Mardi Gras, What Does Our Community Mean to You?
The No Pride in Detention-Rainbow Labor fracas underscores the difficult balancing act Sydney Mardi Gras must perform each year - and highlights what can happen when things go horribly wrong. By Nic Holas.
“What does our community mean to you?” It’s a question I was lucky enough to ask dozens of people marching in the 2016 Mardi Gras parade, from my privileged position in the media pit, covering Mardi Gras for SX. From that sparkly spot, we chatted with rainbow parents and their kids, sex workers, newlywed gay men, a Real Housewife, and countless community members.
VIDEO: Nic Holas reports for SX at the 2016 Mardi Gras Parade
We also spoke to members of the No Pride in Detention Float (NPID), and Labor MP Anthony Albanese. Both their remarks reflected the diverse issues affecting our community, and the entire experience of this year’s parade felt like a return to form for Mardi Gras.
So how is it that just days later, Sydney’s gay press and every major digital news player are reporting the opposite? Whispers over the weekend began circulating about an altercation between Mardi Gras, NPID (affiliated with Community Action Against Homophobia), and the Labor Party. Then on Monday, a video surfaced featuring Mardi Gras’ parade producer, Anthony Russell, threatening NPID organisers with lines like:
“If you can’t act like a normal human being, all in the parade together, then you’re out.”
“If I bring Bill Shorten out here now and one of you people say something to him, you are not in the fucking parade,” and,
“It’s Anthony Russell, I’m the producer of the parade, yeah I can do it.”
VIDEO: Mardi Gras Parade Producer Anthony Russell confronts organisers of No Pride in Detention
This begs the question: just what does our community means to Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras?
An important caveat: running, working for, or volunteering for Mardi Gras (MG) is largely a thankless, shitty job. To get the festival up and running each year requires a great number of unpaid hours, and a lot of flak from what can feel like an unsympathetic, entitled community. As someone who runs an unfunded platform for people living with HIV, and writes in the queer press, I more than understand how difficult Mardi Gras’ job is, and it seems that their organisation in particular can never get it ‘right’.
That’s not because everyone working at MG is a fuck-up, but because of the diverse nature of the community MG attempts to represent, it can never please everyone. That, along with the fact that MG’s international reputation, history, and significance are disproportionate to the organisations financial and governance capabilities.
So yes, the job MG has to do is a difficult, if not almost impossible one. Long-serving staff, directors and volunteers seem to be wearing this struggle visibly, as we were reminded on more than one occasion of how hard their job is over MG season at various events. This sentiment was echoed in MG’s official response to the NPID/Labor drama, and clearly Anthony Russell was stressed and under pressure in the video.
Perhaps Mt Russell needs to take a year or ten off. For a senior MG staff to be caught on film, aggressively trying to silence a political float, is foul. MG board and staff could have used this opportunity to examine how the overarching objective of keeping the festival going in an increasingly expensive, bureaucratic, and competitive environment may be clashing with the numerous political and social passions of our community.
Instead, they have rallied around their staff member, based on what appears to be no consultation with NPID, and simply claimed that ‘someone’ alerted the police to the political float’s harassment of the opposition leader, and provided no evidence or even indication of what said harassment was.
This is an act of bullying, and an attempt to shame and silence a collective of queer protesters.
Worse than ignoring an opportunity to reflect on how the political aspect of the parade (which is the origin of the event, a fact surely not lost on MG given this year’s much-trumpeted pardoning of the ‘78ers by the state, media, and police), MG have signed off their statement on the issue saying they will be investigating how it was some parade participants (Bill Shorten) were harassed. It’s difficult not to read that as a coded threat to NPID, actual queer people who marched as form of protest against the human rights violations done in our name against other vulnerable queer people.
This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of MG’s response. In the same way that we look back at the brutal way police, media, and society treated the original protesters who paved the way for Mardi Gras, AIDS activism, and marriage equality, so too will future generations look back at how we as a nation failed asylum seekers. For Mardi Gras to side with the oppressors on the issue (and make no mistake, on this issue Labor is more than complicit) is an embarrassing indictment of how respectability politics have infected our community worse than any virus ever could.
If Mardi Gras believe these actions are an accurate reflection of community attitude, of what our community means to them, then it becomes very difficult to defend accusations of the organisation being out of touch. Many of us have a lot of respect and empathy for how difficult MG's job is, but throwing queer protesters under the bus as they used a moment to protest a political party complicit in the abuse of vulnerable queer people, is so far beyond what MG once stood for.
There is an attitude emanating from some parts of the festival that political floats like NPID, or even the ‘78ers themselves, should be grateful they are allowed to take part. No, Mardi Gras, it is you who should be grateful anyone shows up to be involved. Your jobs, your positions, your influence is a privilege. Yes it is difficult when you have to manage conflicting expectations. No, that doesn’t give your parade producer the right to threaten queer protesters because they invaded the press conference of the opposition leader. History will not remember you kindly for this.
I feel like time spent defending the org and its operations against queer friends who have lost, or never had love for the organisation was time wasted. A great final weekend has been ruined, any goodwill completely evaporated by how this has been handled. What does our community mean to you, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras? Some of us would like to know.
DISCLOSURE: Nic Holas is not affiliated with Community Action Against Homophobia or Pride in Detention. He was part of SX’s media contingent for Mardi Gras, for which he accepted a complimentary ticket to the 2016 party from SX. He is a lapsed member of the Australian Labor Party, and not affiliated with any other political parties. The Real Housewife he got to meet was Gamble.