Why the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras matters
Yana Alana is seen during the Sydney Mardi Gras 2019 program launch in Sydney, Friday, November 2, 2018.. (AAP Image/Peter Rae)
The end of February heralds an important time of year for many of the LGBTIQ community nationally. For two glorious weeks the City of Sydney hosts a diverse range of film, theatre, visual arts and community events which culminates in a fabulous night of celebration, pride and self-expression that is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade!
Many people across the city love the spectacle of the parade, and Sydney’s retailers and hospitality industry enjoy a welcome lift to their revenues. This is in stark contrast to the parade’s genesis in 1978 which was dark and violent.
Who is Mardi Gras really for these days, and why do we need it?
Over the last few years laws and attitudes in Australia towards LGBTIQ people have changed, and for the better. The marriage equality ‘Yes’ survey result in November 2017 and the subsequent strong Parliamentary votes in both Houses sent a strong, unequivocal message to LGBTIQ young people, adults and families that they are accepted in Australian society, that their love and relationships are valid, and that they belong.
For many young people, who are discovering their sexuality and gender identity, this can be a challenging and confronting time in their lives. Family, school, cultural norms, and religious institutions can exacerbate matters. Seeing Mardi Gras helps young LGBTIQ people understand they are not alone and that their tribe is everywhere, across every walk of life.
I remember my first pride parade experience. It was the summer of 2001 and I was a sprightly 25 year old who had just moved to London from a turbulent, emerging new South Africa to find fame and fortune. Men in budgie smugglers threw lollies into the crowd to the tune of Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”. Everywhere I looked, same sex-attracted people holding hands, kissing. Drag queens waved from their decorated floats, their hair heroically refusing to collapse in the heat. There wasn’t a hint of anger. I was thrilled on my deepest, gayest level. The parade was a huge gay party, and I had never been so excited to be invited, or felt so welcome, anywhere.
Mardi Gras is for those LGBTIQ people who did not have the same freedoms and opportunity to express themselves as we have today; those men and women who years ago felt that they needed to conform to society’s expectations to be dutiful husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Mardi Gras is also for those pioneers who fought for ‘queer rights’ and ‘gay solidarity’, and also the rights of women and Indigenous Australians.
Mardi Gras is also for trans, non-binary and gender diverse people, and our allies. And that is where Mardi Gras succeeds. It becomes more inclusive and welcoming every year and positions LGBTIQ people as mainstream.
This normalisation (and corporatisation) of the parade doesn’t hit the mark for everyone in the community, but therein lies an opportunity for Mardi Gras’ governing body to remain responsive to the whole community.
This year’s Mardi Gras theme is “Fearless”, a poignant acknowledgment of the way LGBTIQ people across the world celebrate who they are. The theme honours those LGBTIQ advocates, activists and individuals who have stood up for who they are and who they want to be. It is also a call to positive action for the future – to be strong, live brave, be proud. Being fearless is more than making a lot of noise. It’s also about acknowledging a person’s own vulnerability, and being able to express who they are, even if it’s not bold.
Happy Mardi Gras everyone.