Mardi Gras Is More Than This

By Alyssa Rodrigo

Content Warning: homophobia, violence, and police brutality.

In a stride of colour and glitter, a parade of floats and dancers will make their way up Oxford Street in celebration of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. This year will mark the parade’s 40th anniversary, and the first year in which LGBTQIAP+ Australians can celebrate the legislation of same sex marriage.

Forty years ago, in 1978, Mardi Gras began as a direct resistance to a heteropatriarchy responsible for the violent discrimination and marginalisation of the queer community. The first parade, an act of solidarity with the victims of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, saw a group of 500 organisers gather on Oxford Street for a street festival. As the festival proceeded, police began to intimidate and harass the revellers. The night met its climax when a risen count of 2000 people were met with police violence at Kings Cross. 53 people were arrested, many of whom were brutalised, and their identities publicised in The Sydney Morning Herald. As a result, many queer people were outed without consent, and consequently fired from their workplaces. 

In the forty years since, Mardi Gras has evolved from a grassroots movement protesting for the decriminalisation of homosexuality to a festival of extravagance; complete with dancers, performers and drag queens. Since the 1990s, companies have joined in on the festivities with corporate sponsorships, partnerships, and funding. In stark contrast to the first parade in 1978, the two kilometre stretch up Oxford Street becomes endowed with corporate logos and promotional hashtags, each more colourful and rainbow-shaped than the next. 

As these displays of corporate solidarity continue to grow in prominence with each year, there lie more insidious consequences, ones that we often blind ourselves to. Though Mardi Gras continues to be a politically significant event in the Australian queer community, its shift from a once radical and highly politicised event towards a celebratory parade and social occasion sheds light on what it means to be queer in a 21st century, neoliberal era.

Our identity as queer bodies are now a marketing scheme – one that is readily, and often clumsily dissected to be prepared and consumed by a cisgender and heterosexual audience. As companies appropriate queerness for capitalist gain, there evolves a false equivalence in which visibility in the marketplace erroneously assumes social visibility. It is ultimately a hollow reflection that offers the temptation of representation and a seat at the table, but does little to honour queer voices beyond the parameters of our economic potential. Here, we see LGBTQIAP+ visibility depend upon market trends and profitability. And frustratingly, breaking out from the dynamics of capitalism and striking out on our own has its own set of challenges.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras did not intend for the event to grow and become inundated with marketing jargon and corporate logos – it simply happened because much like the pride events in London and New York discovered, corporate partnerships and funding make the show go on. But commercialisation comes at a cost. As we allow companies to co-opt our identities, queer communities increasingly become a target market to tap into and a subculture to profit from. Companies encroach into a space which historically, has been an important meeting ground for activism and social change. 

So, if you are attending the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras this year, remember that as you stand on Oxford Street, illuminated by a dazzling spectacle of neon lights and rainbow glitter, you are standing on what used to be a battleground – and there is still a fight ahead. 

Art by Nicole Ho