On June 24, 1978, Sydney’s Gay Solidarity Group responded to a call for an international day of protest put out by gay and lesbian activists from San Francisco. They went on to organize the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
A thousand people attended the festival and march from Kings Cross to Oxford Street. Halfway through the event, Sydney’s police force suddenly withdrew their permit, pushing the crowd into Hyde Park. Instead of dispersing, the marchers fought their way to Kings Cross, where the police arrested fifty-three people. Since then, the Mardi Gras has been held annually, in defiance of homophobia and police persecution.
Today, the Sydney Mardi Gras (MG) parade and festival — held on March 6 — has grown to become one of the city’s most prominent cultural attractions. As with similar pride events worldwide, the Sydney establishment has come to see it as a significant driver of “rainbow tourism.” In 2018, Forbes magazine calculated that “investment from the New South Wales Government in the Sydney Mardi Gras, between 2009 and 2017, has produced an estimated return of more than AU$265 million ($205 million) in visitor spend.”
There’s another clear parallel with pride events elsewhere. In recent times, Mardi Gras has increasingly kowtowed to the will of sponsors and corporate spokespeople, compromising the spirit of solidarity that was at the heart of the original march. It’s time we started reviving and reclaiming that spirit for the present.
From Gay Liberation to the Pink Dollar
As Sasha Soldatow argues in a seminal pamphlet, What is This Gay Community Shit?, even before the first Mardi Gras, there was a tug of war in progress within the movement between a radical wing and a pro-capitalist one:
So-called community aspirations were taking over from the preceding debates of sexual politics, debates that involved both women and men attempting to renegotiate and reinvent the temperament of gender. Simply put, the whole gay community thing was twaddle; it was a matter of emerging gay capitalists smelling the dollars.
Over time, LGBT business interests — the “pink dollar” — have gradually subverted Mardi Gras’s once-participatory model. In order to attract investors and sponsors, MG’s current leadership has strategically built a membership that is apolitical, conservative, or hyper-focused on personal identity at the expense of real solidarity.
They have also given more space to the police, non-radical NGOs, and corporations eager to showcase their commitment to diversity. As the organizers have made room for costumed “allies” — including former Liberal PM Malcolm Turnbull — leftist and radical queer organizations have found themselves marginalized and excluded.
Apart from the obvious political problems raised by prioritizing police and business, these moves have reduced space for grassroots participants. Publicly, Mardi Gras claims to allow for an equal balance between corporate and grassroots floats. However, the organizers neglect to mention stipulations that allow corporate floats to carry a hundred people, while grassroots ones are limited to twenty.
Communists Against Cops and Corporate Creep
The Pride in Protest (PiP) coalition has stood against this transformation, pushing to rebuild MG’s commitment to solidarity. In 2019, PiP won a breakthrough when member and local communist Charlie Murphy was elected to the Mardi Gras board. Other board members cite their many years of association with businesses, the law, or marketing firms, but Charlie describes herself as being “passionate about Mardi Gras no longer answering to corporate power and status quo institutions.”
PiP’s argument is gaining ground. In 2020, another PiP member, Alex Bouchet, was elected alongside Charlie. This coincided with a push at the 2019 annual general meeting, as grassroots Mardi Gras members argued that the parade should cut its ties with drug manufacturer Gilead, in response to price gouging of HIV prevention drug PrEP in the United States.
PiP pushed further, arguing that MG should also sever ties with ANZ, one of Australia’s four major banks, and Qantas, Australia’s major airline carrier, for its role in deporting refugees. Members have raised similar concerns about companies like the retail giant Woolworths and the Star casino.
To date, MG has only seriously considered divesting from Gilead. Indeed, MG is so protective of its corporate ties that consultations with its sponsors occur completely behind closed doors, often unseen even by board members.
In any other popular organization — a trade union, for example — this would be unheard of. Within Mardi Gras, it’s par for the course. The majority of the MG board defends the practice as being entirely legitimate for a company, in the process both erasing the organization’s membership and redefining its purpose.
A similar battle is also playing out over the involvement of the New South Wales (NSW) Police and Corrective Services in Mardi Gras. The NSW Police’s history of persecuting LGBT people has not ended — at the 2013 Mardi Gras, a Sydney police officer bashed Bryn Hutchinson and fined his sister for screaming during the assault. According to PiP, between 1970 and 2010, the NSW Police failed to investigate ninety suspected gay hate murders.
Aboriginal LBGT people are disproportionately at risk, as a result of racialized policing and high rates of incarceration and death in custody. In 2009, NSW Police arrested Veronica Baxter, an Aboriginal transgender woman, detaining her on remand at Silverwater prison, in an all-male facility.
Prison guards found Baxter dead in her cell two days later. Although evidence showed that she had used an emergency intercom in her cell multiple times the night before her death, prison guards did not record the calls and claimed not to remember taking them.
PiP also argues that Mardi Gras has a broader responsibility to stand in solidarity with other movements — such as Black Lives Matter — that oppose bigotry and institutional violence. The 2020 MG annual general meeting (AGM) voted down a motion by Indigenous PiP members Keith Quayle and Lungol Wekina barring a NSW Police float at MG. Nevertheless, their motion attracted 44 percent of the vote, the closest MG has come to banning law enforcement from the march.
Out of the Boardroom, Into the Streets
Reclaiming Mardi Gras also means democratizing its membership. Naturally, MG markets itself as inclusive. As the MG website declares, its “vision is to be a global leader in the promotion of diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice through culture, creativity and partnerships.”
The boardroom jargon should give you a hint about the MG board’s priorities. They have rejected proposals to open up membership, for example, by reducing the joining fees.
At the same time, MG has strategically depoliticized membership. Today, its focus is less on democratic participation and more on coupons. MG rewards its members with discounts at shops like Daly Male and fitness supplement stores, or with reduced entry at Sydney’s famous Stonewall bar.
Of course, muscle queens and business gays are perfectly welcome — 2020 was the year of the himbo, after all. Yet by implicitly prioritizing a narrow subset of LGBT people, who also happen to be the target audience for key LGBT businesses, the Mardi Gras board undermines its claim to represent the city’s entire LGBT population.
In 2019, PiP won a small victory for democracy. They successfully passed a motion on the MG board to establish an ethics charter that would ensure broader consultation about preferred sponsors at the MG annual general meeting. Shortly after this victory, recently elected PiP MG board member Alex Bouchet reported discovering that Mardi Gras had already been busy consulting — only “with sponsors instead of the community.” The PiP coalition is planning to take over Oxford Street on Saturday, March 6, to revive the militant tradition of the original Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
In response to pressure, MG has made some positive changes — for example, by placing a First Nations float front and center at the parade. But efforts like these will appear cosmetic and tokenistic so long as the MG board is effectively closed, with no Indigenous representatives.
This points to a broader issue with representation. PiP’s Charlie Murphy is the only out transgender board member and one of the few to have been elected, despite continual involvement of trans people within MG since its inception. The exclusivity of MG’s internal culture ensures that this kind of disproportion remains entrenched.
Reject Modernity, Embrace Tradition
The conservative evolution of Mardi Gras represents a sharp break with its radical, working-class traditions. If you start digging into the march’s history, before long, you’ll find yourself talking with Ken Davis, lifelong socialist and one of the lead organizers of the first three festivals. Ken still clearly remembers these parades, almost wholly organized and led by gay and lesbian workers.
This began to change when, after an initial debate, small businesses were included. Over time, the Right used this as grounds to justify the inclusion of big business, too. Similarly, they argued that if public-service workers and civil servants were included, police floats should also be allowed to participate.
These moves had consequences. Previously, as Ken explains:
Unions and groups of “out” queer workers have been in Mardi Gras since the first night in 1978 — for example, teachers, postal and railway workers, telephonists, nurses, flight attendants, firefighters.
Today, prioritizing business floats often forces workers to attend under the banner of their employers. And corporate floats are judged worthy for the parade on the basis of whether they are “good employers” to LGBT people. It’s a label that Ken — who has been a proud Trotskyist “since he was fifteen” — finds offensive, as would any other socialist or trade unionist who understands labor relations to be inherently exploitative.
Mardi Gras has also strategically defanged the political content of the original parade. As Ken explains, the Right used the rise of gay and lesbian health services and NGOs to justify further diluting the march’s politics:
With AIDS in the mid 1980s, there was a change, with large numbers of heterosexual volunteers in the parades with community AIDS services contingents, and then municipal councils and relevant government departments started to promote their services in the parades.
The end result was a victory for “for-profit consultancies that run ‘diversity’ programs and reward big corporations for being queer friendly.”
To remain relevant, Mardi Gras needs to recapture and update the spirit of the 1970s, when radical movements against war and oppression converged with the workers’ movement. At the forefront was the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), whose green bans achieved global renown.
It’s not so well known that the BLF was the first union in Australia (and one of the first worldwide) to extend solidarity to gay and lesbian people. In one famous instance, the union placed a “pink ban” on Macquarie University. In response to the expulsion of Jeremy Fisher, treasurer of the university’s Gay Lib club, on explicitly homophobic grounds, the BLF halted building works until the administration readmitted him.
As Ken Davis explains, union members felt little sympathy with vice chancellors and had experienced more than a few run-ins with police. It was natural that they would extend solidarity to gay and lesbian students. And in the 1970s, the Sydney police were not so concerned with presenting a tolerant, diverse public image:
Early gay pride protests saw scores of arrests. Lesbian and gay activists faced police repression in environmental, indigenous, peace, and feminist protests. There was great concern around corrupt inner-city police stations, prisons, and their sexist, racist, and heterosexist violence. In 1978, before the first Mardi Gras, on the night of June 24, we already used the chant: “Stop Police Attacks, on Gays, Women and Blacks.”
Today, the marketing has changed, but the social role played by corporations and police forces has not.
There are two possible futures for Mardi Gras. If LGBT businesses stay in control, it will remain a corporate-sponsored street party and won’t meet the standards of inclusivity it promises. Alternately, if MG’s membership is empowered, it may draw in new generations of LGBT people, and once more become a festival of resistance against oppression and corporate power.