Pride, protest and pomp: 40 years of Mardi Gras

March 8, 2018
Mardi Gras. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

“Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks” shouts an iconic poster at the 2018 Museum of Love and Protest gallery exhibition.

It was the slogan that reverberated down Sydney’s Oxford Street 40 year’s ago as the original 1978 protest-parade marched through Darlinghurst, laughing, dancing and imploring others to come out of the closet and join the fight to repeal anti-homosexual laws.

That was until police attacked the courageous lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people and their straight allies on that cold evening on June 24 in 1978, arresting 53 people and beating Peter Murphy and others in police cells.

Many “78ers” were outed to family and workmates by police and newspaper articles that named rally participants. The repression sparked a rainbow rights upsurge and a movement was born. It shook conservative moralists, unnerved church and government leaderships and assailed homophobic and transphobic ideas cocooned in the deepest recesses of the family unit.

The 78ers resolved to march every year and Mardi Gras — the parade — was born.

Originally highly political and in clear solidarity with Aboriginal communities, the parades demanded police stop attacks on protesters and the government remove anti-gay laws. Community contingents boosted movements in the 1980s for HIV-AIDS care, the 1990s battles against discriminatory age of consent laws and the marriage equality battles from the mid-2000s.

However, capitalist governments spare no effort to co-opt liberation movements and Mardi Gras was no exception. Richer LGBTIQ leaders seeking peace with the establishment have diminished Mardi Gras’ protest origins. They invited participation by corporations, whose sole purpose is to make profits, not deliver safe spaces for oppressed groups within their workforce, or justice against society-wide bigotry. 

This year’s Mardi Gras parade, just after the victory for marriage equality, hosted an array of corporations and their politicians. ANZ, Qantas, MediBank, Google, Tinder and gas-fracking company AGL were given prime positions and large contingents by the Mardi Gras 2018 board. Many of these companies are under fire for not paying any corporate tax.

Turnbull’s hypocrisy

The conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended, and his Liberal Party hosted a large contingent. At pains to talk about his first date with his wife Lucy, Turnbull is another corporate politician who got on board late with the marriage equality vote but claims credit for the victory.

Among a number of issues, Turnbull is condemned for not passing a marriage equality bill when he won office. Instead, Turnbull organised an expensive marriage equality postal vote, which won, but in the process subjected many to abuse. The postal vote tactic was required because both Liberal and the Labor parties lacked the will to pass a marriage bill. State Liberal Parties have defunded Safe Schools, an anti-bullying high school educational campaign, which aims to reduce high rates of self-harm and suicide among queer teens.

At the Mardi Gras picnic — renamed Fair Day — the Liberal Party had a sign stating “2017 Turnbull Liberal government legislates marriage equality”. Segments of the crowd booed Turnbull. Cher, the iconic 72-year-old US singer performed at the $250 a ticket Mardi Gras after-party and took a selfie with Turnbull. She apologised after fans tweeted Turnbull’s hypocrisy over the marriage vote and crimes against refugees.

The Liberal Party is in a permanent coalition with the National Party, which just elected Michael McCormack to replace disgraced leader Barnarby Joyce. In 1993 McCormack argued homosexuals were sordid and should be contained lest they infect the rest of society.

Last year, activists passed a motion at Mardi Gras’s Annual General Meeting to disinvite Turnbull as an official guest because “a prime minister who denies us equality should not be welcome as an official guest at our parade”. The Mardi Gras Board ignored the motion and reiterated the invitation. But Turnbull didn’t attend because he had “other things to do”.

This year the Mardi Gras board refused entry to 50 floats because, it said, NSW police had requested a 12,000 cap on people marching. Socialist Alliance, one of the organisations that helped lead the marriage equality campaign, was refused entry, as was the NSW Teachers Federation. After social media condemnation, the Teachers Federation was re-invited.

Mardi Gras is now big business and the state government and tourist industry are keen to capitalise on the “pink dollar”.

Mardi Gras Sydney boasts the largest LGBTIQ parade in the world, with 300,000 visitors and 8000 international tourists. Participants delivered an estimated $40 million in “visitor spend” last year.

Political floats

But in this sea of commodification the LGBTIQ community organises proud sexual liberation contingents (frozen dripping penis floats), and community floats (including First Nation, Rainbow Families, Cairns and Lismore contingents, Queer Scientists).

Progressives organise political contingents and enthuse Mardi Gras audiences. Community Action Against Homophobia and Refugee Action Coalition organised a “No Pride in Detention” Mardi Gras float. Amnesty International held a massive banner “This is not the end … Defend Equality”.

Unions NSW organised a “We Did It” tribute to the marriage victory with male unionists gender-bending in Rosie the Riveter red polka dot head scarves. Reflecting Mardi Gras’s satirical strength, a “Jurassic Love” float condemned Margaret Court, Pauline Hanson and US President Donald Trump for their archaic views, resplendent with dancing, human sized plastic dinosaurs. The NSW Teachers Federation contingent called on us all to defend the Safe Schools program.

A highlight was when “Turn Back the Float: Justice for Refugees”, organised by the “Department of Homo Affairs”, intercepted the Liberal Party contingent with a huge pro-refugee banner, in response to the call for action from RISE: Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees.

The Homo Affairs communique read: “Late last year Australia celebrated same-sex marriage as a win for civil rights and equality — and at exactly the same moment, our government cut off food, water, medical supplies and power to refugees on Manus Island.”

Salvaging Mardi Gras’ protest tradition remains a challenge. In the meantime, the solidarity politics and creative passion of the rainbow community shines through. Re-winning the Safe Schools programs, free transgender operations, equal access to reproductive technologies, liberating queer refugees remain outstanding. Ingesting the fighting legacy of the 78ers and the wind in our sails from the marriage equality protest victory, we can win these too.  

[Rachel Evans is the Socialist Alliance Sydney branch co-organiser and helped lead the marriage equality campaign in Sydney.]

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