Whose Mardi Gras?

March 6, 2010

Sex sells. So this year's Mardi Gras flaunted itself. Its cod-piece was the python-esque parade snaking up Oxford Street, a ribald, risque body of bodies-politic. Marchers fed off a frenzied live street audience of more than 100,000 with even more watching on TV. It's a show with a capital S, buoying pink-dollar tourism and state coffers by $30 million.

"But New Mardi Gras [NMG] isn't just about nudity and faux-feather boas: it should also be about equal rights, and marriage rights", said Aaron Roden from Resistance, a socialist youth organisation affiliated to Socialist Alliance. Resistance joined the Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) float, supporting equal marriage rights with about 40 marching under a 40m² rainbow flag.

CAAH placards read, "Marriage Equality not NMG Corporate Sponsorship", "Animal Lib 4 Marriage Equality" and "Free the Battery Hens" — a stab at NMG's recent heavy-handed policies favouring money-motivated sponsors but banning various floats, including Animal Liberation, because they weren't "gay enough".

Unnamed, fluoro-vested, NMG officialdom bore down, targeting CAAH immediately prior to the-parade. CAAH secretary Rachel Evans was told that some CAAH placards didn't match their entry agreement. The group was threatened with expulsion unless offending material was removed.

"You will be asked to leave. You won't be allowed to participate", CAAH was told. With minutes to parade count-down, no further action was taken by NMG.

In the end, the contingent with its placards proceeded as planned.

In 1969, New York riots against police harassment at the Stonewall Inn triggered a world-wide tsunami of solidarity. South Australia became the first Australian state to legalise homosexuality in the early 1970s. ACT and Victoria followed in by 1980.

But in 1978, Sydney gay rights protesters met with violent police arrests. Known as "78ers" ever since, they claimed gay rights as human rights. Veteran gay rights activist Ken Davis said: "It was a watershed moment in the politics of NSW and in lesbian and gay politics internationally." NSW law changed — in 1984.

The parade's raison d'etre is hinged on its history. This year's theme was "History of the World", a reminder the price of human rights is constant vigilance.

Controversially, 24 paid, poker-faced, NSW police, accompanied by a band, and 24 Federal Police paraded this year, marching in regimental formation. Why? Recent increased use of drug sniffer dogs and taser guns in Oxford Street and party arrests hasn't created harmonious relations.

The role of Federal Police, marching with black-shirted Canadian police, was even more problematic. Black shirts were used by Hitler's SS and much-feared, especially by Jews and gays. Use of black shirts for officials is now banned in Germany — their police wear green.

One elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair at the parade, who asked not to be named, looked visibly frightened and said "this is the beginning of the end of the parade".

Police have paid hefty sums for full-page, colour ads in gay media and on bus-stops this month. It seems they're now seeking to purchase popularity and street-cred, laundering their reputation, and pushing themselves as keepers of law and order against anti-gay violence.

Unsurprisingly, a graffito pitching police as neo-nazis was rapidly removed. Nevertheless, public response to the police presence was positive. I interviewed dozens of spectators from many places who all agreed police were welcome.

Mardi Gras CEO, Michael Rolik, quoted by Peter Hackney in "The corporatisation of Mardi Gras", (GLW # 827 February 21), said: "There is definitely a feeling ... that on occasion [Mardi Gras] has been co-opted by groups who see it first and foremost as a vehicle for their own separate agenda."

He didn't name any group.

Was he referring to ANZ bank or Foxtel TV, spruiked as "major sponsors", for example? Or perhaps he was referring to NSW Crown Casino, NSW Labor Party, State Transit, Taronga Zoo, State Emergency Services, NSW Fire Brigades or NSW Police Force, all NSW Government-linked, some of whom "support diversity" — a piece of weasel-worded nihilism.

I spoke to a large number of float participants from these groups: none said they were gay.

Unsurprisingly, some queer community members say NSW government's Major Events Department new links with NMG creates an unhealthy relationship.

The NSW Police Force, however, did not respond when invited to comment for this article.

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