As the glitter finally begins to wash out of our hair and the rainbow flags around the country are taken down, we are reminded that Mardi Gras has come and gone for yet another year. The annual event, which includes an arts festival, Fair Day, themed parties and of course the big Parade, celebrated its 37th birthday this year. The event has become world famous, attracting around 300,000 people every year, with many Sydney businesses benefiting from the rainbow consumers that prance their way across the city. The event has become the second-largest annual event for the state of NSW in terms of economic impact, generating some $30 million for the economy. Not surprisingly then, the government of New South Wales has been financially supporting the event since 2008, primarily as a commitment to the recognition of LGBTIQ identities, but also for the massive economic benefits. Whilst there is nothing wrong with appreciating this stimulus to the local economy, in recent years many members of the queer community have criticised the event for becoming too commercialised and exclusive.
This phenomenon is not unique to Sydney – Mardi Gras, Pride and CSD events around the world have been slammed for their levels of corporate sponsorship, depoliticisation and exclusion of different groups. Since the 1970s, when most of these events began, massive changes have occurred for many LGBTIQ-identifying people. This has created a kind of identity crisis for events like the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. The purpose of the event is being questioned – is it to merely celebrate queer culture, or also to make a political stand, or to break down social barriers faced by those in LGBTIQ communities? The answer is, probably, all of the above. However, when your major sponsors are a conservative NSW government and the corporate giant ANZ, things get complicated. Both sponsors are happy to have buffed-up men walking around topless and Dykes on Bikes making their way down Oxford St, but groups like ‘Sydney Queers for Animal Rights’ and queer polyamory collectives are not equally welcomed.
The justification given by organisers to these groups has been that they are simply ‘not gay enough’ or that they don’t fit into one of the Mardi Gras ‘categories’. In response, activists have challenged whether ANZ and Qantas themselves are ‘gay’ enough for the event, and whether they should be able to buy their way into Mardi Gras. Organisers of the event argue that corporate and government sponsors ensure the long-term viability of Mardi Gras. So can’t we all just accept that corporate sponsorship is here to stay and just forget about the animal-loving polyamorists who have to stay at home?
Perhaps. Yet whether or not you love meat or subscribe to polyamory, the exclusion of these groups represents something much greater that needs to be dissected. After all, what gives someone the power to determine who and what fits within the very blurry boundaries of the LGBTIQ alphabet soup? Most of us could agree that it sure as hell shouldn’t be decided by how much money you hand over. Like much art and culture in our society, Mardi Gras has become ‘valued’ in terms that economists and politicians recognise – dollars. Is Mardi Gras then important for Sydney because it provides an opportunity for the uncensored expression of queer identity, or merely because it adds $30 million to the NSW economy? In the US, queer activists have fought the commercialisation of their events with slogans such as “It’s a Movement, Not a Market”. Do we need a similar action here, for us to reclaim Mardi Gras as a political expression of our queerness, and show our solidarity for all those people oppressed for their gender or sexual identity?
There are no easy answers to these questions, only opinions. Yet perhaps this is the point. Mardi Gras represents something different for different individuals and groups. It doesn’t have to be inherently political, nor does it need to be merely a boost to the economy. The issue with excluding groups who want to participate, like ‘Sydney Queers for Animal Rights’, is that we start to draw distinctions where there should be none. Queer identity is so awesome because it is accessible and defined only by what it’s not – ‘normative’. Mardi Gras as the premier queer event in the country should respect this and allow groups of all philosophies and ways of life to participate, regardless of who is paying the bills.
‘Polyamorous Queers of Melbourne for Animal Rights’ (PQOMAR)’ …2016, anyone?