An activist future for Mardi Gras

Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras is once again approaching, as Queer people young and old commemorate forty-two years since police violently assaulted and arrested hundreds who marched down Oxford Street to celebrate their sexuality and gender. Four decades on, corporations are a predominant face of the parade under the guise of progressive values to promote their brand and capitalise on what has sadly become one of the biggest advertising parades in Australia. Drawing a contrast with highly sought-after commercial advertising spaces offered by other major televised events like the NRL Grand Final, activists stress the importance to openly criticise the corporate involvement that has been welcomed with open arms by the Mardi Gras Board.

The corporate nature of Mardi Gras events is far from subtle, with Mardi Gras’ 2020 Fair Day giving a platform to large, international corporations like Amazon and Google. Further controversy was caused when company Tomorro set up an ominous camera with facial recognition technology to count attendees. Many attendees and the Sex-Worker Outreach Project took issue with the camera due to the possibility of law enforcement using the technology to locate people within the crowd. This was accompanied by the controversy of filming anyone without consent at an explicitly LGBTQIA+ event, particularly when Black, Brown, Indigenous and sex-worker members of the community already experience high levels of policing and incarceration.

The notable absence of Gilead, one of the major sponsors for 2020, from both Fair Day and the parade list, was the result of a successful condemnation motion by Pride in Protest, demonstrating how Mardi Gras members can still control the extent to which corporations participate. Our motion to condemn the sponsor on the basis that it was responsible for the price gouging of PrEP in the US and the resulting price increase of up to $2000 per monthly treatment was successfully voted up at the 2019 Mardi Gras AGM. Gilead’s denial of vital healthcare for HIV reduction in the LGBTQIA+ community struck a chord with everyone present and was accompanied by the success of a motion to establish an ethics charter for all further corporate sponsorships accepted by the Board. Actions like this exemplify the power of activists within Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ community to hold corporations to account and make Mardi Gras the fighting force it began as and ought to be. 

Similar conflicts have arisen for other LGBTQIA+ Pride Parades. Corporate sympathisers emphasise the need for monetary sponsorship in order to preserve financial sustainability. However, activists rightfully point out the unethical human rights violations by many corporate sponsors who claim to care about Queer rights, seeing this as a negation of the principles of Pride – that is an opposition to discrimination and oppression for all those who experience it, and an opposition to the police, corporations and political parties that enact and allow this discrimination to occur. Auckland Pride saw activists take charge, returning their Pride March to the hands of community groups when a decisive ban on uniformed police from marching resulted in the majority of its corporate sponsors to withdraw from the parade. Auckland Pride Director Max Tweedie responded to accusations of not being ‘inclusive’ of Police by reiterating the Parade’s inclusivity of the communities it listened to – that is the Māori and Pasifika communities, as well as trans and gender diverse communities … which had been left out of Pride historically …’ This resulted in a community fundraising drive to sustain a 79-event festival and an audience of 30,000 in 2019. Tweedie explains: 

The model of the Parade itself was broken. ‘They’re so expensive to put on that it ended up being a corporate marketing Parade. So when we changed the model and said ‘support the Festival, its events, and our organization’ as opposed to ‘get a big float down Ponsonby Road’ we didn’t have the same level of support, but enough to support our vision.

For Tweedie, the question is, ‘how do you reimagine Pride in a way that serves community, and continue to find support from organisations that genuinely care about our communities. We’ve shown that it’s possible, and 2020 was Auckland Pride’s most successful year to date.’ London Pride activists similarly demonstrated they could hold corporations to account on deportations when Virgin Atlantic ended its involvement in involuntary deportations last year thanks to the efforts of LGBTQIA+ campaigners.

This disparity within the Sydney community, and our much-loved Mardi Gras, has given activists groups like Pride in Protest an opportunity to represent Queer people who reject the corporatisation and collaboration with right-wing political forces. After the successful election of Charlie Murphy to the Mardi Gras Board in 2019 and the passing of multiple motions against corporate sponsorship of the parade, the success of Pride in Protest shows the very real demand for bringing Mardi Gras back to its protest roots and being a force in broader Australian political discourse. Gilead’s step back from public-facing promotion at Mardi Gras is just one of the small wins Pride in Protest have achieved, with even more focus to be directed towards challenging the multiple police floats, the Liberal Party float and other corporate sponsors in 2020. 

Qantas in particular has come under fire as a Mardi Gras sponsor due to their collaboration with the Morrison government in deporting asylum seekers back to danger. Hoping to follow in London activists’ footsteps, Pride in Protest have continued to raise awareness, handing out ‘Don’t Deport to Danger’ leaflets directly outside Qantas’ Fair Day stall. We want to remind Mardi Gras’ corporate sponsors that we are not just advertising space but a thriving and active community built foundationally on human rights, and that we will not stop until they are held to account for their actions. Pride in Protest will collaborate with the Refugee Action Coalition, Community Action for Rainbow Rights and NSW University Queer Collectives to host the float No Pride In Detention: Homos Against Scomo in this year’s parade, calling for an end to mandatory detention and human rights violations of refugees by the Morrison government, while simultaneously holding Qantas accountable for their complicity in these blatant human rights violations. 

For Pride in Protest members and supporters, the timing has never been better to use our political will as members of a marginalised community who have gained a significant place in Australian pop culture and mainstream politics. With Morrison’s Liberal government in power for another two years, and the emphatic push for a Religious Freedom Bill that would enshrine the right for everyone – from employers to educational institutions to health services –to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people, the fight for Queer rights is as important as it has ever been. Against these blatant and open attacks from the Liberal Party and Scott Morrison, Pride in Protest are not backing down from calling out the hypocrisy of gay Liberal Party members and those who march in their float at Mardi Gras. We see exactly where the Liberal Party stands, in policy and in practice, in relation to our community. Marching in a float at our parade will never wash away the violence of outright discriminatory legislation poised to take away the rights of children, of workers and of anyone who dares to get sick.

For us, our win at the Mardi Gras Board Election is just one small piece of the puzzle. We will continue to use our political influence to stand in solidarity with First Nations communities fighting back against the colonialism and racism of a police force that decimates communities, tearing parents away from their children over unpaid fines, and against the continual trauma of deaths in custody. We are hopeful that the power of the LGBTQIA+ community will be enough to change deportation policy, and end the offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees. We can use Mardi Gras, as the major advertising event it has become, to put our message at the forefront, and hold accountable the corporations, police and political parties whose primary interests are their brand recognition. We fight, to remind all marginalised people that they are not alone in struggle, and that our liberty and theirs is bound together. 


Image: Jonno Revanche

Bridget Harilaou

Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer and community organiser.

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Connor Parissis

Connor Parissis is a masters student and Queer rights activist.

More by Connor Parissis ›

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  1. Well said on the corporate front but Mardi Gras has lost its meaning owing to the number of straights on the parade. The police, the army and politicians all flock to show their support and the presence of PFLAG full of supportive parents who should just stand aside and support not be on a gay and lesbian parade. My other annoyance is the way in which a lesbian and gay event has now become LGBTQA and even + for christsake. All this has produced a very conformist festival echoing the conformist nature of lesbian and gay politics

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