Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gender Bender

It's Mardis Gras and Carnival time in the Americas but not to be outdone, Sydney has it's own very special event. On Saturday, it's the Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras! Oooh yeah baby!

This annual event has been going for a long time and has grown from a local gay pride event in Sydney's Oxford street red light and gay district to the most spectacular gay and lesbian event in the world. (I'm so proud!) Just recently Conde Nast listed it amongst the 10 most spectacular costume events, right up there with the Venice Festival and Rio Carnivale . . .except most of them are straight. It's the 30th year and promising to be one of the biggest yet.There has been, as always, a month of high quality arts, sporting and social events culminating in the world famous parade!

This year's theme, Brave New Worlds, reflects on the progress made for gays and lesbians over the past three decades and the continued work of advocates for homosexual rights.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is a four-week long festival for the gay and lesbian community held in Sydney during February/March. The festival eventuated from a protest march on June 24th, 1978 in commemoration of the riots in Stonewell, New York City. The event was held again the following year, where it was named the "Sydney Gay Mardi Gras."

It was in 1980 the post-parade dance party was established and in 1988 the parade was renamed the "Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras." The parade features proud members of the gay community adorned with flamboyant costumes, dance music and art. The Mardi Gras features floats and 6,000 marchers and is watched by over 300,000 people reflecting an ever-growing tolerance and acceptance of the gay and lesbian community in Sydney.

While the general tone of the event is one of fun and pride, the Mardi Gras has always maintained a somewhat political edge with humourous visual commentary adorning the floats pointedly directed at specific political parties and opponents. And it's not just a queer little parade, it brings in around 38 million tourist dollars and Sydney is the proud host of the largest gay and lesbian festival in the world. (oh dear!) Have to say tho, it is fun!

Once the preserve of drag queens and flamboyant gays, it's spread it's branches and members want Mardi Gras to increase involvement with other community organisations. Whilst some are concerned that Mardi Gras has sold out and gone for the lucrative dollar and in so doing, abandoned community cultural development others just relish in the fun.
According to the organisers: "Events such as Mardi Gras create a powerful statement to the gay and lesbian community, a statement of solidarity, of brazenness, of strength, of bargaining power, of coming together, of acceptance, of working in coalition, despite our differences. It is our month. We get to take over a major capital city and to occupy its main cultural institutions, in a very powerful and empowering way. "

Apparently, Mardi Gras offers an avenue for coming out for many young (and some not so young) gays and lesbians: those who grew up in Sydney, those who arrived here from country towns, desperate to define their identity, those who have left heterosexual relationships. There are many stories of people coming out to their families on national television, by participating in the parade. There is one story of a young man who even carried a placard saying "Guess What Mum, I'm Gay" and ensuring he got interviewed by a TV reporter during the parade. Of course, his mother said he needn't have gone to so much trouble, she already knew!

There is a serious side to this. Despite the public profile, acceptance and even commercial attraction of Mardi Gras, there remain many legal discriminations against gays and lesbians and continued public attacks on their lifestyle. Suicide amongst young homosexuals is significantly higher than the general youth suicide rate and there are continued attempts to oust gay and lesbian teachers in some areas of the education system because of their sexuality. Not in the armed forces though, we'll take you limp wrists and all!

Same sex relationships are recognised in terms of property ownership but marriage remains illegal. The Rudd government may change this but I've heard nothing about it on their political agenda. And of course, HIV/AIDS is still a high priority in terms of public health and education.

Hey, I don't care what they do in the bedroom. Nobody defines me by my heterosexuality so why define other's by their homosexuality. I do object slightly to the adoption of the word 'gay' which used to mean light-hearted and fun loving and now means something quite different. Better to be happy in a same sex relationship than miserable on your own.

Australia isn't alone in their gender confusion and we're no where near as in tune as the Brits. I had to put some forms together for a client today and was stunned at how progressive the stiff upper lippers are becoming. There is a section on their Pension Application Form for those who have had “Gender Reassignment” So they can explain why they used to be one way and are now, quite obviously another! I must admit I found myself uttering "cool!" under my breath.

So Happy Mardi Gras peeps. Drag out you're sequins, brandish your boa's and crank up the disco beat. Get those Dykes on Bikes and let's see how the Police Gay Liaison Unit handle a trungeon! Happy Mardi Gras!


Kate said...

Looks like a blast - someday I'll bring the kids. Really.

ian said...


How can you have "Fat Tuesday" on a Saturday?

Ireland is ahead of Britain in its legislation and it doesn't cause me great worries, what I don't understand is the need to have parades. It tends to tar all gay people as "camp".

Quickroute said...

I'm no longer down under but I remember going to have a look at the parade back in 1992 when it was still a relatively small affair. Must admit it was good fun. Must be crazy now that its got so big.

Nick said...

Sounds fantastic, wish I could be there. I thought the one in Toronto was the biggest and most spectacular but maybe not. I went to that one a couple of years back and there were around a million people in the parade! And interesting it's the usual mixed bag in Oz when it comes to legal rights and equality. So many countries seem to be astonishingly advanced in some ways and still astonishingly backwards in others. I've never understood all the prejudice, as you say who cares what people do in bed? And Ian, of course we need gay parades to show gays are happy to be what they are and won't hide away in shame any more.

Baino said...

I've only ever been once many moons ago and it was a bit sleezy actually but it's supposed to have improved. It is more inclusive these days and it's not just gays marching. Not sure about taking kids there's a bit of boob and bum going on and a lot of explaining to do!

Ian the campness is the attraction I think but there is also a political agenda usually. You're right tho it does promote a stereotype. Haha I had to look up Fat Tuesday! You know we're always ahead in time!

Quickroute: People seem to enjoy it but I'd rather see Carnivale in Rio frankly. My daughter was there this year and said it was amazing.

Ah Ian you little rainbow you! Well we don't get a million marching but it's certainly colourful! Oz is very liberal apart from the gay marriage thing but my guess is that will change sooner rather than later.

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

We took a leaf out of your book and a few years back started organising a Gay Pride weekend - nothing like your Mardi Gras but it may get there yet, it seems to grow every year. Seems Sydney, Toronto, San Francisco and Cape Town are among the pinkest cities in the world :-)
Oh, and interestingly, gay marriage is legal year - my hairdresser rushed off and got married as soon as the bill was passed!

ian said...


Having been treated to hatemail (anonymous, of course) for writing in a church magazine in defence of gay and lesbian people, I am mindful that parades are construed by some as marking people as being outside of the mainstream.

Anonymous said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never been to the event even when knowing the original organisers and more recent ones as well, but we ALWAYS watch the parade on the telly and LOVE the outfits! One of my dresses was worn by Tom on a float one year ;)

Baino said...

Ian . . empathy to you. You're at the coalface. I admire you completely. I have to admit that the only gay people I know (and there are very few) are quiet, conservative and not at all camp. But Mardi Gras is about fun and famboyance. Both sides are well represented.

Anon: I knew you were an artist, a photographer but also a seamstress? Maybe something spesh for the new niece?