Mardi Gras debates membership

Issue 

By Philippa Smith

SYDNEY — The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG) is coming under fire for a controversial proposal to restrict its membership to gays and lesbians prepared to be "outed" or named publicly. SGLMG is the organisation which runs the annual Mardi gras festival, parade and party.

Its origins date back to a street march in 1978 which demanded an end to discrimination, at which gays, lesbians, trannys and their supporters were arrested by police. Since then, the march has changed into a nighttime parade, the party has become an institution on the social scene, and the political history of the event has been all but forgotten.

Who attends the 20,000-strong party, held on the night of the parade and at the end of the month-long festival, has become a bone of contention. Criticism of incidents of homophobic violence by heterosexuals at the party and more generally of the attendance of heterosexuals has been raised, with many expressing a desire for the gay and lesbian community to "retain the party as its own".

SGLMG is moving to prevent heterosexuals from attending the party. This is made difficult by the fact that the annual event has been "mainstreamed" — festival events are reviewed in the establishment media, and politicians from the two major parties publish their support in the annual guide. Interestingly, although much of the comment in the gay and lesbian press has been sympathetic to the proposal, more vocal criticism has been raised in the letters pages.

Two separate issues — homophobic violence, and a feeling of having "too many straights at the party" — have become intertwined, so that the attendance of heterosexuals has become synonymous with homophobia.

SGLMG has proposed restricting membership of its organisation — a prerequisite to buying party tickets. A discussion paper proposes that only gays and lesbians prepared to be "outed", by having their names printed in a newspaper, should be eligible to be members. A recent members' meeting expressed overwhelming support for permitting transsexuals to join, but was split roughly 50-50 on whether bisexuals should have the same rights. The proposals also include limiting membership to those willing to attend one "education session" per year.

While the debate has raised a number of issues, it has also put a smokescreen over others. SGLMG is confusing the political issue of dealing with homophobia with the separate and social issue of who likes to socialise with whom. It is suggesting that only out members of the (presumably Oxford Street) scene are eligible for membership, and its proposals contain no strategy at all — beyond asking individual members to "act responsibly". Those not yet out gays, lesbians, trannys or bisexuals, who may be suffering from prejudice, discrimination and homophobic violence, could easily see SGLMG's proposals as elitist.

The politics of Mardi gras — equality and an end to discrimination — have been submerged in the debate surrounding a popular social event. Unfortunately, the organisation which claims to represent the gay and lesbian community is, as a result, becoming more and more conservative.

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