Mardi Gras — now the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, (LGBTQI) pride march in the world — started in June 1978 when New South Wales police viciously assaulted queer people dancing through Oxford Street.
Police arrested 53 people and continued to beat many inside police cells. The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of those arrested, leading many to be outed, sacked, divorced and disowned by family members. The environment for queers was harsh in the late 1970s. Campaigners only managed to repeal laws against homosexuality in NSW in 1984.
The repression spurred the annual Mardi Gras pride protest parade through Sydney’s gay district, with themes such as “On Our Way to Freedom” (1982), “Fighting for Our Lives” (1985), relating to the HIV-AIDS crisis, and “20 years of (R)evolution” (1998).
The parade has involved up to 10,000 people marching in floats, and up to 600,000 people watching. Currently it is the second-largest event in NSW in economic terms, and earns a whopping $30 million for the state.
But the protest component of Mardi Gras has been whittled away by the neoliberal offensive. The pressure to source money from businesses and government has muted the political messages of equality, resistance and liberation. Company floats such as Ikea, ANZ and Google are now mainstays of the parade.
Moreover, NSW police have marched in the parade for many years. This is despite two police officers beating two gay men in 2013. True to form, police investigated themselves and no one was charged. It was not until last year that police apologised to the ’78ers, as the original Mardi Gras participants are known. No compensation to victims was granted with the apology.
Labor and the Coalition also march in the parade, despite having combined to pass the same-sex marriage ban in 2004 and despite both parties manoeuvring to prevent a marriage equality bill from being passed.
Last year, Malcolm Turnbull was invited by the Mardi Gras Board to participate in the VIP area. He agreed and amid a storm of criticism many rightly asked: “Why is he marching while denying rainbow couples the right to marry?”
Last year’s Mardi Gras parade organisers also threatened to throw out the 200-strong “Free Queer Refugees” Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) float for chanting “Let them Land, Free the Refugees” at Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who was also marching in the parade.
This followed the 2008 threat of expulsion for CAAH for holding a banner demanding the government free “Ali Humayan”, a queer refugee locked up in Villawood. The banner was deemed “too political”.
James Brechney, who began the DIY Rainbow campaign in 2013 and organises regular discussion and community nights in Oxford Street, has been a member of the Mardi Gras Board for two years.
At the last marriage equality rally organised by CAAH, Brechney said Mardi Gras should return to its protest roots, not invite Turnbull to Mardi Gras and that Turnbull was a “dickwad”. Five hundred queers and their allies enthusiastically cheered Brechneys speech and its YouTube clocked an impressive 50,000 views.
To wide condemnation, the Mardi Gras Board censured Brechney for his speech.
The board was due for elections and the community organised, with progressives joining the Board to defend Brechney and to push for Turnbull to not be invited to Mardi Gras.
A motion, put by CAAH and motivated by Brechney, that “the AGM of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras does not believe that the Prime Minister who denies our equality should be welcome at our parade” was overwhelmingly passed.
A few days later the Board’s election results were announced with Brechney overwhelmingly re-elected. Brechney noted in a Facebook post: “With over 200+ No.1 votes I was the first candidate elected and only to make quota. BLOWN AWAY!!!”
Brechney will join current board member Brandon-Leith Bear and newcomers Jesse Matheson and Kat Dopper on the board. Dopper was on Brechney’s ticket.
Brechney said: "The AGM was inspirational. To see progressives, particularly the younger generation, argue for change was incredible. We had genuine debate and that's what democracy is for. It's even sweeter we organised so well to see the recommendation to Board get majority vote. The support for me has been overwhelming and I thank everyone that participated in our election. It sends a real message to the organisation."
Brechney’s re-election to the Board, the successful passage of the motion snubbing Turnbull and the strength of the progressives in challenging the slavish pro-government, corporate agenda of the Board, bodes well for a year of rainbow struggle. Pushed by Brechney and his allies, Mardi Gras’ theme for 2017 is “Creating Equality”.
With Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and a consolidation of the homophobic and bigoted far right in Australia, these advances for the progressive side are sorely needed.
Both major political parties are using the rainbow community as a political football. They both want to keep the marriage equality debate quiet now so they can use the issue to score points against each other during the election campaign.
The life-saving Safe Schools program has been cut and is due to run out of funding in July next year.
Now more than ever we need to increase rainbow rights campaigning to break the back of the homophobic, transphobic parliament.
[Rachel Evans is the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association queer officer. She helped re-establish Community Action Against Homophobia in 2004 and is a Socialist Alliance Sydney branch co-organiser.]