Bricks, rocks and punches: all were thrown at police in retaliation for decades of homophobic persecution one fateful night in 1969 – an event that would come to be known as the Stonewall riots. The New York City protest sparked a global movement for gay liberation, one which had been brewing for many years prior in the revolutionary atmosphere of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Inspired by this show of resistance and acting in solidarity with the U.S Gay Liberation Front, Australia’s first Mardi Gras began as a protest in 1978. Now, over 50 years since Stonewall, the gay liberation movement has experienced a rapid transformation, due in large part to the success of queer activists and grassroots campaigners in bringing about social and legal change. As LGBTQ+ communities continue to assimilate into mainstream society, many have questioned whether the radical spirit of Pride has been ‘tamed’ and the event de-politicised to cater to corporations and the neoliberal establishment. Particularly in Australia, there has been a gradual shift away from the political roots of Mardi Gras and towards a more sanitised, corporate atmosphere. So, what do we still have to riot for? Shouldn’t we be celebrating how far we have come, in a show of unity and joy? Do politics still belong at Mardi Gras? These are the questions which dominate discussion around Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras parade. But before it was a parade, it was a protest.
The radical roots of Mardi Gras
The gay rights movement was formed at the intersection of the Black liberation movement, the rise of second-wave feminism, the Vietnam war protests and the Parisian class uprisings in May 1968. Protests against police brutality and solidarity within and across political movements were key to the scale and success of the fight. After activists from San Francisco wrote to various Sydney gay rights groups in 1978 asking for demonstrations of solidarity in honour of the upcoming Stonewall anniversary, a protest was organised. It was set to be multiple things – a march, a political display and a celebration of queer joy, resistance and visibility. After the date was set for the evening of June 24, the name ‘Mardi Gras’ was suggested as a cheerful homage to the carnival elements of the event. LGBTQ+ people from around Sydney marched from Taylor Square down Oxford street, attracting crowds of bewildered onlookers from nearby pubs and bars. The protesters held signs calling for an end to the discrimination and criminalisation of homosexuality, as well as demonstrating support for Indigenous and Black civil rights movements which were developing in parallel to the Gay Liberation Front. The plan had been to end in Hyde Park with speeches and calls to action, but after police denied protesters access, there were spontaneous calls to ‘take the Cross’ and march past their permit into Kings Cross. Chanting provocative slogans and linking arms, the group of about 500 people advanced and were met with police brutality. One 78er, Diane Minnis, described the way cops were “picking people up, throwing them in the police wagons, slamming the doors on their legs." At the end of the night, 53 people had been arrested. Some were in jail cells and some left brutalised on the streets. The next morning their names and addresses were publicly printed in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, costing many their jobs, housing and relationships, and driving some to suicide.
A public apology was made in 2016 by the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as the NSW government. The NSW police provided an apology through Surry Hills superintendent Tony Crandell, but many of the original marchers noted that they were still waiting for direct communication from the chief police commissioner. Back in 1978, the violence caused a huge public backlash, with supporters rallying to ‘drop the charges’ against protesters. Eventually, this succeeded and all charges were expunged by the late 90s. Additionally, persistent campaigning led to the relaxation of legislation around permits for street marches. In 1979, after uncertainty and fear around whether another march should happen, 3,000 people took to the streets to commemorate the events of the previous year. There were no incidents involving police (or at least, none recorded) and positive media coverage helped platform the queer community into the spotlight. Thus began the creation of a legacy, with crowds growing bigger and bigger every year as Mardi Gras returned again and again, always maintaining its political edge through a variety of floats relevant to the current issues within the community. Even during the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the late 80s, with pressure on organisers to cancel, the parade maintained its momentum. This was during a time when hate crimes and gay bashings were on the rise, with reports of police covering up the murders of queer people. In response, the well-loved group Dykes on Bikes was formed in the late 1980s in order to protect gay men and general supporters of the community. In 1991, the tradition of having Dykes on Bikes lead the Mardi Gras parade was established.
“Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks” was a well known chant from the 1978 Mardi Gras. It captures the intersectionality of struggles faced by the queer community. From the early 1970s, gay liberationists have been criticising the nuclear family, gender roles, capitalism and other forms of institutional oppression. They demanded radical action on all fronts, taking a stand for those whose causes might be less ‘palatable’, like sex workers and the trans community. Daring to imagine a world beyond the confines of heteronormativity, these dreams were born and spread through vibrant campus cultures and student life. Parades during the late 80s and 90s stood firmly with Indigenous rights and against police. As time progressed, businesses and workplaces began to grow accepting of queer customers and so came the rise of the ‘pink pound’ in the early 2000s. Suddenly the purchasing power of the queer community, but also the possibility of monetising many of the cultural events and festivals such as Mardi Gras, became evident to corporations. Previously, small local businesses like porn stores and non-for-profits had sponsored these events. However, as a larger heterosexual audience began to partake in the celebrations, so did the mega-corporations. Social occasions are valuable ways for queer people to create safe spaces for themselves and share common experiences. To counter societal guilt and shame, a push for the pride, visibility and empowerment of queer people took place through the medium of partying. It is undeniable that much of Mardi Gras’ popularity comes from the many attractive opportunities to party in an atmosphere of indulgence and seduction. In turn, this has provided corporate incentive for businesses and governments to create opportunities for product-placement and marketing. Ultimately, a party is easier to commodify than a protest.
This is not to say that joy, celebration and fun don’t also belong at Mardi Gras, but rather to highlight that party and protest don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Since the beginning of the gay rights movement, there has been a disconnect between those that believe in respectability politics and those that have always stood by the most marginalised of the community. Liberation for some is liberation for none: we cannot claim to have nothing left to fight for when there remains violent attacks on trans youth. We cannot claim that there is nothing to protest when Indigenous lives continue to be taken by police – the very same armed police that are invited to participate unabashedly during Mardi Gras. Which queer lives are being celebrated when we talk about the “wins of the movement”? What of those queer folk experiencing homelessness, those who are disabled, or who live as sex workers? LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented in the sex work industry and the criminal justice system, as well as being at higher risk of homelessness. These people as well as people of colour, Indigenous and trans communities remain on the frontlines of discrimination in Australia. When protesters in 1978 spoke of liberation, they spoke fiercely of inclusivity for all. Progress has been made, but let us not forget the recent attacks on safe schooling for trans and gender diverse children and discussions around amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 (NSW).
Contemporary politics: Pride in Protest
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras organisation has exhibited its right-wing politics most clearly over the past decade through its relationship with the NSW Police Force as well as the Mardi Gras Board’s continued insistence on appeasing Liberal supporters and corporate sponsors. This has often occurred at the expense of community and activist collectives.
The absence of police solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community was blatantly displayed in an act of police brutality against the then eighteen-year-old Jamie Jackson at the Mardi Gras festival in 2013. Instead of developing an independent investigatory body into the police, as was suggested in a subsequent forum, Mardi Gras developed a private accord with the New South Wales Police Force. Evan Van Zijl, an organising member of queer activist collective Pride in Protest (PiP), recalled the Mardi Gras board shirking more deep-seated issues of bigotry within the police force — to them, the problem was simply that “police outside of the local area were unfamiliar with queer people.” This position was reflected in the accords with the commitment to ‘cultural sensitivity training for police officers, especially for those from local area commands outside of Surry Hills.’
The Black Lives Matter movement of 2019 and 2020, in Australia and abroad, forced the queer community to again confront the validity of the police’s place at Pride. An open letter from PiP declared structural issues with the police and prison system were to blame for the racist targeting of minorities in Australia, black deaths in custody, and bigotry against the LGBTQI+ community.
The first Pride in Protest Oxford Street rally was held in 2021 against several attempts by Mardi Gras to stop it. That year, Evan and one other organising member of PiP, were taken to the Supreme Court for calling a rally in breach of COVID regulations at the time. As of the 1st of March 2021, there had been zero community transmissions of COVID, and the SGLMG’s Mardi Gras parade at the Sydney Cricket Ground was anticipating 10,000 attendees. This demonstration of oppression came in response to a rally expecting 900 participants at a time when the cap on protests in NSW had been lifted to 3000. Finally as a result of staunch resistance from Pride in Protest, the LGBTQI+ community, NGOs, the Greens, Labor, and Independent MP’s, NSW Health granted the first protest exemption to PiP’s 2021 Mardi Gras march. It was a mammoth win for the community, democracy and the right to protest in New South Wales. Still, the police’s attempt to quash PiP’s Mardi Gras rally in 2021 remains a clear recent example of suppression and over-policing of queer activism in Sydney. The rally brought several thousand people to the streets in a marked display of resilience and continued commitment to the original sentiments of the 1978 Mardi Gras rally.
Of course, the struggle didn’t end there — PiP’s open letter later in the year encouraged the Board to remove the NSW Police Force and NSW Corrective Services floats from the 2022 Mardi Gras parade onward, notably from World Pride 2023. The organisation called for the Board to take a stance on the policing of the parade as an unambiguous show of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and of intolerance for police violence. To date, the letter has been signed by 39 organisations and over 1000 individuals. The organisation came within forty votes from passing a motion to have police removed from the parade at the SGLMG AGM that year. But the push to exclude the police from Pride has grown harder without the energy harnessed during the BLM movement and with strong opposition from the right-wing caucus of the Mardi Gras Board. In 2022, the Board refused to hear PiP’s motion to remove the police from pride—along with every one of their other motions—at their AGM, with the defence that they were not ‘legally viable.’
The determination of the SGLMG Board to appease the Liberal party became clear when in 2016 James Brechney — responsible for starting DIY Rainbow in 2013 — passed a motion at the SGLMG AGM to ban Malcolm Turnbull from attending the parade as a response to his poor handling of the marriage equality issue. The Board later backtracked, capitulating to pressure from Independent Alex Greenwich to reinstate Turbull’s invitation to the parade.
PiP became key players in the push-back against the right-wing caucus of the SGLMG Board when they launched their first annual SGLMG campaign in 2017, each year successfully winning at least one spot on the Board of Directors. Since then, in 2020, PiP raised a motion to have Scott Morrison and the Liberal party banned from attending the 2021 parade. 44% of members voted in favour of the motion. Although it could not pass, it came closer than it had the previous years, and this in the face of a “generally white, cis middle-aged” majority, a deliberately disabled Zoom chat function, and meeting facilitators ignoring questions. This instance was not the first of targeted attempts from SGLMG at silencing PiP at AGMs, nor would it be the last. The refusal of the Board to hear PiP’s motions, instead regarding them as questions, was a clear breach of Mardi Gras member democracy and an attempt to quash the organisations’ more radical demands.
But it’s not only activists at AGMs who feel the effect of the changing nature of Pride. Mardi Gras has been transformed by its own corporatisation over the decades — what started as a protest now resembles a playground for corporate sponsorship deals where profit is placed before the interests of the queer community. SGLMG’s greed and irresponsibility in this regard has done nothing but escalate the degree to which Mardi Gras has been pinkwashed.
The SGLMG’s ongoing sponsorships with QANTAS and American Express are particularly problematic. American Express has done a great deal of harm to the sex worker community in Australia in the past, most notably in 2015 when they blocked payments from common sex worker platform backpage.com, hindering the ability of sex workers to be paid for their work. SGLMG’s monetary ties with QANTAS are problematic for the latter’s role in the deportation of refugees in this country. It is hard to imagine an organisation that purports to fight for minority groups would align itself with a company that profits off the deportation of refugees from Australia.
The activists that marched in 1978 should not only be an inspiration to us, but a reminder that queer rights will not result from an organisation whose allyship lies with big corporations and right-wing MPs, but from community action. The Mardi Gras rally organised by Pride in Protest occurred on the 19th of February. Together they marched down King Street to continue a proud tradition of community action and resistance.
Image: No Pride in Protest at the 2023 Mardi Gras parade. Photo by Valerie Joy; @valeriejoy.jpeg