I was 15 when the first Gay Mardi Gras parade (as it was called then) ended in a violent confrontation on 24 June, 1978. My local newspaper, the Newcastle Morning Herald, reported on the bitter skirmish on the Monday after, under the headline ‘Mass arrest ends march by gays’.
No doubt my sexuality-fuelled teenage anxieties would only have been aggravated by reading these accounts of hostility and violence that marked the clash between police and the brave people we know today at the 78ers.
It would be another 10 years before I attended my first parade. Living two hours away in Newcastle and without any confidence to go to a ‘gay event’ were enough to stop me from attending before 1988.
But the exhilaration I experienced at my first parade and the tentative sense of belonging I began to feel to a community with which I had previously had no real contact, cemented Mardi Gras as part of my identity as a young gay man. I was a few years away from being confident enough to disclose my sexual identity to friends and family, but the process of self-acceptance had begun.
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This year’s Mardi Gras Parade will be the 20th that I have been involved with, mostly as an enthusiastic spectator. But I’ve marched a few times and once been a volunteer marshal helping to control the crowd.
As an academic in leisure and tourism studies, I’ve undertaken social research into aspects of Mardi Gras and used the parade, in particular, to teach undergraduate students about sexual identity, gay and lesbian tourism and event management. Like so many other thousands of people, queer or straight, living in Sydney or elsewhere, Mardi Gras and I have an entangled history.
Each year for the past 40 years, the LGBTQI community has gifted to the city of Sydney (and, thanks to televised coverages and live-streaming, way beyond) a flamboyant act of creation that weaves its serpentine form through what was once the heartland of queer Sydney, beguiling, captivating, thrilling and titillating the many thousands of onlookers.
Surely the parade can be re-imagined as a queer rendering of a rainbow serpent, which, in the couple of hours it bursts into rapturous life, nourishes sexual and gender diversity and empowers both those who give it life and those who watch it.
The crowd of many thousands, perhaps, hundreds of thousands this year, is not a passive mob of by-standers but rather co-creates, with parade participants, the euphoric experience that is experienced by so many of us.
There is constant connection and reconnection between parade participants and onlookers – connections made through eye contact, shared moments of laughter or love, moving bodies in time with music, and physical contact – a kiss or a hug. Joyful ‘Happy Mardi Gras’ are traded backwards and forwards between parade participants and onlookers.
The growth of the crowd and the associated risk-management strategies that come with it, has meant that the boundary between parade participant and onlooker can no longer be good-naturedly ruptured as friendly volunteer marshals maintain the orderly arrangement of onlookers on one side of the barricade, parade participants on the other.
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The once-spontaneous joining of the parade by members of the crowd can only happen at its very end when the barricades come down.
The parade and the festival that it has spawned have played a crucial role in the emergence of Australia and, in particular, Sydney, as an internationally recognised gay and lesbian tourist destination, a destination which successfully bid and hosted the International Gay Games in 2002.
The economic impact of Mardi Gras was estimated in the early 1990s to be around $30 million, and compares favourably with the economic impact of the Sydney Festival, estimated to be about $50 million in 2015. The City of Sydney acknowledged the economic and cultural significance of Mardi Gras in the early 1990s by recognising it as a ‘hallmark event’; the NSW Government is today a ‘strategic sponsor’ and corporations such as Qantas, ‘major partners’.
The contribution that Mardi Gras, and the other LGBTQI pride events that have emerged in Australia, has made to countless LGBTQI individuals’ acceptance of their own sexual identity, and their acceptance by families and friends, must not be underestimated.
These highly visible events celebrate sexual and gender diversity through the claiming of public spaces that are used for visual and performing arts, political and cultural debates, picnics and of course, parades. These events, temporarily at least, subvert dominant understandings of sexuality and gender, opening up opportunities for conversations and debate and possibilities for new ways of being.
Mardi Gras has woven itself into the cultural fabric of Australia. Grainy vision of the parade was used in the video clip of Cold Chisel’s Saturday Night; it featured in the Australian film, The Sum of Us; and was even parodied in the television comedy program, Fast Forward; while popular television programs such as Hey Hey It’s Saturday, have made live crosses in prime viewing time to the parade.
A number of commentators saw more than a hint of Mardi Gras in the Closing Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. By gaining access to mainstream popular culture, Mardi Gras has been able to raise the collective consciousness of Australians and help bring about a greater level of tolerance and maybe, acceptance, of divergent sexualities and genders.
While some commentators, both within and outside the LGBTQI community, have disparaged Mardi Gras for what they see as a loss of political edge, I see an unfailing ambition every year to provide a glittery ‘platform’ from which to challenge power embedded in heteronormative practices and structures.
The struggle for marriage equality, for instance, has been a feature of some of the parades over the last 15 or so years. Homosexual law reform, parenting rights, the strident resistance in the face of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the witty mocking of oppressive structures such as religion and politics have featured in multiple parades. Sure, in some years the parades succeed better at getting their political messages across than in others. But Mardi Gras Parade is more than just a spectacle to which hundreds of thousands of people flock. It is also unrealistic to expect that an event like the parade can drive social reform on its own.
The parade (like the community organisation structures that produce it) has weathered many political and cultural storms across its life, and each year its ‘complexion’ changes a little according to the current issues facing the LGBTI community. Indeed, the parade has been nothing short of a social barometer, an indicator of the conflicts, crises and challenges that have faced the queer community over the past four decades.
Issues such as HIV-AIDS, marriage equality, lesbian participation, homosexual law reform, the always-present tension between the political and the profane, the ‘straights at our party’ debates in the early 1990s, concerns about the increased level of commercial sponsorship of aspects of the parade and the festival have each made their mark in some way in the parade.
Importantly, however, Mardi Gras, through its organisational structures and the myriad events that make up the two to three week festival, develops and strengthens social capital, the web of relationships that connects individuals together to form cohesive communities and ultimately, society more broadly.
Mardi Gras is one of the largest, most spectacular LGBTQI pride parades in the world and has become synonymous with Australian LGBTQI cultures. In four decades it has grown from a small street parade that ended in a riot between participants and police to an extraordinary event involving many thousands of participants that now enjoys the support of local and state governments.
The 40th anniversary provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the impacts that Mardi Gras has had, and continues to have, on Australian culture and society.
Kevin Markwell is a former Novocastrian who now lives in Lismore where he is Professor of Tourism at Southern Cross University.