiming loudly their queerness. It can be argued that this is only made possible by the existence of Mardi Gras as a parade, a gathering of queer people from across every spectrum. By extension, it can be argued that sponsors are an essential part of this, and are the force behind which the queer community has been able to gather.

However, pink washing is another threat to queer autonomy. When corporations are complicit in detaining refugees, queer or not, as well as being involved in Mardi Gras, this directly impacts the integrity of the queer movement.

2. Police

Following a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2014, Mardi Gras has committed to working with NSW Police. The MoU was signed amid claims of police brutality in 2013, where an 18-year-old alleged serious assault from the police following an altercation in which he was charged with assaulting an officer. Video footage from the night shows the teenager slammed to the ground, a police officer placing their boot on his back.

The MoU supposedly entitles Mardi Gras to increased consultation with the police prior to the parade, however it also codifies police “decency checks”. These are in place “to ensure that public decency is not offended, keeping in mind the history and nature of the festival event.”

These decency checks have been greatly criticised by the queer community. Police are responsible for the repression, secrecy and shame that marred the early queer community, and turned the 1978 parade into a traumatic night. The idea that they are invited, on queer people’s terms, into the parade as the key arbiters of queer expression leaves a bad taste for many members of the queer community. 

Jenny Leong, The Greens’ Sex, Sexuality and Gender Identity spokesperson said of the checks: “There is a clear connection between the gender-based inequalities we see in our society and attempts to police people’s bodies and shut down peoples’ freedom of expression, including monitoring what they wear.”

3. Democracy

In conversation with Mikhael Erzengel, an activist with Pride in Protest (PiP), they explained the role that PiP seeks to play in the movement of the Mardi Gras Board. “Mardi Gras is a means to an end,” they stated, outlining PiP’s goal of advocating for greater autonomy for queer people. They voiced frustration with the current landscape of the queer community: some people seem to enjoy immense privilege, while trans people remain at risk of violence and dehumanisation with seemingly little help from their peers. 

“It’s not just that they aren’t engaging with politics, but that they won’t even engage with politics.” Erzhengel, when speaking about the Annual General Meeting held last November, alleges that the organisation would not hear motions from PiP. One such motion, to end the relationship between Mardi Gras and the police, was particularly contentious, with news coverage examining the role of decency checks during the parade. 

The lack of transparency within the organisation has sparked outrage from Pride in Protest. Speaking with Skip Blofield, a board director, they report that last November, “[The board] threw out member motions – all of them – that would have constitutional implications.” For an organisation that seeks to represent the queer community, particularly on an international stage during World Pride, the board is quite opaque.

Blofield further argued that Mardi Gras is “effectively a corporate board masquerading as a community organisation.” They would prefer a more direct democracy, and are lobbying for increased activism within the organisation. As an industrial activist, they want to see more direct and disruptive actions from the organisation, “especially where this sort of pinkwashing is putting up no resistance to the, quite frankly, fascist-adjacent discussions attacking queer rights.”

4. Evaluation

In the face of increasing right-wing hysteria surrounding sex education and queer existence, it is essential to fight back as a community. Mardi Gras, as the largest gathering of queer Sydneysiders in the city, is an essential part of resistance. Platforming queer joy is important, especially in a time where queer pain is so profitable, however this cannot come at the hands of avoiding real discussion and action towards progress. 

While sponsorship may enable a more exuberant celebration come March 5, this does not excuse the material harms some of the sponsors perpetuate — particularly for refugees and sex workers. Police presence at Mardi Gras cannot infringe on queer expression — instead, supervision of the event should return to the hands of the community. Finally, the board must seek to create a more community-focused structure, fostering genuine discussion within its membership.

Mardi Gras has evolved since 1978 — gone are the days when the community was close enough to simply take over Oxford Street with little oversight. What’s more, with growing acceptance has come growing laxity about the involvement of police in queer spaces. In some ways, these changes are for the better: decriminalisation and public acceptance has materially reduced the violence that the queer community faces. However, the fight is not over, and it is clear that there is a balance to be had between advocacy and representation, protest and parade.