In Conversation with Pride in Protest
For the past four years, Pride in Protest (PIP) has been waving flags at the front and centre of queer rights marches around Australia. For Vol. 2: ‘Sonder’, Vertigo sat down with Mikhael Erzengel of PIP to talk about the collective, Mardi Gras, and the past, present, and future of queer activism.
V: What is Pride in Protest?
ME: Pride in Protest is a bit of a boogeyman. It’s essentially an activist collective formed a few years ago in the wake of the Marriage Equality campaign. After marriage equality went through, a lot of energy got sucked out of the LGBT+ activist space, and Pride in Protest was formed to give it a bit of a kick, pushing forward queer and trans rights instead of always being on the defensive. You often see groups *responding* to attacks, but that means that we never move forward; we’re always staying in the same place. Pride in Protest was founded on the ethos of actively moving forward.
V: Would you mind talking to us about the history and evolution of Mardi Gras?
ME: As far as I understand it, and I’m not a scholar, the original 1978 Mardi Gras event was essentially an act of rebellion. It was a pride parade, but it was also a protest against homophobia. It was confrontational and spontaneous; the decision to go to Kings Cross was very spur of the moment. Over time, the institution of Mardi Gras has become a lot more corporatised as many companies and politicians have discovered that gay people are a really good marketing demographic – I believe the first case of pink-washing was Absolut Vodka.
Today, Mardi Gras means endorsement from politicians, it means sponsorships, it means collaboration from big companies. It's become a lot more reluctant to challenge injustice. For example, American Express is a major sponsor of the Mardi Gras event, yet American Express does a lot of harm to sex workers and marginalised communities by refusing them service, and that’s very damaging to the queer community, which is overrepresented in the sex industry. Another example would be Qantas, which has the iconic Qantas float in the Parade while also participating in the deportation of refugees according to government policy. As these companies are major sponsors of the Mardi Gras event, Mardi Gras is very reluctant to call out their injustice.
As activists, we are aiming to prompt Mardi Gras to get its act together while also providing an alternative voice to the queer and trans community. If Mardi Gras is going to be the self-anointed voice of the community, but it’s not going to speak up about injustice, a different voice must be heard.
V: What are the ramifications of having that sort of corporatism visible in Mardi Gras?
ME: For one, it’s a blatant show of hypocrisy. Mardi Gras deals with banks worldwide who give monetary support to the weapons industry, particularly in countries that then use those weapons against marginalised groups, including LGBT+ people. Another example would be – and this isn’t so much corporatisation – the aspect of including politicians. It is somewhat offensive that the Liberal Party has a float at Mardi Gras when they’ve been the major source of homophobia and transphobia in Australia for as long as I can remember.
I think what’s really jarring and upsetting is a lot of people saying, “Mardi Gras is just a party, it’s not meant to be a protest. We don’t want to care about politics.” I wish I didn’t have to care about politics, but it’s not just a theoretical game to me. These are my friends, they are my family, this is my life. I think it’s a very bizarre position to say politics and Mardi Gras cannot be combined. This is our community, and we are under constant attack. When you are under attack, fighting back is necessary self-defence. If Mardi Gras is not going to provide that nexus of self-defence, then what is its point?
V: So, where should the balance lie between activism and celebration?
ME: Activism can be joyful. I’m not one of those people who believe in mainstream representation and getting our names into the mouths of politicians and getting trans characters on TV. That doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is making sure that people are provided for, that people have access to health, that people have access to services, and that people are not being discriminated against. But, at the same time, I think that can be quite joyful. I go to these queer protests andsee young people having a profound moment of self-realisation, which is really beautiful.
I was 17 when the Marriage Equality debate was around. I went to some of those protests, and I think it was the first time I’d ever been around a lot of queer people before. It was a really mind-blowing,transformative experience. I remember going to the Mardi Gras protest last year, and there were people playing music, dancing in the streets, waving smoke flares and flags, and everyone was all dressed up. That’s really joyful in a way that cannot be artificially set up. It’s a real expression of something. I think in that way, it is possible to have political action that is also deeply personally important.
V: You were talking earlier about pinkwashing. Thinking now about some of the corporate involvement in Mardi Gras, what do you think is the impact of performative allyship?
ME: A lot of the time you could say that [performative allyship] is value-neutral, but I don’t think that’s true because it can perpetuate some very harmful notions, such as the idea that gay rights or trans rights is about representation and visibility. I’m not denying those things are important, but I would rather all of my trans friends have access to medical care. I think it’s less important that UNSW has a big diversity sticker on its front building than ensuring all teachers have access to transition leave. I think it’s less important that corporations are trying to integrate themselves into the queer narrative than making sure they’re not actually doing harm. Also, on a personal level, I find a lot of the representation quite alienating in the sense that I’m not wearing rainbows and pink everything. Actually, that’s not really an important issue; I’m just upset about it (laughs).
V: That is a valid point though given how the LGBT+ community is discussed as if every queer person is homogenous in character. If brands can’t speak to the individuality of the LGBT community, then surely that representation is made obsolete?
ME: Interestingly, some people dislike the term “LGBT” because they feel it is too quantifying, when really, queerness is the recognition of personhood – it’s not about categories. But something I have said is that LGBT does not just mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender; it speaks to a set of shared experiences, shared values, and shared goals. When one of us is under attack, that’s an attack on us all. What I think we really have to recognise is that we stand together because we don’t succeed apart. You don’t have true queer rights without trans rights, they are contiguous with each other.
If I’m going to say something cancellable, I think you can be gay without being queer. You can be a CEO of a company who is homosexual, but you’re not going to have that same experience of discrimination. My goals are not the same as that of the CEO. I’m not interested in advancing the CEO’s rights. I’m interested in the community, in my friends facing poverty and discrimination, who are sex workers and subject to discrimination from American Express. I want to make sure that they are provided for and protected. That’s what the LGBT community is for me: mutual responsibility and mutual care.
V: Earlier in the interview you mentioned Qantas playing a part in the deportation of refugees. Where does intersectionality come into play in queer activism?
ME: I’ve heard that some people – and this isn’t a criticism – don’t like the term “intersectionality” because it sounds quite individualising. What I’ve heard used is “solidarity”. It’s a bit of a linguistic thing: the people who are after me are also after you. If they come for me in the night they will come for you in the morning, or vice versa. The things that oppress us – the socio-economic conditions, the political conditions – all come from the same set of systems and the same historical inertia. Homophobia, racism, and misogyny don’t just emerge out of human nature. They are the product of historical contingencies that occurred for economic-political reasons and which continue to the present day. When we treat homophobia and racism as abstract products of human nature, we fail to see the conditions that create them. Therefore, the principle of solidarity recognises that all of our issues are coming from similar places, and require a unified struggle.
V: What do you believe are the greatest adversaries to the queer and transgender communities in Australia today?
ME: That’s a big question. We are facing a resurgent far-right globally. In this country, it has emerged in some very specific ways. I think what we are seeing is a period of backlash. The Religious Discrimination Bill was basically set up as petty revenge for Marriage Equality. What we’re seeing now is increased political polarisation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as a radical myself, that those issues are becoming very visible, but it does mean that the struggle gets heightened. One of the biggest challenges that we have to overcome is not a new challenge, but the idea that things like trans and gay rights are political footballs, that trans rights or gay rights can be traded off or treated as optional. What we see now around the world is people waking up themselves, people saying, “No, this is not an option, it’s a necessity. No compromise in defence of our rights.” I don’t think that’s a new challenge, but I think we’re finally in a position to challenge it.