Ask any Australian what the biggest party in the country is, they’ll say Sydney Mardi Gras. And if you’ve ever met an Australian, you know that’s a statement.
Not only because on paper Australia is an LGBTI person’s dream: a land of gorgeous food, dangerous animals and stunning beaches. There’s an electricity at Mardi Gras so strong you can feel the energy in the air.
However, the problem comes when we call it a party. While nothing quite beats the feeling of unleashing pent up queer energy into one communal celebration, aren’t Prides meant to be a protest?
As I approached the epicenter of the LGBTI rights movement in Australia, the question plagued my mind: should I be protesting or partying?
Rest your weary head
I’ve always felt a connection with Australia. What’s the threat of death by spiders compared to that lifestyle, explosive energy, or liberal use of the big C-word? So landing in Sydney from London – 26 hours later – reality dawned and my heart raced. Years of dreaming of this far continent finally materialized.
After minutes in the taxi, simple suburbs transformed into the flashy billboards, brutalist 70s structures and high-rise, metallic buildings of the inner-city. Here I found my hotel: The Larmont, in Kings Cross.
Later I was told that before the controversial lockout laws put a muzzle on the city – the legislation banning entry into clubs, pubs and bars after 1.30am and last drinks at 3am – you were more likely to find a fight than a fancy hotel in this area. Times have certainly changed.
Caught up in the renovations of the area over the last decade, the hotel boasts sleek Scandinavian design, with wooden furnishings, potted plants and books set off by a burning Sydney white color-scheme.
The bedrooms offer contemporary minimalism, bar the gigantic TV in the main wall’s center. From the 11th floor, I could gaze out all the way to the harbor from the room’s corner sofa, like a child gazing longingly at a ball pit.
Except my ball pit would be filled with golden beaches and dreamy men.
I couldn’t fault the hotel, other than needing an engineering degree to figure out the coffee machine. But this ‘cleaned up act’ benefited me, as a tourist. I was blinded by the litter-free streets and the beautiful, beautiful people. The lock-out laws haunted those working in nightlife.
Speaking to Australian friends, they speak dreamy eyed of a past city of grit, culture and art. Even the more rough and ready Redfern in the city’s south felt a bit tame compared to Berlin or Barcelona’s shadier streets.
I did, however, find The Bearded Tit. This LGBTI bar is quirky, though not in the I’ve-seen-Alice-in-Wonderland-once way that’s cursed bar culture across the world (looking at you, Shoreditch). Instead, it brings comfy booths next to framed photos and taxidermy, a gender neutral toilet with long, dream-like mirrors, and a whiskey shelf second only to Tokyo or Dublin.
I parked up on a stool and chatted to the bartenders and some of the patrons. The people in town share the same view as my friends from Oz. Some talk with resignation – others, determination. There’s a movement to repeal the laws and bring a bit of dirt back to the cheeks of Sydney’s nightlife.
However, for all the talk of the law, this bar didn’t seem to suffer. I cleared up their spirit shelf on a Thursday, though I’m told the queer cabaret night on Wednesday is when it truly explodes. I also passed by The Green Park Hotel, which offered loud pop music and a looking-to-be-seen crowd as opposed to the relaxed and jovial Tit.
Leaving filled to the brim with whiskey, it became clear Sydney was in a tug-of-war between the regional New South Wales government and its people. The city’s identity crisis matched Mardi Gras, whose internal politics raged between party or protest. Despite the struggle, Australia’s biggest party brought a queer rumbling to the city and I decided to dive straight in.
Queer is in the air
Sydney will always find a way to be more beautiful than the last time you laid eyes on it.
The walk around Circular Quay is burnt into my retinas, like I’d just stared into an eclipse. The water of the harbor, the white of the Opera House reflecting the sun’s rays like a beacon, and the black sentinel, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The Quay acts as a sort of focal point for the prettiest parts of the city. From here I met a gaggle of homosexual nuns for Mardi Gras event, The Sisters’ Walk through Taronga Zoo.
The Sisters guided us down the winding paths of the zoo, reading poems to the animals and using a 19th Century cookbook to tell us how to eat them. Considering most Australian animals look like god tripped on the way to the oven into a giant vat of deadly venom, this was certainly brave.
Then again, brave is in the Sisters’ name. Despite the summer sun baring down so intensely I could feel my factor 50 sun cream burning alongside my skin, the Sisters wore full, glorious habits.
The zoo itself might seem peak tourist, yet with the nuns it synthesized with Mardi Gras to create something unique. This was not an isolated incident.
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Returning to Circular Quay, I strolled past the Opera House and into the Royal Botanical Gardens. Taking the long way round this oasis of colossal trees and maze-like vines, the path eventually led me to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Mardi Gras’ spirit infected this traditional bastion of art and tourism thanks to Queer Art After Hours, a rolling showcase of new LGBTI talent.
The quiet halls awoke with immersive performances, the eyes of Victorian paintings staring down; the clinical reception became an impromptu disco stage for two gay DJs. Though getting people to dance proved a challenge – people sat still on seats surrounding the decks, looking contemplatively up as pop remixes pleaded with them through the speakers. The whole gallery was still open, so I walked among Aboriginal art before meeting another enigmatic tour guide.
Verushka Darling, a local drag star, led her own tour. She claims the art on the walls have been mistakenly analyzed by dusty old white men. So it’s up to her to reveal the truth behind every painting, from the wonders of douching to the boredom of heterosexual relationships.
Becoming Mardi Gras
The symbiosis of Mardi Gras with these regular tourist activities started to show what makes Sydney special. It became even clearer on the famous walk from Bondi to Bronte beach – a 2.5km walk along the New South Wales coastline.
The drama of the waves, the sheer rock faces, the golden beaches, all framed by the spotlight of the sun. Every step reveals a new enclave.
So close to the city, this is two opposites working together. Human and nature together; harbor and water, beach and town, gardens and people. Mardi Gras and culture did the same. Is it possible for party and protest to co-exist – or will party take over, like a tidal wave?
To even catch a glimpse of this answer, I needed to dig deeper into the event’s origins. Naturally, I turned to the professionals at Sydney’s Original Gayborhood Walking Tour. Our tour guide – a softly spoken gay man who knew every other gay man who passed by – unraveled the LGBTI history of the city.
He told us how Oxford Street transformed into the queer hub it is today; boring suits and banks changed for bustling bars and fetish shops. We walked to Green Park, the site of the Holocaust Memorial. The pink triangle sits boldly against its emerald background, a stark reminder of what happens when the LGBTI community doesn’t fight back.
The park was also used by nuns to treat HIV patients during the AIDS crisis. Doctor’s refused to help, fearing they would contract the then-mysterious illness. The nuns used to roll joints to relieve their pain. These women, devoted to a religion that demonized gay people, were the only ones who cared about their pain.
Then there’s the march itself. It began that faithful day in 1979, where protesters took to the streets for LGBTI rights. Same-sex activity was illegal. The police raided the march, violently arresting and abusing the brave resistors in prison. Now every year LGBTI people march to make sure it never happens again.
I asked why Sydney call it Mardi Gras instead of Pride. Our tour guide replied: ‘because we don’t want it to be sad, we want it to be a celebration.’
Why we march
The night of Mardi Gras I weaved through the crowds, tipsy on wine and excitement. People lined the roads waiting for the parade, others laughed with their friends in doorways. I, on the other hand, entered the VIP Black Diamond Club – which is available to buy beforehand – for the best view of the parade.
I grew up watching Prides squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others on the sidewalk; for my first Mardi Gras, I needed to treat myself.
The LGBTI First Nations people opened the march, helping to correct decades of erasure from the country and community. Then a cascade of fantastical floats soared down the street: Dykes on Bikes, the original protesters, lifeguards, queer families.
They marched, they danced, they cheered and celebrated. Costumes of fire-red feathers, hot pink vests, more glitter than you can imagine. Two cannons shot towers of fire into the air and the crowd cheered.
The joy of those watching entwined with those performing and the electricity in the air ignited.
It’s important not to forget these events are protests, but the protest comes from the celebration. This is who we are. Lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, gay, trans, non-binary, asexual, intersex, queer and every other identity that should be celebrated, should be loved, should be a part of our community.
On these days, we are one.
There are problems with these events. People are excluded. We should never stop fighting until our community is inclusive.
Because even within the LGBTI community, there are differences. But we are held together by our mutual understanding and love for each other. It’s a symbiotic relationship, which might be why Sydney is the ground for something like Mardi Gras. It’s a city of symbiosis; of separate things working together.
Not always easily. Though when it works, it’s a sight to behold.