The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras held recently is an event that helps define Sydney. It brings an estimated $46 million into the economy each year, along with a substantial number of international and domestic tourists. This year, there were a record 8,000 parade participants and an estimated 300,000 spectators. It was a well organised and thoroughly policed event, even considering the crowds and road closures.
Mardi Gras is an entertaining spectacle for many people - both gay and straight - and gives Sydney a cultured image that attracts a lot of spectators and tourists. Since it was first held in 1978, this parade has consisted of colourfully over-dressed, cross-dressed, gay men and women (and all things in between) marching down Oxford Street. By doing so, the gay community claimed this space as its own.
The usual melee of costume, sexuality and politics was out this year. Colourful displays included a float of lifesavers, drag queens with metre-high wigs, dykes on bikes (and each other), men in leather straps, Kylie Minogues, Vicky Pollards and John Howards. A seemingly infinite number of gay community groups and organisations had floats, as did services such as the police and ambulance service.
There were also, interestingly, quite a lot of churches - I counted about ten. The Corporates were out partying too. ANZ had a sea of blue umbrellas and IKEA paraded with kitchen utensils. Mardi Gras has clearly been corporatised.
This year’s parade was more festival than anything else. A carnival of politics, protest, sexuality and costume, it has become a metaphor for Sydney’s gay community. It’s big party where Sydneysiders (of all sexual persuasions) get together to celebrate, above all, diversity. Diversity - of ethnicity, culture, religion, race or sexuality - is a defining feature of Sydney and its global image, and a unifying theme of Mardi Gras.
But what about the politics? The first march of 1978 was a brave gay rights protest, and was halted by brutal police intervention. Over the years the parade become bolder and bigger, fighting for acceptance of homosexuality, civil rights for gays and support in the fight against AIDS. The vital challenges of the gay community in the early years had to be vociferously fought to ensure the survival of the community and attain some basic human rights for gays.
The parade’s very nature makes it profoundly political. Now, however, many of its original intentions have been achieved - gays and straights still aren’t equal but for many gays in the city there are no longer many incentives to join the political fight.
There are still plenty of areas where straights and non-straights are treated differently and unfairly under the law - such as gay marriage, superannuation between couples and taxation of those living as couples. However, progress has been made over the decades. Medical advances, public health campaigns and support agencies have dimmed the threat of AIDS. Many more people (although mostly in urban rather than rural places) are willing to accept, even facilitate, gays in their community.
Tolerance is spreading and “gay” is cool - as evidenced by gay characters on TV shows and the large number of young, straight spectators at the Mardi Gras parade. Homophobic violence still exists, yet tolerance and acceptance have improved markedly over time.
The political edge of Mardi Gras has dissipated, and it’s more openly embracing the general public. Has Mardi Gras become more party than politics, more humour than activism? Is it still a rallying call for Sydney’s gay population, or has it become redundant?
Politics certainly were involved in the parade, but increasingly of a mainstream bent. The Greens, Democrats and Clover Moore had floats. As did the Your Rights at Work campaign, Amnesty International and the Free David Hicks movement.
But who’s listening to the gay political messages? Perhaps these have been drowned out in the festival atmosphere and the street partying. Perhaps marching down Oxford Street in colour, pomp and heels is no longer boldly claiming that space as gay, especially when there are orderly metal barriers for crowd control and police helping to keep the show running.