The photograph above is significant and to many provocative. Why? Because the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras – its best-known name – has had other titles over its thirty-five years. This is the brand image for 2013 and it does not include either the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian” – not even in small print. Argument has broken out within the community about dropping those key words without proper consultation with members. The full name is used in official correspondence at the moment and in anything that involves the law. But not in public – ie anything likely to put off retired Miami tourists whose ‘cruise’ ship happens to be town that day. Too complicated to explain here. But it’s just one of many kerfuffles this special Sydney event has endured and survived over its 35 years. And there will be an EGM soon to sort this out.
All that behind-the-scenes stuff aside, the 2013 poster is composed of several references alluding to concerns and interests of Sydney’s ‘homosexuals’ today. That’s not the right word either because nowadays the inclusive philosophy of Mardi Gras has now spread to embrace anyone who identifies GLQBT and/or I (meaning: Gay, Lesbian, Queer, Bisexual, Transexual/Transgender/Transvestite and/or Intersex). Don’t laugh this is serious business – and feelings run very deep and very high over the pro’s and cons of this alphabet soup. Never mentioned is that there are likely also to be as many ways to be straight (recently popularly known as ‘breeders’ – until non-straight couples started appropriating the word – having their own kids by way of various advanced medical technologies (and a hopefully whole lot of love). Gone are the days when straying from the heterosexual norm could be umbrellaed under the provoctive and usefully elusive term ‘Polymorphous Perversity’. Technically my preferred option, but I can’t see Events NSW (now a sponsor) finding that one easy to swallow. Blaring along Sydney streets in rows of big banners. If only…’POLYMORPHOUS PERVERSITY’ repetitively – like a visual mantra.
Despite the missing words of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, this year’s poster image suggests multiple topical references including the right to marriage and parenthood, challenges faced growing up not straight; and the baby blanket is composed of posters from the last 35 years of Sydney’s G&L Mardi Gras. The blanket also happens to reference a segment of the AIDS Quilt (officially the Names Project). The AIDS Quilt started out as a community project in San Francisco designed to help people grieve. It is composed of small hand-made quilted segments made by a loved one or loved ones, each honouring a single person lost to AIDS. In my view, the AIDS Quilt is one of the is one of most important works of art ever – what with its powerful content, sheer tragic beauty, and the involvement of so many hands. Many countries took up the idea of a Names Project including grieving Australians. Here’s a link to more about the USA Quilt and its origins. And another one – even more interesting with a recent engagement with the latest digital wizbangery.
The Sydney’s Mardi Gras story begins with a rather dinky night-time ‘street party’ held on 24 June 1978 in Oxford Street after a day of traditional protest for homosexual rights. It didn’t have an official name. Though when Ron Austin put his idea to Margie McMahon, another member of the Glebe-based community support group CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution), she said: ‘Oh you mean a Mardi Gras”. It was a very simple idea and the name stuck. This above is the confirmed undeniable origin – so don’t let other claimants fool you. The protest movement at the time - post-Vietnam War - was a passion, almost a way of life for many back then. But support for Gay Liberation was inhibited by the fact that in joining a march in daylight you were possibly coming out ‘gay’ (to your family and employer) and, at that time, homosexual acts between consenting males of any age was illegal. Without going into to much detail, Ron Austin suggested an extra event to follow a day-time city street protest. The idea was to dress up a bit, play some loud music from speakers on the back of a truck – and travel down Oxford Street (the Gay Mile already established) calling for gays in the bars to come out and join in the fun – safe in the dark! They did and by the time that lead truck got to Hyde Park there were many hundreds more involved.
Conflict with police at that point escalated and the participants defied police by heading up William Street. In the main street of Kings Cross they were blocked off at both ends by a new shift of police and the party, having already turned into a protest, now escalated to a riot. There were arrests and the whole event blew up in the faces of both the revellers and police. Many were thrown into jail for the night. And thrown out the next day by a magistrate. Meanwhile the Sydney Morning Herald’s Monday edition printed the names and addresses of all arrested. Their cover blown, families ripped up and indeed jobs were lost. Ironically, if conflict had not happened there would probably have never been another Mardi Gras Parade/Protest – which did occur around the same time the next year. And interestingly, Ron Austin’s ‘non-political’ event turned out to be the most political in Australia’s gay and lesbian history.
Just so you know a few of the photos in this post I have collected randomly over the month or emailed a few requests during MGras 2013. Others I dug out of Google. Everyone involved at whaever position they hold from CEO to roadside Parade viewer has a different experience. So this is basically the story of MY Mardi Gras 2013 – below is a photo Cindy Pastel (aka Richie Finger) probably my personal favourite Sydney alphabet soup persona. Whose life story was turned into Priscilla the film and the musical. With virtually no money from the pocketsful of cash going to her/him.
Here she is again below with Bobe Downe (aka Mark Trevorrow) – my next other favourite (in gay world you can a have more than one) – trading identities. Not just a hilarious shot, but also a very good example of why we need a single word (or very short phrase) to encompass the many variations of non-straight gender and sexual identity.
I was close enough to Sydney Gay world in 1978 to hear about the party/riot the next day, though I was not personally involved. In the past decade I hnbve been barely involved in any way. However, just over a year ago I was invited by the National Library to undertake an Oral History of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. It is proving to be a much more interesting project than I imagined (me thinking all the main players are dead – and indeed many are). But there are others still with us and they can tell their stories and speak up for the those who are lost. For example Ron Smith spoke about not only his time in the MGras Workshop but also his dear friend Doris Fish, an original Synthetic. She had relocated to San Francisco - but came back once a year to help in the workshop. And prepare her own special once-in-a year outfit
The journey of Mardi Gras over 35 years is a fabulous story which cuts open the history Sydney like a watermelon. And I will post more stories down the track as my Library project evolves. But just to make just one point: if it were not for the experience gained in being involved in running the Mardi GrasParade, over so many years, there would never have been such a well organised Sydney 2000 Olympics. And to this very day, mega-event managements frpm all over the world look to employ people with G&L MGras experience.
Despite having lived in Sydney for the past 35 years and more, I haven’t been close to the organisation for quite sometime. I was a personal friend of Peter Tully and David McDiarmid who were among the group who pushed for the date to be moved from winter to summer (less clothing and thus a chance for more flesh and more fun); and, moreover, set up a decent workshop where big ideas could come to life; also with Workshop staff help available for community troupes to go bigger and better if they wanted to. Tully and McDiarmid – sometime partners and life-long pals – were greatly influenced by trips to the uptown New York nightclub – the Paradise Garage. One of the first places to put together party drugs, dressing up and dancing to dawn. Peter’s art work named Urban Tribalwear was also influenced by trips to big parades in the Caribbean and even PNG. David, more overtly political, darker sensibility, and outliving Peter by several years was hugely drawn to Festivals of the Day of the Dead in Mexico – and drew on some of that imagery in his Parade float creations.
The Mardi Gras Parade was solid gold content for photographer William Yang. Here (below) are three classic W Yang shots from the height of the Tully/McDiarmid era.
The decision to move from winter to summer escalated involvement and a more celebratory atmosphere. But there was also a loss. It caused a few of the ‘protest’ hardliners to pull way, especially almost all the lesbians who re-hitched their wagon to the burgeoning Woman’s Liberation movement. Hitherto homosexual rights protests had been a remarkable example of coalition politics.
Mardi Gras, including management, and Parade & Parade participants remained almost exclusively male until the late 1980s, when a female member of the workshop, Cath Phillips, eventually found herself on the Board and a year later successfully ran for President. Over the next few years women were drawn back into the event at all levels. And it has remained a ‘coalition’partnership ever since. The highlight to this very day in terms of the Parade has been the participation of Dykes on Bikes. Who now annually start or are near the start of every Parade. What a throbbing, powerfully sexual kick start: I don’t know, this year it felt like about at least a hundred. Usually with girlfriend or best friend sharing the ride. The noise of the bikes and then the roar of the crowd has to be heard to be believed.
The is much more to the story of the first decade, including the impact of the AIDS pandemic. For the National Library I am basically working in chronological order and currently up to around the mid-late 1980s. There have been some fantastic stories told – and now safely stored. A couple of years ago I interviewed Rose Jackson (born Barry) for the National Library – she got sacked from the Old Tote theatre com[any when her sex-change hormones started to kick in. But she went on and made a great career for herself as a costumier and performer at The Purple Onion in Kensington and later Capriccios on Oxford Street. I think hers is my favourite Library interview ever. I was asked to speak at her funeral and wrote the SMH obituary.
While we are at it, another big loss this year was Carmen Rupe. She lived near me in her last years and would travel around on one of these medical scooters – flowing with coloured ribbons and banners (a touch of Isadora) and always flowers in her hair. A one woman year-round Mardi Gras. I took Carmen as my date to Richard Wherrett’s funeral (another story altogether). Half way through the ceremony she passed out, her head fell into her huge breasts and she started to snore. She turned a few rather severely disapproving heads, but I thought Richard looking down from above would have found her ‘performance’ amusing.
One last comment before I sign off. I noticed that Mardi Gras’ current CEO, Michael Rolik, was going to resign about a year ago and so I sought an interview with him before he disappeared into the wilderness. As it turns out, Rolik has stayed on. But meanwhile I have been given a brief insight into how Mardi Gras is run today. This year, after more than a decade of non-active involvement I took in as much as could of Festival, Parade and Party. There was much I was sorry to miss especially the conference day - Queer Thinking – which had some very interesting material and people involved. From past experiences 0f Mardi Gras Festivals, the events I attended this year rose well above my expectations. But all that for another post. I think this is enough for one reading (and it’s been sitting around two weeks unfinished). I promise you more to come. I just have to change horse in mid-stream and write about opera. Let me tell you – got the money go see Carmen on the water – FABULOUS!!