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Mar 07, 2007 Commentary: Is the Mardi Gras more party than politics? -- By Brad Ruting
By vanrozenheim

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, held recently, is an event that helps define Sydney. It brings an estimated $46 million into the economy each year, along with a substantial number of international and domestic tourists. This year, there were a record 8,000 parade participants and an estimated 300,000 spectators. It was a well organised and thoroughly policed event, even considering the crowds and road closures.

Mardi Gras is an entertaining spectacle for many people – both gay and straight – and gives Sydney a cultured image that attracts a lot of spectators and tourists. Since it was first held in 1978, this parade has consisted of colourfully over-dressed cross-dressed gay men and women (and all things in between) marching down Oxford Street. By doing so, the gay community claimed this space as its own.

The usual melee of costume, sexuality and politics was out this year. Colourful displays included a float of lifesavers, drag queens with metre-high wigs, dykes on bikes (and each other), men in leather straps, Kylie Minogues, Vicky Pollards and John Howards. A seemingly infinite number of gay community groups and organisations had floats, as did services such as the police and ambulance service.

There were also, interestingly, quite a lot of churches – I counted around ten. Corporates were out partying too. ANZ had a sea of blue umbrellas and IKEA paraded with kitchen utensils. Mardi Gras has clearly been corporatised.

This year’s parade was more festival than anything else. Its carnival of politics, protest, sexuality and costume have made it a metaphor for Sydney’s gay community. It’s big party where Sydneysiders (of all sexual persuasions) got together to celebrate, above all, diversity. Diversity – of ethnicity, culture, religion, race or sexuality – is a defining feature of Sydney and its global image, and a unifying theme of Mardi Gras.

But what about the politics? The first march of 1978 was a brave gay rights protest, and was halted by brutal police intervention. Over the years the parade become bolder and bigger, fighting for acceptance of homosexuality, civil rights for gays and support in the fight against AIDS. The vital challenges of the gay community in the early year had to be vociferously fought to ensure the survival of the community and attain some basic human rights for gays.

The parade’s very nature makes it profoundly political. Now, however, many of its original intentions have been achieved – gays and straights still aren’t equal but for many gays in the city there aren’t many incentives to join the political fight.

There are still plenty of areas where straights and non-straights treated differently, and unfairly, under the law – such as gay marriage, superannuation amongst couples and tax treatment. However, progress has been made over the decades. Medical advances, public health campaigns and support agencies have dimmed the threat of AIDS. Many more people (although mostly in urban rather than rural places) are willing to accept, even facilitate, gays in their community.

Tolerance is spreading and “gay” is cool – as evidenced by gay characters on TV shows and the large number of young, straight spectators at the Mardi Gras parade. Homophobic violence still exists, yet tolerance and acceptance have improved markedly over time.

The political edge of Mardi Gras has dissipated, and it’s more openly embracing the general public. Has Mardi Gras become more party than politics, more humour than activism? Is it still a rallying call for Sydney’s gay population, has it become redundant?

Politics certainly were involved in the parade, but increasingly of a mainstream bent. The Greens, Democrats and Clover Moore had floats. As did the Your Rights at Work campaign, Amnesty International and the Free David Hicks movement.

But who’s listening to the gay political messages? Perhaps these have been drowned out in the festival atmosphere and the street partying. Perhaps marching down Oxford Street in colour, pomp and heels is no longer boldly claiming that space as gay, especially when there are orderly metal barriers for crowd control and police helping to keep the show running.

Despite a few financial difficulties a few years ago that now look to be behind it, Mardi Gras is popular, entertaining and profitable. But its gay political activism looks to have morphed into something closer to civic managerialism and boosterism. Police and council permission are needed to run the parade. When you need permission and assistance, you need to do things in an orderly manner. When you need sponsorship and media coverage, and have to accommodate for the young children in the audience, you want to keep the overt sexuality in check and really bring out the stereotypes.

Sydney also needs its Mardi Gras. It’s one of the city’s major tourism drawcards. The authorities have a vested economic interest in its health: if Mardi Gras goes under, both Australia’s tourism market and Sydney’s cosmopolitan image in a globalised world suffer.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The more people who watch Mardi Gras, the more publicity gay issues get. Many of the floats are witty and entertaining. There are still ample opportunities to get messages across in innovative and bold ways.

For many gays, though, there’s little incentive to devote their own time and effort to gay political causes. Indeed, the appeal of Sydney’s gay heartland around Oxford Street has diminished, along with that for the gay ‘scene,’ that’s rife with drugs and various social pressures. Changing attitudes, especially within younger generations, have combined with rising property prices and shifting entertainment patterns to reduce the appeal of joining the “gay community.”

In its place, individualism has triumphed. Openly gay men and women now feel more comfortable living in different places and doing different things. Arguably, this reconciling of individualism with being openly gay within society represents the achievement of one of the ultimate aims of the gay liberation movement.

All this aside, though, Sydney’s Mardi Gras is still the big annual community party for gays, and its popularity is likely to continue. Perhaps it’s just about partying now; another big after-party on the Gay calendar and a spectacle for all of Sydney to revel in.

While plenty of gay political fights remain, maybe Mardi Gras isn’t the most effective way to achieve them. But despite all the commercialisation and marketing, it speaks volumes about our society that this parade has become so popular. It’s an annual ritual that Sydney loves.

Brad Ruting
School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney
Email: br@student.usyd.edu.au

This is a post-Mardi Gras updated version of an article that first appeared in the Sydney Star Observer on 1 March 2007.

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