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