Sydney Mardi Gras began as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots – a police raid on a Queer bar that evolved into a riot for Queer rights with progressive ripples across the globe. On the very first Sydney Mardi Gras, motivated by the police brutality experienced by Queer and trans comrades in New York, over fifty people were arrested and many more violently assaulted by police, outed in newspapers, fired from their jobs, all with the acquiescence of Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government.
The oppression of the LGBTQIA+ community by institutions like the police and the Liberal Party is not just history: it is an ongoing political war in our schools, in our workplaces and on our streets, as Queer people and other marginalised groups fight for liberation in a society rife with inequality. In the last few years alone, Liberal politicians have made numerous derogatory comments about Queer people and Queer rights. Liberal MP Gladys Liu referred to ‘same-sex attraction, transgender, intergender, crossgender’ identities as ‘concepts’ and ‘rubbish,’ Liberal Senator Eric Abetz proclaimed ‘Make no mistake – the push by some to change marriage from a man/woman institution is destructive for our society,’ and Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred to Queer advocacy groups as ‘gender whisperers in our schools.’
Not only do members of the Liberal Party consistently attack the LGBTQIA+ community in the media and throughout their election campaigns, but the Liberal Party continues to entrench discrimination against Queer and trans people into their policies, legislation and party politics. To this day, the party pursues a Religious Freedoms bill that will cement the rights of religious institutions to discriminate against the LGBTQIA+ community. This includes the potential for firing teachers and expelling students from religious schools on the basis that their identity is incompatible with the religious principles of the school, or denying access to medical treatments to LGBTQIA+ patients because of the religious beliefs of healthcare professionals.
Pride in Protest is an activist group who believe strongly in returning Sydney Mardi Gras to its protest roots, taking these issues head-on by running as candidates for election and passing motions at the Mardi Gras Annual General Meeting. Pride in Protest exist because we believe in making the 2020 Parade a political force that takes a stand for the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalised groups, rather than a tokenistic, profit-making facade for corporations. We have submitted multiple motions to the November 30 Annual General Meeting: to disinvite Scott Morrison from the parade, remove the official police float, and review all corporate sponsors on human rights grounds.
The police were active perpetrators of the violence that ensued on the first Mardi Gras in 1978. In May of 2019, the Human Rights Commission reported that police forces continue to suffer from ‘an entrenched culture of everyday homophobia’. They continue to show their true colours through racially motivated abuse and police brutality, as in the case of the violent arrest of Nik Dimopoulos and the recent racial abuse of two Afghan women following a traffic stop. This is to say nothing of the clear evidence and history of over-policing and over-incarceration of the Indigenous community, and the lack of accountability regarding the frequent Indigenous deaths in custody. For too long, Indigenous people have had to endure police brutality and police killings: from the WA police officer ramming a vehicle into an Aboriginal teenager to the recent police shooting of Joyce Clarke.
How can Mardi Gras expect Aboriginal parade-goers to feel safe and supported, while police are allowed to don glitter and sparkly uniforms and pinkwash their role in oppressing First Nations communities?
Pride in Protest believe that by including police officers and Scott Morrison in the most visible and viral Queer community event in Australia, Mardi Gras is siding with oppressive institutions that have historically been the primary cause of our suffering. As Queer people, Mardi Gras has a huge significance in our lives. It is a place to celebrate all that we have won: from our activism, to our coming out stories, to the building of our own Queer families, through times when we were homeless and the times when we felt like nothing. As community activists, we fought long and hard for Marriage Equality by campaigning for the Yes Vote. We continue to fight for Queer kids and teachers as their schools sign on to support the Religious Freedoms bill. Yet, on the one night of the year that millions of people tune in to watch and participate in our pride parade, we are expected to include and celebrate the perpetrators of homophobic violence, policies and legislation?
Furthermore, Mardi Gras has become a haven for corporations to not only advertise their brands but profit off the struggles of Queer people and other marginalised groups globally. It is particularly shameful that Mardi Gras welcomes with open arms companies notorious for their human rights violations including, but not limited to, Gilead – who sponsored the parade in 2019. Gilead is a company responsible for the price gouging of PrEP in the US. This inhumane and unethical price increase of up to $2000 per treatment has resulted in the denial of vital healthcare and the means to reduce HIV to the LGBTQIA+ community. Despite this, the company was allowed to advertise and march alongside the very same community whose disease, pain and suffering they continue to profit from. How can we promote a company like Gilead and still hold any principles, values or solidarity with the HIV+ community?
Qantas was also approved as a sponsor to the event. One of the worst human rights atrocities committed against any community in Australia today is our treatment of asylum seekers. These are people who have fled war and persecution. Many have been locked up on Manus or Nauru for years on end, with LGBTQIA+ refugees further victimised because we detain them in countries where homosexuality is still illegal. They have faced physical violence from guards, have little to no access to healthcare, and experience mental illness at rates that have led our detention centres to be dubbed ‘factories for mental illness’. Qantas actively partakes in forcibly sending asylum seekers back to their country of origin, where they risk execution. London Pride proved it could hold airlines to account on deportations when Virgin ended its involvement in involuntary deportations last year thanks to the efforts of LGBTQIA+ campaigners.
Another sponsor, ANZ, was found in 2016 to have financed the manufacture of nuclear weapons. As members of Mardi Gras, where is our say on the promotion of corporations that fuel imperial wars against people of colour in the Third World? Should we turn our backs on the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed for exploitation and geopolitical control? Should we ignore the hundreds of thousands more who protested across Australia to stop our military involvement in Iraq? As candidates for the 2019 Mardi Gras Board Elections, we are advocating that our pride parade organisers act with a conscience and hold corporations who commit human rights violations to account. Mardi Gras began as a protest and it should continue to be one, preventing corporations like Gilead, Qantas and ANZ from using our community in an effort to masquerade their ongoing atrocities.
By taking a stand against the homophobic policies and human rights violations of Scott Morrison, the Liberal Party, the police and corporations, we can give the LGBTQIA+ community a political voice. We can shape policy, we can change the hearts and minds of ordinary Australians, we can make our community more inclusive and safe for other marginalised people. We can make our spaces inclusive to Indigenous people, refugees and the victims of imperial wars, instead of propping up politicians who oppress us and corporations who only care about their bottom line.
The corporatisation of Mardi Gras and the knock-back of community floats like the Teachers’ Federation in 2018 just goes to show the misguided direction of Mardi Gras. Pride in Protest want to change that and stand up for Mardi Gras’ protest roots by making it a parade for marginalised communities, not big business. We will oppose the involvement of the historically antagonistic police force, corporations whose interests are not ours, and politicians who actively reject our livelihoods with policy that endanger queer lives. These groups can expect continued pressure from Pride in Protest, and hopefully for Mardi Gras to stand up for human rights so that we can have a parade we can truly feel pride in.
Both Bridget Harilaou and Connor Parissis are candidates in the upcoming Mardi Gras Board elections.
Image: Rod Cuthbert