Youth Disenchantment with Mardi Gras

Members of the Queer Youth community share their perspectives on the 2019 Mardi Gras parade, exposing various anxieties. Madeleine Coutts and Kellie Highet report. 

Wearing pajamas and a pair of bejewelled sunnies, Steph swung open her apartment door. Sitting on the couch was her girlfriend, Romy, dressed in jeans with a pair of equally bedazzled shades on. “How fun are these?” Steph laughed, tapping on the lens as she walked inside. After showing off all the rainbow decor they bought for their celebrations, she settled down, removed the sunglasses and sighed, “I’m excited for tomorrow, but sometimes I feel like Mardi Gras is just straight people dressing up and pretending to care for a day.”

Sydney celebrated its 41st Mardi Gras on the 2nd of March. Over 300 000 people attended the parade and festivities, but behind the spectacle, some members of the Queer youth community have expressed their apprehensions towards the event.

Despite recognizing the positive representation and safe spaces Mardi Gras has created for the LGBTQ+ community, 20 year social work student, Steph Bonan, revealed that Mardi Gras has put pressure on her to be more vocal about her sexuality, which is a difficult thing for her.

Steph grew up in Melbourne, and was very excited to attend her first Mardi Gras after moving to Sydney in 2017.  Since then, some negative personal experiences have tainted her perspective.

“I was living at college at UNSW… and I noticed in a sense [what] I would call a cultural appropriation of Mardi Gras,” she said.

“Which is where [straight] people might see it as more of a party and perhaps disrespect the space and maybe dress stereotypically gay, which I think is problematic.”

Sydney’s Mardi Gras began in 1978, when homosexuality was illegal in NSW, serving a crucial part of LGBTQ political activism.  As Mardi Gras has moved from a protest of 3,000 people towards a mass celebration of 500 000, like Steph, other members of Queer community have voiced their concerns, and feel that some people have a tendency to act insensitively.

Bella, a student who experienced this in one of the Mardi Gras floats, thinks the problem lies in people who think that we’re past homophobia.

“There was one guy, who was actually a friend of mine, who I knew was coming as an ally, not a member of the Queer community. He was wearing a dress and throughout the night he made quite a few jokes… and I kind of thought that was a little inappropriate for a Mardi Gras,” she said.

“Why have you come into this space if you think the idea of a man wearing a dress is funny? He’s the kind of person who makes comments like that and doesn’t really understand.”

Hannah Johnston lives in Dulwich Hill and is 21 years old. She attended the 2019 parade and has expressed her reservations towards where the event is heading.

“As [a] member of the LGBT community [I] like to stay away from the parade and go to smaller pubs or after parties were we can avoid the mass of people,” Hannah said.

“That way we can find a more intimate group of people to surround ourselves with and share the night with like minded people.”

Similar to this, Bella spoke of her experience of feeling uncomfortable with some straight people invading Queer spaces.

“I personally have felt very uncomfortable in gay bars because of the way straight girls will look at me as though I’m a predator, and it makes me feel really guilty about my sexuality,” Bella said.

“You don’t want that when you’re trying to have a care free night. You don’t want to have to worry about hitting on someone who’s going to be offended and afraid of you… which sucks.”

Hannah has been skeptical about attending the parade for years and believes that there is still much progress to be made.

“I heard a story of a man at Mardi Gras kicking a gay man off a crate. I think the culture of drinking that has been linked with Mardi Gras can cause problems amongst the crowd when people attend Mardi Gras for the wrong reason,” she said.  

 “This one man was attending Mardi Gras and was standing on a crate, when another man who appeared to be extremely homophonic yelled at the man and violently pushed him off a crate into the crowd of people. Everyone was taken back and it was really an eye opener that we still have a long way to go.”

A UNSW college student, Brandon Foo, 20, also attended the 2019 Mardi Gras parade. Despite believing Mardi Gras to be a positive and inclusive event for Sydney, he expressed some concerns about the drinking culture it has endorsed.

“This years Mardi Gras was a lot bigger and a lot more crowded, there were clearly a lot of people drunk on the road. I [also] saw a lot of straight guys who were making fun of drag queens or gawking at them … but that happens all the time…,” Foo said.

“I saw some people get punched outside the bar Stonewall, and the police came and they were young teens.”

Although Mardi Gras has rapidly grown over the years, attracting all types of people, Hannah believes that this has taken away from its initial political importance and meaning.

“Mardi Gras in principle is a protest not a celebration, it started off as a protest and has a lot of political activism that urges members of the LGBT community to get involved and push for equality… but the event has definitely changed,” she said.

Despite their various apprehensions towards aspects of the parade, Mardi Gras is still important to Steph, Bella, Hannah and Brandon, due to the representation it has provided for the Queer community.

“It’s hard, because you’ll always get people who do disrespect that space and do that kind of thing, but I think overall those people are probably the minority,” Steph said.

*Please watch attached video file on Mardi Gras (this would go above the article on an online publication.)

*please see attached photos of Steph, Brandon and Hannah Word Count: 1000