Sunday, 4 March 2018

40th annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The event kicked off in the morning when a representative from NSW police was interviewed on ABC News about the original Mardi Gras in 1978. “NSW police got it wrong in 78," when they disrupted with violence the first march, he said. It had been held to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York, which had also been characterised by police brutality.

Much has changed. In Sydney last night, the prime minister and his wife Lucy were caught in a published selfie with the NSW state premier and US pop legend Cher. The leader of the Opposition and his wife were snapped walking on Oxford Street. A thousand police provided security in the streets, many of which were blocked to vehicles apart from the 200 floats and their attendant 12,000 marchers. Some streets were even blocked to spectators, who were estimated later to number 300,000, making the event Sydney’s second-biggest public event after the New Year’s Eve celebration in the CBD and around Circular Quay.

Much has changed in 40 years indeed. On the trains leading into the city young men and women in the carriages dressed in outrageous, skimpy outfits drew the gaze of other passengers. Finding a way onto Oxford Street itself was a challenge, as all the surrounding cross streets had been barricaded by police wanting to make sure the crowds were manageable. Getting inside the cordon was a matter of luck, and once inside a solid wall of bodies lined the route of the parade. People stood precariously on small plastic chairs they had brought along for the purpose, holding their smartphones up to record the proceedings. If you managed to stand still for a few minutes amid the rest of the throng circulating up and down the street you might see the top of a float as it lumbered past, music blaring from hidden speakers.

One truck that was covered in pink and purple balloons had CeCe Peniston’s 1991 ‘Finally’ going full-bore, which had some people standing on the roadway bopping and jiving. The song’s lyrics reminded you that in November marriage equality legislation passed in the federal Parliament. “Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face, And I just cannot hide it.” The song had gained fans after being used as the soundtrack for the final staged performance featured in the 1994 gay cult road movie ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.’ 

There was another float with an oversized cloth simulacrum of the nose of an airliner that had the name of Qantas, the national carrier, emblazoned in letters covered in red glitter on its side. It was blaring Cher’s 1998 hit ‘Believe’: “Do you believe in life after love? I can feel something inside me say, ‘I really don't think you're strong enough, no.’” The airline’s gay CEO Alan Joyce had been criticised for using the company’s money to fund the campaign to change the law. 

Such emotionally-overloaded anthems animated the people crowding along the way, some of whom were heavily intoxicated or high on some substance or another. Most of them were just people in their twenties and thirties enjoying the fun vibe but there were older people as well and younger ones. A young father standing up against the side of a building carried a sleeping baby in a chest pouch, and on Bourke Street near Taylor Square a young mother pushed a stroller with a small child in it. 

Just off Campbell Street, a female uniformed police officer searched the pockets of a young woman next to the side of a marked police car. A man in a grey T-shirt standing behind them with a mobile phone dutifully raised to the level of his face captured the process electronically.

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