The pre-parade revels in and around the Hyde Park lock-up zone, before the closing night of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, must offer one of the world’s most fabulous free parties.
Twelve thousand five hundred participants of every shape, colour, nationality, origin, gender, (dis)ability, age and/or even height, pour into the restricted enclosure. Together they coalesce into one joyful, breezily mashed-up love-in—all before anyone’s peaked or got trashed. Their prep must have included naps, as many look sparkling and primed for what will be a long, exhaustive but exhilarating night.
Like waiting for an international flight to conclude, time spent in the enclosure could become excruciating. But time wistfully fades away as the effervescently expectant marchers primp their costumes, and fix their hairdos, make-up and glitter. Some work on perfecting their routines, while others just collectively chill and loll about.
Those ready-to-go, roam around to take-in the extraordinary sights emanating out of one huge, stranded, squashed-up, multiheaded mobile-carnival. A cacophony of competing dance tracks, blast from the pod of marooned trucks and floats; some with blinking antennae. Some of he raised decks are sounding off in sheer exuberance, while others accompany groups to ensure the precision of their routines. Curious crowds flow around, squeezing through the throngs, or simply join-in; happy to dance to the rhythms of the many oddly stationary marching groups. Time spent in the long winding toilet queues is time away from a whole freewheeling set of evolving experiences. And time doesn’t allow a full tour of this temporary apparition.
All too quickly, marchers need to fall-in with their groups, before progressively setting out for their brief turns in the spotlight. As they variously stride, sashay and/or, stroll up a faded Golden Mile that is today’s Oxford Street, everyone gets a chance to show who they are, what they’ve got or spruik their message. Along the way, no matter how plain or extravagant the group, hundreds and thousands embrace all the marchers with unceasing adulation, reaching crescendos for the more popular groups. If only time could linger.
The mash-up in the lock-up demonstrates perfectly what diversity can look and feel like in the Australia of today—post-marriage equality. It’s where differences are rendered indifferent. An unrequested vote of the entire country, actually served to confirm a significant shift in the relationship between LGBTI people and broader society. What better rebuke to the narrow, nasty politicians who planned it in the hope it would fail? The vote formally established new norms for this country more convincingly than any Brexit vote did in the UK. It was emphatic. The vote was the country's broad mandate for a more tolerant and inclusive society, expanding opportunities for all people and groups to better realise their potentials. LGBTI people provided the vanguard issue for this broader societal vision.
Of course, in terms of diversity, there are always opportunities "to do better", to which many political interlocutors and processes easily default to familiar scripts carried over from past “struggles”. The real challenge is how to embrace and develop within the new opportunities now formally on offer. In many less lucky countries, politicians and institutional arrangements cruelly maintain their power over people by using "identity" to exaggerate the differences and divisions within society. Places like Northern Ireland provide extreme examples of the how "identity politics” splits people apart limiting their development and opportunities. As Lord Christopher Patten says of Northern Ireland, it's always about power, not identity. Is it any wonder that Belfast Pride, as the largest cross-communal event in Northern Ireland, wonderfully subverting such politically exaggerated divisions.
In reality, with marriage equality resolved, everything in Australia has changed. It’s out now. The cutting edge of Mardi Gras today appears to be lending the unique experiences, viewpoints and sensibilities of LGBTI people to help reimagine and demonstrate improved possibilities and potentials for everyone. The extraordinary lock-up experience shows that LGBTI people, and their happy associates, remain in the vanguard of this blossoming new stage. They do this generally, but not uniformly, with panache and style. It's an extraordinarily Lucky Country where revolutionary change is played out in a communal party.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has many unique features that sets it apart from the multitude of pride style events around the world. For its start, it's at night, which makes everything look so much better. Its “bottom-up” mass-participation origins, give it an “unpurchaseable” authenticity. In a country with a relatively short settled history, public authorities easily miss this truly rare and valuable component within the event's DNA. Bureaucracies of every type are ever happy to “promote tourism”, a mere by product, by producing or pushing their own curated experiences. Invariably they end up with all the authenticity and imagined public engagement of all ”top-down” events like Vivid. Their own self-generated KPIs usually determine the extent of their success.
Mardi Gras, by comparison, attracts extraordinary levels of communal and individual self-identification. It probably isn’t even “owned” by its organisers. No one is short of an opinion. And there are always more opinions than solutions; and that is a good thing. As the multiplicity of entrants demonstrates, Mardi Gras means many things to many people. And those multiple meanings won’t always fit snuggly into the officially-sanctioned needs of a “brand Sydney”. Least Mardi Gras evolves into a sanitised, gay ANZAC Day parade, the organisers are best to keep their distance.
Meanwhile, the very nature of Mardi Gras offers its participants an extraordinarily broad canvas to present as thousands of examples of un-curated, unselfconscious creative self-expression. Australia is a country that can believe that something or someone delivers creative experiences from on high; and that creative expression is somehow only the preserve of the extraordinarily gifted and highly-trained. Mardi Gras gives everyone a go. It empowers thousands of people to creatively express their realities, understandings and ideas. Some are original; some are repeats. But none of that matters and there are no critics. Anyone can partake and everyone who does, gain public validation.
The pre-parade lock-up experience offers a pristine snapshot of evolving realities delivered with innate authenticity, dynamism and creativity. Next time Mardi Gras time comes around, see if you can find a way to join in this extraordinary experience. And it doesn’t cost a thing. Just see how you can find a way to join a group, or maybe join the thousands of volunteers needed to line the route. There are so many ways to have fun.