Semiotics in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Semiotics in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is not just the city’s largest LGBT event, but the most prolific cultural festival in Australia. Every year hundreds of thousands of revelers line Sydney’s streets to celebrate its social diversity – but is this really the purpose of Mardi Gras? Matt Young examines the semiotics surrounding the festival, its history, and its ever-changing place in queer discourse.

When American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Michael Cunningham, was asked whether he considered terms such as ‘queer’ derogatory or endearing, he responded:

We homosexuals, of course, some time ago took on ‘queer’ as what we would call ourselves and claimed it… I think it would be a mistake to imagine that that was meant as some means of sort of altering or educating the homophobes of the world. It was for us… I walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m Michael Cunningham. I’m queer. Go ahead, call me queer.’ Go ahead.’

Queer discourse has a tradition of re-positioning itself, assimilating new terms into its midst – not necessarily bearing inimical connotations. Social policy analyst and writer, Craig Johnston, asserts terms such as ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ are signifiers and, therefore, interchangeable. ‘‘Gay’ itself came here [to Australia] from the USA and overcame ‘camp’ which was what homosexual-identifying males and lesbians called themselves into the 1970s.’ Replacing signifiers is an important aspect of what he calls ‘gay identity politics’, in which the meaning is re-transmitted from word to word. As a result, the discourse is constantly shifting, revising, renewing itself, and resisting a terra firma lexicon. According to Johnston, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras could have just as easily been called the Sydney Camp Mardi Gras. It begs the question, does substituting signifiers forge a protean discourse, and if so, what does this mean for LGBT events such as Mardi Gras?


The History of Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras’ origins are steeped deeply in political movements, the progeny of International Gay Solidarity Day, a protest march that took place in Sydney on Saturday 24 June 1978, in commemoration of the Stonewall riots. The Sydney demonstration seemed lilliputian on the event’s world scale. In San Francisco 240,000 turned out on the streets for a peaceful city-funded march, a vastly greater number than Sydney’s 2,000 or so revelers. The worldwide demonstrations called for an end to discrimination against homosexuals and to repeal anti-homosexual laws. Although the organisers were granted a police permit for the march, it was revoked and the march was broken up by police, with 53 marchers arrested. After a public campaign, charges against the marchers were eventually dropped.


The following year, an incident-free march was attended by 3,000 people, marking the establishment of the Sydney Mardi Gras tradition. The event grew exponentially throughout the 1980s, with a crowd of over 500,000 attending in 1993 and, that same year, contributing an estimated $38 million to the New South Wales state economy. The evolution of Mardi Gras into a cultural tour de force was met by fervent opposition from religious groups, calling for it to be banned. According to the editor of the National AIDS Bulletin, Bridgit Haire, this growth was nothing short of amazing: ‘That a very public festival celebrating being gay and lesbian or transgendered has survived and flourished… is, I think, remarkable.’ In 1999 the festival was estimated to bring approximately $99 million annually to the Australian economy, more than any other event on the cultural calendar.


Mardi Gras, in its current manifestation, runs from the second Thursday in February to the first Saturday of March and includes dance parties, roller derby, burlesque, drag shows, performance art, live music, conferences, and theatrical workshops; as well as iconic events such as Dykes on Bikes Race, Fair Day, and Sleaze Ball, closing with its eponymous street parade, where floats representing various organisations and community groups move through Sydney.


The Parade

The Parade is undoubtedly the kernel of Mardi Gras celebrations. The Parade is a two kilometer pilgrimage from the Sydney CBD through the inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst. These are the playbill images of Mardi Gras: glittered and glamorous participants donning ornate costumes. ‘Mardi Gras is the most visible gay and lesbian event in Australia (if not the world),’ says Haire, however, she is wary of the effect Mardi Gras has on queer discourse. So too is Johnston, claiming that Mardi Gras has to some extent become a ‘spectator sport’:

‘The TV docus… have presented little vignettes, backgrounders, on some of [marchers] sewing clothes and nailing down signs and VO5ing wigs. But beyond those teasers I have no idea where the marchers live, if they have day jobs…. How old they were when they came out, if they’re out…’

Haire and Johnston argue that Mardi Gras Parade has come to erroneously signify all aspects of a diverse LGBT culture. This could be due to the telecast of the parade.


Televised Mardi Gras

The Parade was first telecast in 1994 on the ABC, Australia’s national public broadcaster. There are arguments that telecast purports a hyperbolic iconography associated with a kind of LGBT subculture, and has come to perpetuate a false mythology that homosexuals live whimsical, overly sexualised, and hedonistic lives. As Haire states: ‘[Homosexuals] are ordinary citizens leading ordinary, unspectacular lives, not the exotically plumed creatures that parade down the street once a year…’ The Parade’s television coverage also threatens to sterilise the event. In 1995, the ABC suggested the Mardi Gras’ ‘Cuntmobile’ change its name to make the telecast more ‘friendly’. The participants in a televised Mardi Gras Parade are, as Haire puts it, ‘quaint anthropological specimens to be examined over’ by non-gay Australian viewers. Opening up the Parade to more viewers with what could be called censorship makes it more commercially viable. In the book Surface City, Peter Murphy and Sophie Watson claim:

The commodification of gay culture, as a sales pitch for Sydney to attract domestic and international tourists, extends the significance of Mardi Gras well beyond a celebration of marginalised communities or a voyeuristic curiosity for Sydneysiders.

Of course, the question is, what effect does this have on queer discourse? Haire posits the question: ‘can [Mardi Gras] retain its political significance, its theatricity, its connection to community now that it has the status of a commodity?’ There is the risk that, due to its commercialisation, Mardi Gras will need to increasingly lend itself to branding. Of course, this means a definite set of concrete signs and symbols for consumers to identify, most likely extracted from the Parade’s televised iconography. As a result, its position within queer discourse will find itself less mutable, subject to the strictures of a branding regime. While the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Committee is a not-for-profit member-based organisation, it is increasingly at risk of corporatisation. As a result, is the Parade at danger of making itself less relevant, merely a spectacle? The answer could be in the Parade’s history itself.


Through a Historical Frame

There is no doubt that costume and spectacle is an important aspect of the Mardi Gras Parade’s tradition. During the 1978 march, many revelers dressed up in costumes, some as an expression of their sexuality, others to hide their identity as homosexuality was still a crime in the state of New South Wales, a law that was only overturned 1984. This has evolved into the pageantry and pastiche indicative of Sydney’s Mardi Gras Parade. Just as the terminology of the queer discourse might adapt and change, the meaning of the spectacle might accordingly adjust with it. Haire claims that the event ‘must not be allowed to define us’ and its meaning must be lucidly expressed, not left to be deciphered by TV viewers through a few shots and sound bites. Perhaps the answer is to approach Mardi Gras through a historical frame as opposed to a cultural frame, as is so often done. To perceive it in a historical context allows it to be constantly reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised by queer discourse. ‘It’s changing,’ asserts Johnston, ‘[from a] Mardi Gras representing Sydney’s distinctive place in homosexual subcultures to the Sydney Mardi Gras representing queers’ place in Sydney society.’


Neither Johnston nor Haire believe Mardi Gras to be redundant, nor do either of them doubt it’s cultural significance. Its embrace by the mainstream, and its corporatisation, through the Parade’s telecast may mean the queer discourse finds it more difficult to shift its lexicon. However, it is important to identify Mardi Gras within a historical context in order for it remain both mutable and relevant.


By Matt Young