Last Thursday evening, I attended the launch of the 2012 Season and the new names for the organisation and festival. It was a high tempo event with excellent speeches from impressive young people and genuine about the season to come.
I left feeling rather wistful. The return of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Inc marks the end of nine years of New Mardi Gras.
In 2002, I was one of a small group of people who were persuaded to stage a bid to rescue our community’s event. I co-chaired a startup board that very quickly pulled in good will from the most unlikely sources. Within months, 150 people were volunteering at least 10 hours a week to restage Mardi Gras.
New Mardi Gras was born because the old Mardi Gras organisation went broke. For several months, corporate administrators owned Mardi Gras and they had no reason to stage 2003 Festival.
The former Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was a ground breaking organisation, fabulous organisation. It did more for the visibility of gay and lesbian lives than any other institution I can recall.
Mardi Gras’s fortunes rose on the back of a short period in mid 90’s Australia when gay was cool and cutting edge and fashionable all at once. It was the Priscilla moment. The Parades were never bigger. A hundred thousand came to watch and be part of the best street party in Sydney. Everyone wanted to be at our parties. They were fantastic and they were the only parties of their kind in Sydney. They were so popular that Mardi Gras had to restrict entry so that our people, particularly women, could party without being hit on by straight blokes.
The organisation changed too. It became more professional. A beer company paid money to put the Mardi Gras logo on its bottles. Mardi Gras recorded the biggest profits in its history. It also recorded the biggest losses, sometimes in consecutive years.
Presidencies were determined in an orderly manner to guarantee equal representation of women and men and mainly rubber stamped at each election. Public meetings were vicious affairs with personal attacks and ambushes. Mardi Gras became known for a its own brand of gay and lesbian separatism, famously exemplified by the members deciding some where around 2000, that automatic membership for bisexuals was just too much of a risk.
It partied like there was no tomorrow. Eventually, of course, there wasn’t.
The world had changed. The only place that Priscilla had survived was in the Cabaret Bar at the Imperial. Straight party promoters created parties for straight people that did all the things Mardi Gras did, only better. Being part of our Parade was still the most fun you could have standing up but it was no longer edgy just by its very existence.
Old Mardi Gras died because it couldn’t change quick enough. There were too many sacred cows. It was not possible to make the same events bigger and better when revenue was falling. Too many people had got used to sitting back and being entertained.
New Mardi Gras was lucky. When the 2003 Season got axed, people realised they needed to do something. Hundreds volunteered. Others just stopped whingeing.
Somehow we made the 2003 Season happen and got whole thing back in community hands. To this day, I don’t know how we did it. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life.
The New Mardi Gras experience has of course been rocky. There were some well intended but startlingly naive decisions. At times, NMG forgot that being a ‘community’ organisation means understanding everyone and not only listening to loud voices that invoke nostalgia to resist change.
But the events are still here and going strong. In my heart of hearts, I thought it would only last five years.
I didn’t help create New Mardi Gras to pump out carbon copies of the 90s year after year. I wanted to Mardi Gras to reflect the hopes, creativity and desires of the people who bothered to turn up. I wanted it to keep changing with the times, taking what was useful from decades of tradition and applying it to where ever we are today.
That’s why I left the launch last week feeling wistful. New Mardi Gras succeeded because it is still able to change.
I believe these name changes are the right decision.
The Parade of the 90’s made ‘Mardi Gras’ an Australian synonym for gay, even without the adjectives. New Mardi Gras asked new people to keep it going.
I believe these name changes are the logical next step in our tradition. They say that Mardi Gras is a gay and lesbian organisation with a powerful hope for ourselves, Sydney and the world. If you like, infinite love for all.
INFO: Michael Woodhouse was a co-chair of New Mardi Gras between 2002 and 2004.