The Mardi Gras: generating passions, pleasures, parties, and politics
"Mardi Gras is an extended celebration of our survival."
– Ron Austin, 1978 Mardi Gras ProtestorOn the morning of 24th June 1978, a movement of people took to the streets of Sydney demanding an end to moral persecution. That night, a Gay Mardi Gras parade, which included music, dancing and some costumes, moved down Oxford Street. As police intervened, the crowd moved on to Kings Cross. A riot ensued; and while this event was not officially labelled as a “protest,” the parade was met with significant police violence and many arrests were made that night (and over the following months).
Consulting the archives at the newly established Sydney Mardi Gras Museum reveals that much has changed over the past 35 years. We have ushered in the decriminalisaiton of homosexuality, the establishment of anti-discrimination and vilification laws, equal age of consent, de facto relationship laws, and broader family recognition.
So should the Mardi Gras now be thought of as a political protest or is it a flamboyant celebration?
The answer is (or should be) a mix of both. Parties, like Mardi Gras, can be intensely political. After all, just because something is fun, does not mean it cannot be political too!
Living outside the sex binary or heterosexual order challenges many people’s beliefs about what is “natural.” Normality is a troubling concept. It is perhaps most disconcerting when it is used parochially as a political strategy to refuse acknowledging anything that may be different to the norm. For an intersex infant, this often involves having their anatomical differences coercively “corrected” by surgery. Alternatively, same-sex couples are denied access to adoption because of the pervasive assumption that only opposite-sex relationships are capable of raising children “ideally.”
In a society that continues to naturalise heterosexuality, or at the very least assume it, disclosing your non-heterosexuality remains both a personal and political struggle.
As a young gay Tamil-Australian, exploring my sexuality was not just a matter of sex, but also a matter of culture and identity. It is easy to caricature gay life in terms of sexual promiscuity, clubbing at Stonewall, and high disposable incomes. Though, I imagine for many of us, our lives are not quite so easily narrated.
Negotiating my bourgeoning sexuality as an adolescent with these expectations began with a little curious questioning. Why did I like to pretend I was Xena, Warrior Princess? Why was I attracted to boys? Was it normal? What did this mean for my future? Did it even matter?
Many of these questions remind us that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ) demands a “coming out.” Intimate aspects of our identity become served as spectacle for a public gaze, and often, derision or shame.
So what does my little anecdote have to do with Mardi Gras?
To echo a famous feminist epithet: the personal is political. Mardi Gras brings together a disparate range of individuals and groups to affirm the politics of our sexual and social lives.
For some, this celebration hinges on the pursuit of legislative equality. Perhaps this is most ably illustrated by the increasing demand for the public recognition of same-sex relationships through marriage. Whether it is Nepal, the UK, or here in Australia, marriage remains a privileged and portable form of relationship recognition. Denying same-sex couples access to the public institution of marriage entrenches the social stigma that the relationships of gay or lesbian citizens are less “worthy” than their heterosexual counterparts.
In Australia, the calls for federal laws proscribing sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination have only recently been met with government proposals for inclusion in the current consolidation of anti-discrimination laws. Despite this, the insistence on enabling broad religious exemptions continues to license discrimination against sexual and gender minorities, on the basis of institutional whims. Teachers can be fired from religious schools for disclosing that they have a partner of the same-sex. Transgender and intersex elders who express a non-conforming gender identity may be denied access to essential aged-care services. Even the promise of formal equality here remains elusive.
Looking abroad, we can see that the struggle for LGBTIQ human rights vigorously persists in other countries too. In Uganda, homosexuality is being threatened with more legislative sanction, as parliament debates legislation to further criminalise same-sex relationships. Systemic sexual assault (or what is colloquially referred to as “corrective rape”) of lesbians in South Africa continues with impunity. On the other side of the world, in Russia, laws are being drafted that would ban the “promotion” of homosexuality to young people. Even in liberal democracies, such as the US, “reparative therapies” are still in use amongst those who believe homosexuality is a moral disorder that can be “treated.”
These brief examples highlight that while push for justice should include legal reform – it should not exhausted by it. Mardi Gras’ enduring political significance derives from its capacity to generate community activism. Mardi Gras is a dynamic movement.
Apt criticisms have been made suggesting the Mardi Gras has turned away from local communities and moved towards more commercial enterprises. That said, the parade still generates community excitement. Whether it is Trikone or the Wayside Chapel or the Deaf Gay and Lesbian Association, the potential for engagement and solidarity is still significant.
Our lives are not just about being gay or lesbian. Our sexualities and gender identities intersect with so many other facets of our lives, such as ethnicity, age, disability, religion, socio-economic status, and geography – just to name a few.
Discrimination on the basis of many of the above identities is still very much alive in all our communities. Mardi Gras has the potential to draw together, even if uncomfortably, the intersecting demands for social justice.
So as the festival kicks off, and we get out the glitter body paint (or in my case begin an arduous search for a Xena costume), to celebrate “Generations of Love,” let’s not forget that there is much more to Mardi Gras than a consumer celebration or tourist attraction. We can dress in decadent costumes, explore rich archives, and even revel in boisterous dancing, all while strengthening the commitment to advancing the dignity of LGBTIQ people everywhere.
Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.
Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun
N.B If you are keen to march in the Mardi Gras Parade this year, then do consider joining the Amnesty International Australia float themed “Fighting the Bad Guys Since 1961.” You may or may not see me (badly) dressed as Xena.
Images via SMH and Getty.