Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras membership controversy


By Kath Gelber

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG) created a public furore on April 30 when it adopted controversial new guidelines for membership requirements for people not identifying as gay, lesbian, homosexual or transgender.

SGLMG sees itself as both a cultural organisation, promoting a hugely successful month-long annual arts program which culminates in the world's largest gay and lesbian night-time parade and party, and as a political organisation, promoting gay and lesbian issues in the public sphere.

Due to the undeniable commercial success of the now 20,000-strong annual party, it has become a popular event not only for gays, lesbians and transgender people, but also for bisexuals and heterosexuals. The party is viewed as much as a cultural event as a political one, and not everyone attending the party has necessarily supported gay and lesbian rights. This has been reflected in some instances of overt homophobia at parties — caustic comments, sexual harassment of lesbians by straight men, and even verbal and physical abuse.

Such expressions of overt homophobia have, of course, been met with resistance by the gay and lesbian community. Some have publicly criticised the presence of all heterosexuals, arguing the party should be maintained as the gay and lesbian event it was intended to be. Others have countered such claims, arguing that the heterosexuals and bisexuals they know and bring along to the party are supportive of gay and lesbian rights.

Because tickets to parties are restricted to members of the organisation, the issue has been translated into a question of membership — the item dealt with at the April 30 Extraordinary General Meeting of the SGLMG. Just over 200 members, out of a total of 6000, attended the EGM and a majority of 187 voted to introduce new procedures for membership. The vote was carried in a second round after the first round failed to produce the necessary three-quarters majority required to pass resolutions at EGMs.

All applicants for membership are requested to answer questions regarding their sexuality and which requires them to fill in a form and sign a statement supporting the aims and objectives of the organisation. If applicants tick the boxes marked gay, lesbian, homosexual or transgender their membership will be accepted with no further ado.

If, however, applicants tick the boxes marked bisexual, heterosexual, or choose not to identify, they will be required to provide supplementary information justifying their application. The criteria on which the board will accept these new members are yet to be determined and will not be implemented until after the AGM in July. However subsequent their membership will be accepted if they fulfil these criteria.

On the face of it, such a procedure could serve to increase political awareness of gay and lesbian issues — if it were applied to all members. As the proposal currently stands, however, it is assumed that people identifying as gay, lesbian, homosexual or transgender should be allowed to join regardless of their intentions. The intentions of bisexuals and heterosexuals, however, will be scrutinised.

Any political organisation has the right to select its membership on the basis of support for its aims and objectives; this is a common practice. But SGLMG has created two classes of membership — gays, lesbians and transgender people of any political persuasion are allowed to join; bisexuals and heterosexuals must be of the "right" political persuasion.

And that's a shame. The assumptions involved in creating two classes of membership do not bode well for the future of the gay and lesbian movement, since they curtail opportunities for working with supportive, politically progressive people of all identities on the basis of agreement on the issues.