I’m just going to come right out and say it: I hate going to Midsumma Pride March. I’m into it in theory – I like the idea of LGBTIQ communities coming together and being loud about the fact that our lives are different, valid and worthy of a bit of celebration, especially for those who don’t get much of that at home. But in reality, the event feels pretty empty and soulless, dominated by businesses trying to get me to switch to their gas company or buy their banking products. This year there was even a huge rainbow Dan Murphy’s float, which seemed in particularly poor taste given the high rates of unsafe drinking in our community.
I believe that the commitment of these businesses to our community should really be assessed in the smaller, everyday moments, like when a queer woman experiencing family violence asks their utility company for an extension on a bill, a non-binary person asks their bank to use a gender-neutral title, like Mx, or when a transgender person asks their employer for paid leave to undergo gender-affirming surgery and to attend medical appointments.
I’ve got even less love for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which I almost got kicked out altogether in 2016 just for chanting ‘we’re here, we’re queer, refugees are welcome here’ while marching with No Pride in Detention.
But when I heard of the first ever Bulldog Pride March in Footscray to celebrate the AFLW’s Pride game at the Whitten Oval, there was just no way I was going to miss it.
I’m a relatively new import to Footscray, but I have come to love dearly its slightly chaotic bánh mì shops, fresh food markets and hilariously bad drivers over the last couple of years, and have inevitably become the Bulldogs’ latest bandwagoner in the process. This has mainly been due to my partner, who was born and raised in Footscray and who regularly drags me to games with her family, allowing me to witness moments of true beauty when locals do come together across class and racial lines and talk about things that really matter to them: namely their love of the west, footy and the doggies in particular.
Footscray is a pretty diverse and accepting place but I still felt nervous as we turned into the Nicholson mall, not knowing how many people would turn up to this thing and what kind of reception we’d get from the locals. The first thing I saw was a Christian group with big placards outlining the key steps in becoming saved. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were counter-protestors. They weren’t, they were just another group doing their thing in the mall like a whole lot of others on a Saturday afternoon. Our Pride March crew gathered amongst the groups of kids drinking Gong Cha, groups of men chatting over Afghan Master Kebabs, busy shoppers streaming in and out of Ming Ming with various bits of plastic crazy crap and a few decidedly Footscray drug users straight out of the 1990s animatedly chatting by a pay phone. The local council have been endlessly renovating the Nicholson Mall on and off for decades in an effort to ‘clean the place up’. I hope they never succeed.
As I looked out towards Barkly Street I was blown away to see hundreds of people there, and not the thirty or so that I was expecting. The most prominent attendees were the drag performers from the Pride of Our Footscray quiz nights in high heels, wigs and dresses in the Doggies’ customary red, white and royal blue – colours that aren’t customary colours on the drag scene. They were only outshined by an adorable big white staffy in a pink feather boa.
There were loads of AFLW Western Bulldogs supporters and a bunch from Carlton Pride and the Purple Bombers. There were kids everywhere, accompanied by their rainbow-clad parents who looked like they were more up for a backyard barbecue these days than a big night out at Poof Doof.
As we left the mall to start marching, I could see the organisers in their high-vis vests thinking ‘oh my god, are we doing this?’ which soon turned into ‘oh my God, we are doing this!’ as we all flooded onto Barkly St, the vibe carnivalesque.
There were no amps or super-sized speakers here. Organisers had a couple of megaphones, and one of the drag performers held up a lone Bluetooth speaker that was cranking out a tinny rendition of Pet Shop Boys ‘Go West’ on repeat.
It felt quite amusing to be marching past Marfon, a top spot to get your cracked mobile phone fixed and Cheaper by Miles, which is the kind of discount shop you go in expecting to get a litre of OJ and somehow end up with two crates of expired Perrier water.
The police had only blocked off half the street, and a snapshot of Footscray locals heading in the other direction hung out of their car windows, smiling, taking photos and tooting their horns supportively in time with the chants of ‘doggies, doggies, doggies, woof, woof, woof!’. Smiling cars filled with Vietnamese shoppers waved us on, while a car of South Sudanese young people tooted their horns supportively and took videos, and a young woman in a 90s Camry couldn’t wipe the big smile from her face. I overheard a true believer excitedly saying that this was the same route that the Footscray Bulldogs took to celebrate after they saved their club from an interstate merger back in 1989. Locals lined the streets outside Littlefoot and Sloth Bar to cheer us on. When we finally got up to the Whitten Oval, a beloved local Snuff Puppet was stationed at the Footscray Drill Hall waving a huge rainbow flag.
I could see the corporate engagement teams in the Carlton FC stand inside Whitten Oval staring at the crowd in bemusement, seemingly awed by the unexpectedly high turn-out for what might have been assumed to be a bit of a niche event.
We ended the march on a high with a massive group photo, where I got to see that the only official organisational banners were Littlefoot, which runs a monthly queer night called Westgay; Pride of Our Footscray, an LGBTIQ community-owned bar; and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a vital and much-loved local support service.
A few days later, I watched videos on twitter of three activists from the satirical troupe The Department of Homo Affairs as they were arrested by police for protesting the Liberal party’s decision to spend millions of dollars on a replica of Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour to sail around Australia for a year to commemorate 250 years of colonisation. This protest – along with The Beastie Girls hilarious take-down of ANZ bank’s bizarre decision to run adds full of hate speech about LGBTIQ people in order to call for a bit more #Lovespeech – were the only good things to come out of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Sometimes it feels like the only good thing about these huge events is the grand scale of the opportunity to take the piss out of the rich and powerful.
Footscray’s pride march provided me with a very different experience that helped crystallise a question that’s long been at the back of my mind. This march was clearly run by the community, for the community. But who are big events like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras march for? As Bridget Harilaou and Connor Parissis noted in a recent article for this magazine ‘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.’ These juggernaut events seem to get more and more expensive every year, which then seems to justify why the organisers are so focused on major corporates to support the events. The organisers of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year even managed to completely alienate the attendees of their official after-party by massively overselling tickets, which meant that half of all ticket holders couldn’t get into the Hordern Pavilion despite paying $200.
I’ve often wondered if there is any vetting of the corporate sponsors at all, and whether there is anyone whose money they wouldn’t take. I for one would prefer that ANZ stick their #lovespeech campaign and re-direct the money spent pink washing their company on implementing the key recommendations of the Banking Royal Commission that you would think wouldn’t be too hard to follow such as ‘obey the law’, and ‘do not mislead or deceive’.
I feel so grateful to the Bulldog Pride crew for putting on an event that actually made me feel proud to be part of the LGBTIQ community, where I didn’t leave feeling vaguely morally compromised at the end with a pocket full of junky corporate giveaways. I’m looking forward to the first ever Trans Pride March in Melbourne in late March, and will definitely be back to celebrate at Footscray Pride March next year, but I think I’ll give the rest of them a miss.