‘Turn back the float!’: Cher, the Mardi Gras and when the personal gets political

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Marriage equality is far from the final issue for those at the 40th anniversary Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade

The humid evening draws in and Oxford Street is full of people. I walk up towards the parade route from Sydneys Central station and the majority of people walking alongside me are decked out in rainbows, glitter and clothing far more bawdy and revealing than the usual Saturday night attire.

At Taylor Square, halfway along the parade route, the crowds are already swelling. Music starts pumping from a huge sound system outside the Courthouse Hotel. A volunteer waving some green pom-poms, tries, with limited success, to corral the crowd into performing a Mexican wave.

With the snarl of engines and the sharp scent of fuel, 240 women burn down the street on motorbikes, decked out in leather and denim, rainbow flags flying behind them. These are the Dykes on Bikes one of the countrys longest-running LGBT+ community groups and motorcycle clubs for women and they have been opening the parade for years now. The Boys on Bikes follow, and then the First Nations, led by a drag queen in a sequinned Aboriginal flag ballgown, who make an acknowledgement of country.

This may be my first time attending the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but images from the past 40 years of the parade are so universally recognisable, and its mythology so embedded in this part of Sydney, that in aesthetics, at least, it feels entirely familiar. What I dont expect is how infectious the euphoria is of those marching. Ive never felt remotely comfortable conforming to the expectations of my gender and Ive also never found it particularly freeing, as many I know have, to hang a label on my sexuality. But even just being yourself is a difficult enough space to inhabit and the social pressure to live by certain codes can be incredibly stifling even for the most stalwart nonconformists. Mardi Gras, though, feels like a space big enough to march through, big enough for everyone to fly whichever flag suits them best.

The 78ers follow the First Nations and the crowd is cheering and grinning, cries of Thank you! chorusing up from the stands. Its hard to imagine what the landscape for LGBT+ rights in Australia looks like without the actions of those activists. Its a sobering thought that I keep coming back to as floats pass throughout the night relating to HIV awareness and safe sex, disability support, sexual freedom within religious organisations sometimes tiny groups pushing against huge monoliths.

The ANZ float comes by, the first of the corporate sponsor floats. Complaints about the increasing commercialisation of the parade are ongoing and it is slightly jarring to see brand names such as Netflix, Vodafone and Medibank Private plastered with rainbows and glitter, trying to blend in to the crowd. They are markedly more glitzy than the community floats, for a start; no DIY aesthetic here.

The Sydney Mardi Gras parade began in 1978 as a march and commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots of New York. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

But such high-profile corporate involvement demonstrates perhaps more clearly than anything that community acceptance of alternative sexualities is simply not the frontier it once was. If anything, the corporate embrace of Mardi Gras and the widespread corporate support of marriage equality during the widely criticised postal survey late last year is evidence that queer is a mainstream market. It might be good morality to support the LGBT+ community but these days its also good business.

At one point, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, turns up to walk Taylor Square with his wife, Lucy, swilling a drink. [Mardi Gras is] 40 years old and, 40 years ago, Lucy and I had our first date, he tells the waiting media, before moving on to talking about marriage equality. It was a vote for love, for equality, for respect, he says, saying that equality and respect was what Mardi Gras was always about. There has been so much change in the 40 years and there was the final issue of marriage equality, and we got it done.

But marriage equality is far from the final issue for this crowd.

Gabrielle, a 78er, marching in only her second Mardi Gras, 40 years after her first, does not believe the fight is over, no matter how much things have changed. All the issues keep repeating themselves, she tells me as she marches. Every time we move forward, like with gay marriage, the religious people say we have a right to discriminate against you because of our religious beliefs. They find loopholes.

Marchers celebrate the yes result in the marriage equality vote. Photograph: Steven Saphore/Reuters

Scott, marching with the leather fetish community float, says Mardi Gras is more than just a celebration of gay, its a celebration of humanity. Theres so much happiness and love you have no idea what its like to walk up there and see people reach out and embrace what we do. When asked what the next campaign should be, he says: Its just being accepted as equals in the workforce and the community, and pushing forward now for womens rights, trans rights and equality across those other matters.

Turnbull is only the first of many politicians who make their way around Taylor Square this evening. Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek work the barrier; Richard Di Natale marches with the marriage equality float and then heads back up the road to march again with the Greens. The Sydney lord mayor, Clover Moore, gets a rapturous reception as her float arrives.

But when the Liberal party float makes its way down the road, protesters jump in front of it wearing mock Australian Border Force uniforms, blowing whistles and carrying a banner reading Turn back the float! Its not the only time the issue of refugee rights makes an appearance. The Refugee Action Coalition has a huge contingent of marchers under the slogan No pride in detention, protesting the bipartisan support for offshore detention of refugees, particularly those whose sexual identity makes them the target of persecution in both their country of origin and their island prison.

The biggest kerfuffle, though, happens halfway through the parade, and its nothing to do with politics. A troupe of dancers dressed as sailors burst into Taylor Square as the Qantas float arrives and pop star Cher appears in an orange wig to the strains of her hit song Believe and is immediately surrounded by a crush of people. Somehow, she makes her way to the media pit. I love that everybody is having such a good time and theres no feeling of any kind of anger, theres no negativity and thats what I like most, she says, before disappearing back into the VIP section, leaving thousands of breathless fans in her wake.

There are 200 floats in the parade, which is scheduled to run for four hours. While the energy on the route is still high, by about the three-hour mark I find myself flagging and theres only so many times one can hear Vogue or I Wanna Dance With Somebody and maintain enthusiasm. I leave shortly before the end, hoping to avoid the worst of the crowds heading down to the Moore Park Entertainment Precinct for the official after-party.

Post-parade festivities are scattered all through the city these days but the Party is by far the biggest: its the event the stars play Kylie Minogue, Cyndi Lauper, George Michael and the Village People to name a few and about 12,000 people attended this year.

At midnight in the Royal Hall of Industries is the community show. It is designed and directed by the Mardi Gras creative director, Greg Clarke, and features 40 drag queens from the festivals history. Its a bit of camp fun but people are in the RHI because they know that this is where Cher is going to perform.

She finally takes the stage at 1.30am, in a blond wig this time, and the crowd from my vantage point disproportionately comprised of shirtless men goes bananas. She opens with All or Nothing, backed up by a troupe of dancers. I cant decide if she is lip-syncing or not but the occasional blip of Auto-Tune suggests it is not entirely live. But perhaps it doesnt matter: there arent many 71-year-old women who would get up on stage and dance about wearing little more than a few strings of diamants except possibly at Mardi Gras.

A parade goer during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Cher launches into Strong Enough and I notice the Auslan interpreters to the side of the stage, clearly having a blast. Believe comes soon after and the crowd goes bonkers, and Im surprised at how many of the words I know to a song I remember loathing as a teenager. Its followed by a bizarre dubstep dance break that is quickly revealed to be cover for a costume change into a black spangly leotard and giant black curly wig. It seems quite a lot of effort to go to for one song, Turn Back Time, before the singer disappears from the stage. Shes occupied it for less than 30 minutes for such a big name and such a high-profile gig, it feels rather underwhelming.

But thats the nature of a party like this and the euphoria it brings: it is fleeting. As the dawn creeps in, and you drag your sore feet home, you remember that real work still needs to be done. But sometimes, for a short while, showering everything in glitter can be liberating.

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