You might expect that this year's Mardi Gras parade, which came just days after the institutional apologies to the original queer rights activists — the 78ers — would be free of the political heavy handedness that launched Mardi Gras as an annual protest march in 1978.
Not so. The organisers of the No Pride in Detention (NPID) float, which took aim at the government policy that allows queer asylum seekers from countries where homosexuality is a crime to be locked up indefinitely in detention centres, were threatened with expulsion if they did not stop chanting near opposition leader Bill Shorten.
Edward McMahon, one of the organisers of the NPID float, told Green Left Weekly that many said it was “a breath of fresh air in a queer tradition”.
“The crowds enthusiastically joined our chants of 'Let Them Stay'”, he said, referring to the nationwide campaign in support of the 267 people who have been threatened with deportation to Manus Island and Nauru.
Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek joined the parade this election year. “The political class has been unable to ignore us entirely. So they make a big deal of coming to the party”, was how McMahon put it.
Mardi Gras had assigned the NIPD float to the spot immediately behind the Labor and Liberal party floats. Tensions arose when Shorten tried to give a press conference promoting Labor's stance on queer rights, but had to contend with refugee activists chanting “We're here, we're queer, refugees are welcome here” behind him.
When this happens, the political class don't seem to like the conversation. At one point, McMahon was told by Mardi Gras officials that they had to stop chanting or risk having their float banned.
McMahon said: “The head producer, Anthony Russell, shoved his finger into my face and swore repeatedly. Indeed, at one point he said 'You're out'. When I asked him what the problem was, he said: 'You cannot intimidate a member of parliament'. It was clear he was talking about our small protest.
“Ultimately, someone made the decision to insert floats between us and Labor, even though we had not interacted with the Labor float.
“The protest at Shorten took place in a different section of the parade area. Russell was sent in to abuse me and orchestrate either the removal of our float or its separation from the Labor float to allow Shorten to save face.”
Whether this happened or not is debatable. A video of Russell's aggressive intervention has gone viral. Most think that Shorten and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull deserve to face the music — not least because of their gutlessness on marriage rights.
“It's our parade and they are professional politicians,” McMahon said. “Nothing that we did was outside the realm of acceptable or legal political protest.
“If they can't handle this, particularly when they are attempting to use our parade as a political platform, they should leave politics.
“They march in our parade and spruik their ally credentials. But, they drag their feet when it comes to meaningful reform. They spruik their plans for marriage equality, but remain silent on growing suicide rates, particularly in the [transgender] community.
“Further afield, they subject queer asylum seekers to the horror of their offshore detention regime.
“They very deliberately coopt our platform to firm up their legitimacy. If we don't remain organised and committed to our activist heritage, and stand in solidarity with those members of our community who feel the full force of queerphobia, we cannot expect to maintain our hard-fought wins into the future.”
Rachel Evans, an organiser of the Queer Rights Saves Lives float, told Green Left Weekly that if their float had spotted Turnbull they would have let him know their opinions.
“If politicians choose to show their faces at these events and don't expect to be called out on their hypocrisy, it's their problem. Mardi Gras officials should not be trying to silence us.
"There was no threat of violence by those in the floats. But Mardi Gras is a political event — even if some like to call it a parade. We will not forget what happened in 1978, because the queer community is still on the receiving end of systemic violence from the state. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
“Equal marriage remains illegal because neither major party has the courage to put it forward — not because Australians don't want it. And the incredible Let Them Stay movement for refugee rights shows that more and more people are growing angry at the major parties' cruel refugee policies — queer refugees especially.
"In Bolivia, where I've just been, elected politicians are not afraid to walk the streets because they want to engage with ordinary people. Here, it's a very different story.”
Greens Councillor for City of Sydney and original 78er Irene Doutney said: "Since the outset Mardi Gras has been about two things: protest and fun. It would be sad to see today's activists sidelined in favour only of fun when there are still so many important issues to be dealt with such as the appalling treatment of gay asylum seekers who are locked in homophobic detention centres or resettled in countries opposed to LGBTI rights.
“I hope Mardi Gras will always be a time when these issues can be brought to the public's attention."