Moving Sideways: the Modern Mardi Gras

Tom Mendes

Cover image: Tom Stoddard | @tomstoddard_



There are rainbows everywhere in Sydney. On every street corner, shop front and public space around the city. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival is upon us, with the parade on 2 March expecting huge crowds again this year. But as the festival expands, there are growing concerns the spirit of the original Mardi Gras has been lost. Increasing amounts of corporate sponsorship has divided the community with fears of becoming stagnant and politically sanitised. Has the parade strayed too far from its political roots?


The first Mardi Gras was in June 1978, when a group of about a thousand queer people gathered to commemorate the Stonewall riot and march for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. They gathered in Taylor Square and marched down Oxford Street to Hyde Park, where they were stopped by police and diverted to Kings Cross. There, the protesters were ambushed by more police and the fighting began. Bashed and bleeding, they fled the area, some setting up safe spaces on Darlinghurst Road to help the injured. 53 people were arrested and taken to the police station on Forbes St, barely 100 meters away from the current parade route. The others rallied outside the station, demanding their release and fighting for equal treatment. This protest was the initial spark of social change in Australia that has resulted in homosexuality, and now same-sex marriage, becoming legal.


But Mardi Gras today is an entirely different entity. The Mardi Gras parade itself now has over 12,000 participants and over 300,000 spectators gathering to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a fever dream of flashing lights, bright colours and deafening pop music. And honestly it’s an excuse to get hammered and dance. The spectacle has begun to outgrow the message. The parade is no longer a vehicle for radical social change like it was in ’78, it’s no longer even a protest. We still march with pride, but with less purpose.


With the massive growth of the parade, and the full two-week festival, comes with a massive price tag, one that is taken up in large part by corporate sponsors. This year’s sponsors include ANZ, Woolworths, Vodafone, Qantas and Holden to name a few, as well as international brands Facebook and Google. It’s incredible that as a society we’ve come far enough that such large profile brands openly support the LGBTQIA+ community. However, that is a representation of where we are now and not a push towards the future. There is a limit to what social progress they can promote without alienating their right-wing consumers. Last year 10% of the floats in the parade were sponsored by corporate partners. That’s a relatively small number, but they’re also the floats with the most money, the most elaborate costumes, and installations. They’re the ones where you get on someone’s shoulders to see and then immediately come back down to sip goon from a takeaway cup. Google provided $80,000 in grants last year to smaller community floats to help them realise their Mardi Gras visions. But the company still picks and chooses which groups to support, whose voices will be heard. They wouldn’t risk being associated with more radical queer activist groups, despite those being the ones that need the boost in visibility to achieve progress. It is a requirement for any corporation to have some sort of inclusivity and diversity program in place to be a part of Mardi Gras.


If you look through the statements from the sponsors on the official website, they each talk about their support networks within the company for LGBTQIA+ workers and allies. These are great programs that are incredibly beneficial and make people from diverse backgrounds feel secure in the workplace. However, they should be common practice in businesses of that size, or at least they should be in the near future. What will the requirements for entry be in five, ten, fifteen years? It would be totally naive to say that capitalising on queer customers wouldn’t be a factor at all in a brands decision to sponsor Mardi Gras. They’re a business after all. It would be equally unfair to entirely discredit the support they do give to the community. The level of corporate involvement compared to what it used to be shows how far wider society has come in accepting (and celebrating) the queer community. But this is exactly the problem, the problem that isn’t a problem.


The parade is now an indicator of social progress rather than the cause of it. While its roots are in political activism, the trunk, branches and rainbow leaves are a very beautiful celebration of where we are now. Social change is going to have to come from another direction. The parade will reflect these issues when the rest of society is ready for it. The corporate sponsorship at Mardi Gras is a necessary evil that isn’t necessarily evil, it’s just different. The parade and the festival have grown to become internationally renowned, a proud beacon for LGBTQIA+ people globally. Visibility is vital for queer kids growing up and seeing that they are accepted. Beyond that, the future of the parade is unknown.


Social change will only happen if we make it happen. Either the organisers of Mardi Gras restructure their sponsorships or the community invests in other avenues for progress. No matter what, the fight isn’t over. The show must go on.