Mardi Gras

04 Mar

Too old and tired to bother much this year, so let’s recycle a bit of the “lost” diaries:

February 10 2001: Mardi Gras Reflections Part 1

Last night Mardi Gras was launched at the Sydney Opera House. I did not go myself, but many did. In Chinatown today I could not help noticing the tourist wave has begun to arrive: a young couple (male) very much in love hand in hand down Hay Street, for example. In past Mardi Gras seasons I have met interesting people from various parts of the world, especially the US.

Yet I have never been to a Mardi Gras Party (or a Sleaze Ball)–and don’t really want to; it is not my chosen mode of enjoyment, and I have always deplored (perhaps hypocritically as a smoker) the druggy/out-of-it side of the event. Nor have I ever participated in an orgy. (Some will think me terribly deprived, or insufficiently depraved!) Mind you the drugginess is also part of nightclubbing in general, to be fair. But delight for me is in the company of some loved and loving friend rather than in bacchanalia: but then maybe I am tight-arsed…

Thirteen years ago I was teaching at a private school north of Sydney. A little boy in my roll class (Year 8) came up to me and asked if I was going to the Mardi Gras Parade. Noncommittally I replied, “Yes–I live nearby so I will probably see it.” “Oh,” he said, “I would love to see that parade: they’re my kind of people!” A cute thing he was too, I might add, so somewhat taken aback I said “That’s nice.” For weeks after he used to give me a big cheesy grin and put the chairs up for me at the end of roll call. I have often wondered where he is now–he would be 26 years old now. On the other hand another young person (not a homophobe) recently told me how much he hated the whole thing–the Parade in particular.

About five years ago I was with a group in a Thai Restaurant overlooking Oxford Street. One of our number was a gay man who had only just arrived from Mainland China. As the parade passed beneath us–the Dykes on Bikes looking pretty scary, the marching boys just looking pretty, and the enormous crowd on the street–his eyes were glowing with happiness. So much freedom he could only have dreamed about before, and he was lapping it up. Interestingly he had seen footage of the event on the news in China, with appropriate commentary about Western depravity–an encouragement in fact for him to come to Australia.

There is more to Mardi Gras than the parade of course. It is a month of sports, art events and exhibitions, film, a fair that even straight families go to…the official program is quite impressive.

Over the next few entries I will continue my personal reflections (and that’s all they are). Some will agree with me, some won’t…

February 11 2001: Mardi Gras Reflections Part 2

I am a beneficiary of Gay Liberation, but did not participate in it until well into the 1980s. Indeed, except for a somewhat self-interested participation in the Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force in the early 90s, when I did meet some community heroes, and an association in the later 80s with the then Sydney Gay Youth Group (I ran a writing workshop at a national gay youth conference at the University of NSW) I have had little to do with the political side of gay life in Sydney. This partly has to do with the circumstances of my long delayed coming out.

“Until September 1970, there was no publicly self-identified lesbian or gay man in Australia. Yet today, with lesbians and gay men so visible in our society, it is sometimes difficult to conceive of a time when gay male sex behaviour was illegal throughout the country, with people being gaoled as a result; when anti-discrimination legislation was an unheard-of option; when doctors could unquestioningly carry out aversion therapy, or other medical experiments on homosexuals, with court approval; and when no publicly recognised gay or lesbian community existed in which one could live openly and find support…

“It was therefore something of a shock to most Australians to read in The Australian of 10 September 1970 of the formation of an organisation, Campaign Against Moral Persecution Incorporated (or CAMP Inc), dedicated to removing the stigma which society still attached to homosexuality.” [Robert French, Camping by a Billabong, Sydney, BlackWattle Press, 1993.]

If they noticed… I didn’t, though I soon did, while having absolutely nothing to do with it. For one thing I was in Wollongong teaching; for another I was firmly in the closet. In 1971 I began teaching in a private school in Wollongong, and one of my brightest Year 12 students (Dick Wilson) a year or two later became part of CAMP Inc, though he moved on to the more radical Gay Liberation Front. He was subsequently (but not consequentially) murdered in the Philippines. My current friend the Dowager Empress of Hong Kong was 17 in 1970 at a famous private school on Sydney’s North Shore–where he was raped. (Is this a specialty of private schools?) Ian (the Empress) was early involved in CAMP Inc.

It is fair to say that the Vietnam War, the Moratorium, the Whitlam years, and my personal shift from the Right to the Centre/Left in politics through an exposure to people and ideas I had avoided all through University in the early 60s (thanks to the Evangelical Union), were all gradually broadening my horizons and deconstructing many of my views–essentially my views were a mix of inherited prejudice and crackpot theology, but fortunately I always had a doubting side–a most valuable asset I now feel, and my studies of English, History and Psychology had some effect after all. (The religious Right at the time were always on about how University was corrupting “our” Young People by getting them to read filth by James Joyce and D H Lawrence for example.) Such issues occupied me rather more than the growing Gay Rights Movement–which had nothing to do with me anyway, right?

Meantime, my liberal (definitely small-L) zeal was satisfied by exploring better ways of teaching English, and in due course I was well-known in the English Teachers’ Association. By 1978 I was on the ETA State Council and was lecturing in English Method at the University of Sydney. Ironically, given later developments, I was also running a sociology seminar on Deviance and Nonconformity! I might add that I was madly in love (in an ill-defined way) with an ex-student who is still a very good friend, albeit straight… To sum up, it could be said that I was a champion wanker–in more than one sense. In time I would pay a price, not for the wanking, but for the denial of myself that characterised my life through all this time. (There were relevant family issues of a very pressing nature involved as well.)

When the first Mardi Gras Parade happened in 1978–something of an ad-hoc affair after a political demonstration–and many were arrested and subsequently had their names and suburbs published in the newspaper, I did not even notice. Perhaps I was at a conference? Odd, really, since I was constantly reading Honi Soit, edited then by gays and Trotskyites as I recall–and I even met them, as I took over a double-page spread in one issue for my Dip. Ed. students’ creative writing. Perhaps I didn’t want to know? Ian, the Empress, was there, however…

I saw my first Mardi Gras Parade in 1985. It made me proud. (Actually 1986 😉 See next entry.)

I shall justify that statement and also qualify my enthusiasm at a later time. See you–especially you 🙂

(BTW: In 1978 1634 Vietnamese boat people were welcomed into Australia by the then Liberal government. I was briefly afraid that we were being “swamped by Asians”, to use the expression made popular by the Bitch Goddess in 1996, but moderated my views when I finally met some of them. Meanwhile the Communist trade union boss in Wollongong, blessed with the name Merv Nixon–which he briefly changed by deed poll to avoid association with the charming Dick–was loudly fulminating against our being swamped by Right-Wing Asians! I do hope old Lefties cringe when the
y recall that episode.)

February 12 2001: Mardi Gras Reflections 3

I was wrong yesterday: I was invited to see the 1985 Mardi Gras Parade but did not go. By that year I had been “out” for about eighteen months and had found a local gay bar where I felt comfortable and indeed had many a good time. However, the Oxford Street scene, let alone Mardi Gras, was still more than I could handle.

The Parade where I finally “felt proud” was in fact the 1986 one. At that time a very kind 21-year-old man, Paul, had taken my gay education in hand and had invited me to a pre-Mardi Gras party in East Sydney. I remember it was an enormous warehouse flat which was wall-to-wall with beautiful young men dressing down for Mardi Gras 😉 After the party I went and watched the Parade.

It was the sheer colour and energy of it that drew me in. Forget it on TV with the usually inane commentary! Yes, there were things about it that were not “me”–but it was representative of many facets of gay life, and there was much to appeal. There was satire, sheer silliness, rudeness, beauty, seriousness–political and HIV issues–but the statement it was making was–be proud! Don’t let homophobia hold you back! Celebrate! And I did, in my own way. The other thing that struck me was how friendly the crowd was watching it–even a policeman I spoke to commented on that. People–gay, straight, old, young–were just enjoying the spectacle and the cheeky vibrancy of it.

The following year I took some straight friends and they loved it. Another memorable Mardi Gras was 1989 when I found myself surrounded by my own students: “I didn’t know you were gay,” one said. “It’s OK, it’s not catching,” I replied. Then there was 1991–the first one I went to with M. That is full of nice memories.

This year I may or may not go. Last year I went to the Thai Restaurant for a meal beforehand, but the group did not stay to watch from the restaurant and I just went home. Partly this was that I had after all seen it all before in a way. More so it was that, being short, I couldn’t really see it! The crowd was just too big–so all I could see was the crowd!

So like it or loathe it, it doesn’t matter. Remember however how it started and what it still represents–defiance of the ever-present repression that would prefer we all just quietly went away and shut up. We can’t shut up: Mardi Gras is a brash and confronting declaration of freedom.

March 4 2001: Odd View of Mardi Gras

Yesterday I worked all day, then by about 5.00 pm I struggled up Oxford Street through the already large crowd, larger than the January Federation Parade, to the Albury, where I stayed for an hour or two with PK, Sirdan, DEHK and various others. The problem then was how to get home, as it was impossible to cross back to the Surry Hills side as the roads were all blocked off. I ended up having one of the takeaway dinners the local restaurants were selling on the street (and it was good too) and then set off down the back streets of Paddington, within sight most of the time of the Parade but avoiding the crowd. I ended up walking the full Parade route, as the only place I could cross the lines was at the end–Fox Studios. I then crossed Anzac Parade at Sydney Girls High and came home.

I saw, then, a bit of the Parade itself, and it seemed as lively as ever. What I spent most time observing was the crowd, which was very big, despite what they say about the Party (a rip-off if ever there was one) being down in numbers this year. While the street crowd did thin out by the time the Parade reached Fox Studios (note–this is the place to watch it at street level), there were a number of large viewing stands at that end, and they were packed. Oxford and Flinders Streets were wall-to-wall people. The nice thing was that the crowd was very good–everyone just seemed to be having a good time. I think wilder crowd scenes could be seen at almost any Cricket or Football match!

A highlight was crossing Moore Park in the company of some mums from PFLAG, who were lovely. One claimed to have known her son was gay since he was three! I’m not quite sure how she did that, but they do say mothers know these things. I kissed quite a few of the ladies who were charmed to hear I was a teacher and gay…

On the other hand, a bit of the dark side was witnessed by M, who worked a marathon 6 pm to 10 am straight at a gay venue. Drunk people, drug-f*cked people, mad people–he saw the lot, including one who thought he was the Police Commissioner and said he had come to examine the venue.

Drugs–and it’s mostly ecstasy, speed, and various designer drugs–are a down-side to the gay scene in my view; M. saw that pretty clearly where he sat last night. To be fair, any large “dance party” almost anywhere in the Western world, gay or not, will exhibit this phenomenon.

Yum Cha this morning was myself, The Empress, Clive, James, and eventually M, absolutely exhausted and needing the food. It was a good Yum Cha (The Emperor’s Garden service was friendly and excellent). After that M went home to sleep–he starts again tonight at 6 pm, and I went with James and The Empress to the Albury–yes, I was there this Sunday–where we surprised the bar staff by eating barbecued quail that Ian had purchased, and added a Chinese tonic to our beer (it said it could be used in beer) which caused the beer to look like some Jekyll-and-Hyde potion, but actually improved the taste!

From what I hear, this year’s parade could be good, but I still think the 80s and 90s were when Mardi Gras peaked. The Albury Hotel, mentioned above — where I met M in 1990 — is long gone.

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