The corporatisation of Mardi Gras

February 21, 2010

The modern queer rights movement was born on June 28, 1969 in New York City.

That night, New York queers endured one too many police raids on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. For once, they fought back in what became known as the Stonewall Riots.

Stonewall gave succour to the queer rights movement worldwide, including here in Australia where in 1978 the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was held to commemorate the riots.

With origins like this, you'd expect New Mardi Gras (NMG) — the company that runs Sydney's Mardi Gras — to be all for freedom of expression. But as events of last week show, it is anything but.

If there was any doubt that Australia's largest queer event had become a monolith that exists for its own sake — instead of the queer community it represents — it was dispelled last week when NMG took the extraordinary step of banning queer people from this year's Mardi Gras parade.

As independent online portal The Scavenger first revealed, queer members of Animal Liberation NSW (ALNSW) — who first marched in the parade 14 years ago, and received a Most Creative Entry nomination for their "Vegetarians Taste Better" float in 2007 — were no longer welcome.

The reason? According to communication from NMG to ALNSW, they "weren't queer enough".

It didn't matter that most of those involved in ALNSW's entry were actually queer, or that the entry was renamed "Sydney Queers for Animal Rights" to placate Mardi Gras. Apparently all participants, and their message, had to be 100% queer.

"Mardi Gras is first and foremost a gay pride event", NMG CEO Michael Rolik "explained" several days later. "There is definitely a feeling amongst both staff and volunteers that on occasion it has been co-opted by groups who see it first and foremost as a vehicle for their own separate agenda."

Yes, Michael, like Ikea — who will be allowed to "co-opt" the parade this year to help them sell cheap kit furniture that takes five days to assemble.

Or ANZ, whose NMG-approved "co-opting" no doubt relates to an agenda of getting more of us to take out hefty bank loans.

Or Foxtel, who — colour me cynical — are in it with the hope that more queers pay for the privilege of watching US reality shows and re-runs of The A-Team.

Clearly, it's okay to "co-opt" Mardi Gras if you cough up enough dough, or if the NMG honchos approve of your message — and some in the community are of the opinion that NMG does have issues with Animal Liberation's message, especially after last year's "Cows are Cool, Leather is Cruel" float which sent many of our gay male leather aficionados into a queeny flap (macho men that they are).

The result is a parade that's little more than a shopfront for corporations chasing the pink dollar, and those select queer groups who get the tick of approval from our self-appointed Gay Government, the ranks of which are made up of unelected "politicians" from NMG and other "gaystream" organisations.

The situation would be slightly more palatable if our community could at least discuss these issues freely and openly, but NMG isn't keen to engage. To date it has not responded to any critical posts on its Facebook page, including those about the Animal Liberation float and complaints by Tasmanians that their state-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and gender-diverse queer-owned businesses were denied a stall at the Mardi Gras Fair Day.

And sadly, the queer media has been "co-opted" into the culture of censorship.

What should be a forum for recourse has become little more than a queer K-Mart catalogue; endless advertorials urging its "readers" to buy something (such as Mardi Gras tickets) instead of investigating or questioning anything.

Shortly after The Scavenger story on the Animal Liberation float broke, I wrote a piece on the matter for the Sydney gay weekly, SX, and uploaded it on the magazine's website.

The following day, the story was removed by order of the publisher. But not before the world's largest gay and lesbian magazine, The Advocate; Europe's largest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender news website, Pink News; and US gay blog Queerty picked up the story, all referencing the SX article (which now leads to a "page not found" link).

A couple of days later, the story was flagged by the mainstream media, appearing throughout Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation titles, and on the Austereo radio network's morning news bulletins. Sydney's other gay weekly, The Sydney Star Observer also ran a piece.

Exactly why the story was scuppered by SX is unclear — there's no doubting its newsworthiness, as its viral spread through other media showed. Could it be anything to do with the fact that Evolution Publishing (publishers of SX) is the official media partner for NMG?

On her blog, Sequins & Sands: A 2010 Mardi Gras Behind the Scenes View, NMG co-chair Steph Sands makes the claim that, "Mardi Gras is for all of us. Not just a chosen few."

Wrong, Steph. The Mardi Gras of 2010 is an overly spin-doctored, egotistical, dollar-driven corporation that exists largely for itself.

It has learned nothing from its 2002 crash and burn, the direct result of dancing too close to the corporate devil. Now, it's dancing with that devil again, and the result is corporate inclusion at the price of community exclusion.

Unless Mardi Gras changes dance partners, and deigns to get down with its community instead of faceless corporations, history will likely repeat and the organisation will again crash and burn.

In fact, without the watchdog role of a vital, enquiring and uncensored queer media — I'm betting on it.

[Peter Hackney is a freelance journalist and the former news editor of SX. This article first appeared in The Scavenger, an online portal of independent features, commentary and news located at]

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