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Opinion Piece

The political history of Mardi Gras

Originally published in FUSE, April 2010

The 2010 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was one of the biggest in the festival’s history.

After 32 years, the festival still is extremely important for queer people around the country. Yet, even with this continued success, Mardi Gras has lost some of the roots that make it so important. Whilst the celebration, the diversity and the party remains, the desire to fight back against oppression has for many been lost. In this article I’m going to examine the rich political history of Mardi Gras and argue that in order to keep the festival’s tradition alive we need to return to some of the political roots that make it so important.

The Origins of Mardi Gras

On the 24th of June, 1978, approximately 2000 people took to the streets of Sydney to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969. This march, or Mardi Gras, was the final event in a day of political action in the city. Its aim was to bring people onto the streets in a peaceful way, not only to commemorate Stonewall, but also to show that queers in Australia were starting to fight back against discrimination in the country.

Entering its final stages trouble began to brew. It began with police harassing a truck driver operating a PA system and chanting messages onto the street. When the driver refused to stay silent, he was pulled out his truck and it was confiscated. This was followed by a full scale assault on the march, with police pushing the crowd, closing off streets and blocking the way of marchers. Once the crowd had reached the end, the situation got worse. When some marchers tried to leave the route, being unsure as to what was about to happen, police began laying into them. What followed was a full scale physical assault. Soon paddy wagons appeared and 53 protestors were arrested for no apparent reason.

The attack on Mardi Gras lead to a rebellion by queer people around Australia. Fed up of being beaten and marginalised people took to the streets. In Sydney more protests were organised, with over 100 more people being arrested in the coming months. Marches were also held in other big cities, not only to protest what happened at Mardi Gras but to signal that the Australian queer community was starting to rebel against the oppression in society.

In the end, the 53 arrested on the original Mardi Gras were released with all the charges dropped. The following year, Mardi Gras was held again, continuing a tradition that has lasted until this day.

Politics in Mardi Gras Today

With the 2010 theme being ‘A History of the World’, this years’ parade was a great opportunity to remember the strong political history of Mardi Gras. Yet, even thought the politics still exists in the Mardi Gras parades (in fact, even having a parade is political), in many ways the essence of what made the original march in 1978 so important has left the festival.

This doesn’t mean that the politics has disappeared. In fact, politics has been an ever present theme in the march. For example, marches in the 1980s were dominated by campaigns to end the stigmatisation around HIV/AIDS, the 1990s saw marchers move their focus onto the new right in Australia, with attacks on the Howard Government and Pauline Hanson, whilst the early 2000s saw campaigns over the Afghanistan and Iraq War enter the march. On top of this there has always been a continued equity theme, with marchers focusing on different institutional and social inequalities at different times.

Politics has therefore been always been a part of Mardi Gras. Yet, looking at the march today there is a sense that the importance of the political history has been lost on many. It is not that the politics is not there, but rather that the fighting spirit, which is what made the first Mardi Gras so influential, has been lost.

The Importance of Continuing the Fight

1978 was not just important for beginning the yearly parade; it was also a key year in the mobilisation of Australia’s queer community. After the stonewall riots in 1969, queer people around the world began to mobilise more heavily and more militantly. Instead of taking the assault, people were now fighting back on a large scale. 1978 was the year this started in Australia. Over the years this fight continued with the Mardi Gras participants taking stronger political stances at different times. Recently however, the feeling of the Mardi Gras has been more of party and celebration, rather than of a need to fight against the heteronormative society.

Many would say that this is because the need for a fight has lessened or almost disappeared. When the Mardi Gras first started in 1978 homosexuality was still illegal and institutionalised homophobia was not simply common, but it was the norm. Today however, legal equality has almost been achieved and major gains have been made in ending discrimination. Many now believe that the fight seems to be at its end or if not at least coming towards an end.

Take for example, the role of the police in the march. In 1978 the police were the enemy and it is the rebellion against them that made Mardi Gras so important. Today, however the march includes an organised float from the police. This contradiction is explained through stating that having the police march is a sign of a harmonisation between the two groups. This would be great if it was true. In reality however, although there are good police officers (who I encourage to march if they wish), the police as an institution is still designed to enforce the social and institutional norms as they are. If ever faced with a similar rebellion such as that that occurred in 1978, the police would quickly be back on the other side. It is their job.

The simple fact is that the fight to end queer oppression still exists. The heteronormative society is still dominant and as long as that is the case there will be a continued need to fight against the institutions and societal practices that is a part of it. As a symbol of that rebellion, Mardi Gras is an important tool for continuing this fight.

This doesn’t mean that Mardi can’t be fun. In Sweden for example, Pride Week involves a great mix of fun events and continued political fights (which are often the same thing). In 2009, the theme of Sweden’s pride was ‘end the heteronormative society’ and the feeling of a continued need to fight against oppression was still there in everyone’s mind. This is true even though Sweden has gained almost full legal equality.

For Next Years’ Mardi Gras

When reflecting on this years’ Mardi Gras and planning on next years’ march it’s important to remember the history of the festival. Mardi Gras was built upon fighting back against society’s oppression. Whilst victories have been made, the need for this fight continues today. Mardi Gras should continue to both be a celebration, but also a representation that we are still fighting and will continue to do so until we have won our battle against the heteronormative society.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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