Mardi Gras Has Sold Out The Queer Community

Two of the most progressive members of the Mardi Gras board getting stood down without notice showcases just how the festival has gone from political movement to corporate cash cow.

Mardi Gras board

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Every year, for over 43 years, our community comes together and stomps down Oxford Street for Mardi Gras. It’s a defiant celebration of all that makes us fabulous. A night of glitter, iconic outfits, outfits that honestly don’t count as outfits at all, and sweaty dancing under the strobe lights to classic disco bangers.

But it used to be about much, much more than that..

Earlier this month at a secret meeting, two of Mardi Gras’ board members were stood down without notice. Why? Because they dared to participate in and organise a proudly political rally marching down Oxford Street in opposition to a transphobic Bill that was recently introduced to NSW Parliament.

According to Pride In Protest, the political ticket that the two stood-down board members belong to, the rest of the board claims that organising the protest was a conflict of interest because the rally used the term ‘Mardi Gras’ in its title, which they believe as copyright holders gives them “ownership” over the name.

You’d be forgiven for being confused. After all Mardi Gras has a proud grassroots history as a community movement based in protest, activism, and of pushing bold transformational politics. But at this point it’s beginning to feel just like that… like history.

At the first march in 1978 those who gathered were doing so at huge risk to themselves. It was still illegal to be gay in NSW and the stigma was embedded deep. By marching they risked losing their jobs, being cut-off from family and friends, even being arrested.

But still they marched. Organised as a solidarity event for protests in San Francisco where the queer community were fighting against the Briggs Initiative (a concerted effort from legislators to remove anyone who supported queer rights from the schooling system) the march began in Taylor Square and made it’s way down Oxford Street.

It was a peaceful protest, if not also appropriately loud and camp — that was until the police arrived, of course. They divided protesters up and blocked them from leaving, threw them into the backs of waiting vans and took them to Darlinghurst jail where they were violently and aggressively beaten overnight.

The next morning their names, occupations and addresses were published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Many lost their jobs, some were kicked out of home, others took their own lives.

That is the foundations on which Mardi Gras stands. It’s the foundation on which so many of the hard-fought wins in the campaign for equality stand as well. And it’s a far cry indeed from the glitter, glamour, and sponsored GayTMs that seem to define the parade nowadays.

And therein lies the problem.

What once was an event rooted in a brazen call for equality has been reduced to nothing more than a multi-million dollar organisation, desperate to please its big corporate donors for fear that their revenue stream will dry up.

Faceless corporations donate huge sums of money to Mardi Gras, they become partners, they sponsor events and concerts. All of this in the name of building their brand.

Make no mistake, Absolut Vodka and The Star Casino aren’t major suppliers and partners of Mardi Gras because they care about queer rights but because there is lots of money to be made from their association with our community.

And this is all before you get to the fact that, every year, Mardi Gras permits the NSW Police to march in the parade. 

The very organisation that brutally and aggressively beat those who dared to march for their rights in 1978 now gets to hide behind its blatantly vacuous commitment to equality by shimmying its way down Oxford Street. Talk about brand rehabilitation. 

But the problems with the NSW Police aren’t just historical, they’re current. 

In 2013 an officer at the parade slammed an 18-year-old teenager to the ground and held him there with his foot on his back, afraid of being “contaminated” by the bleeding he had just caused. 

In 2019 NSW Police illegally strip-searched at least 25 children at music festivals throughout the year despite no reasonable grounds to do so, claiming they simply “weren’t aware” of the fact that their actions were illegal. 

In 2020, video was recorded of an officer slamming an Indigenous boy face-first into the concrete. Hardly an isolated event either given the appalling track record of racism when it comes to policing of Indigenous people.

These are just a snapshot of the aggressive practices favoured by NSW Police. That they are given a float in what is meant to be a celebration of our community is nothing short of offensive to not only those who came before us, but those who continue to suffer at their hand. 

Charlie Murphy and Alex Bouchet of Pride In Protest, the two board members unceremoniously stood down by the rest of the board earlier this month, are also the only two who don’t support the NSW Police being allowed in the parade. 

Both Charlie and Alex were elected democratically by the membership of Mardi Gras in the annual elections. Both ran on an explicitly progressive platform of bringing the organisation back to its roots in protest; kicking out the cops from the parade, putting a halt on corporate donations and sponsorships, explicitly campaigning for the rights of queer asylum seekers, Black and Indigenous communities, and trans people.

In the Mardi Gras of old these politics would’ve been a given — uncontroversial, pedestrian even. But the corporatisation of our once vibrant movement means that these values are now anti-ethical to the business it has long since become. 

Our parade is now overseen by a right-wing board whose agenda of banal respectability politics and sucking up to corporate sponsors is so ingrained that they can undemocratically silence the voices of those who oppose them. 

Let’s be frank: Mardi Gras has become nothing more than a multi-million dollar organisation content to give cover to the very institutions that beat us, arrested us and denigrated us for simply having the audacity to exist as queer people.

It gives cover to police. It hands out a free pass to the Liberal party — whose track record on equality is nothing short of abysmal, and it pink-washes corporations whose sole interest is in fleecing our community of our money. 

By standing down the only two board members whose platform was rooted in explicitly progressive politics, Mardi Gras is sending a very clear signal that what once was a vibrant movement of protest is now nothing more than a corporate cash cow. 

Matthew Thompson is a queer activist and Mardi Gras member who is exhausted by the commercialisation of pride. He tweets at @matthewtgreens.