The parade is too fabulous or too pc, too commercial or too boringly grassroots. Not enough colour and movement or too dreary and political by half. The costumes are too derivative or too obscure or too obvious or too absurd. The bodies are too fat, too thin, too muscly, bad role models or negative images. They are unrepresentative, too glamorous (or on a bad year, not glamorous enough). They invite the stereotyping of gay men in particular as frivolous narcissists, while those provocatively dressed lesbians just fuel straight men’s lesbian porn fantasies. Sometimes it’s just dull.
When writer Bridget Haire described the standard post-Mardi Gras complaints in 2000’s Queer City, Gay And Lesbian Politics In Sydney, there was barely a whiff of financial trouble over at the organisation’s Erskineville headquarters.
Parade entries had numbered more than 200 each year (peaking in 1998, when the 20th anniversary parade attracted a record 270 floats). Flashy, corporate floats and occasionally legendary social commentary broke up the huge number of community walking groups.
Blue magazine editor and former Sydney Star Observer journalist David Mills watched the parade grow, fall, and grow again. He has always said the show had to go on -“ as long as people wanted to see it.
The parade is Mardi Gras, Mills said. I think my favourite part of the Mardi Gras season is the party, but there’ll always be someone putting on a big party. The parade will only happen if the community wants it.
Following a smaller than expected Sleaze, the community faces a much harder question: Would they still want the parade if it was presented by a corporation instead of a community organisation?
Current chairperson Marcus Bourget called selling the parade’s naming rights very much a last resort in June, but recently admitted that in the wake of a poor turnout at the organisation’s major fundraiser the topic was back on the boardroom table.
They had to at least have a discussion about -˜presentation rights’, Bourget said.
Because it’s such an obvious way of raising funds.
Most of the current New Mardi Gras board spoke against selling naming rights in the lead-up to this year’s board elections.
Former co-chair Steph Sands, who withdrew her board nomination at the last minute, called selling naming rights the final milestone in commercialisation. Diane Minnis said the matter had been raised in 2003 and she had been opposed to it. Michael Rolik cited his 11 years of parade involvement and said the parade needed to remain in the community for us, Sydney and the world.
It is a hugely undervalued asset and selling the naming rights is not only morally wrong, it’s financially stupid, Rolik said.
A few offered guarded support for the idea. Glen Upton said it would be better than paying $200 for a ticket to the party, $15 to go to Fair Day and $10 for the launch and $20 to watch the parade.
Unsuccessful candidate Chris Murray said the parade was expensive, and drew the largest crowds from outside the gay and lesbian community. It makes sense to squeeze as many dollars from those straight spectators as possible.
Despite its recent troubles (including a $304,000 operating loss in 2004/ 2005), the parade would have little trouble finding a company keen to get its name at the front of the action.
Marketing man Siimon Reynolds from communications agency Love told the SSO he believed the pink dollar still had power. He also believed Sydney’s gay and lesbian community would recover from the shock of seeing a sponsor’s name in the title in time.
I remember when rock concerts were first sponsored, he said. For the first year or so, people thought that the artists had sold out, but from that point onwards everybody was just used to it. At a PR level, you let the community understand why you did it. And secondly, you just ride it out for a season or two.
Journalist and 2005 Mardi Gras volunteer Steve Dow contacted every entrant in this year’s parade to include them in a parade guide. In his view, selling naming rights to the parade was too large a step away from its community roots, and went against the spirit of the event.
Talking to a lot of the people who entered last year I realised how important Mardi Gras really is for their own wellbeing, he said. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the people in the parade to be seen as endorsing whatever product buys the rights.
His sentiments echoed those of community leaders in 2002, when a nostalgic love for the parade emerged after the collapse of the old Mardi Gras.
When the community realised the parade would only happen on the cheap, and only with thousands of hours of volunteer labour, people got stuck in. Rallying cries went out: We were going to march down Oxford Street that day -“ in costume or in civvies -“ regardless of whether Mardi Gras existed or not.
The first parade following the fall was hailed a success -“ even a return to form -“ with smaller numbers of floats making it easier to watch. Its timing coincided with the start of the US invasion of Iraq, inspiring some memorable entries.
Community leaders in 2002 were particularly worried about a commercial company coming in and buying the rights to the parade and party. This was one of the reasons behind the decision to start New Mardi Gras: a desire to keep the community group in charge of a world-famous community event within Sydney’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
As former Mardi Gras president Richard Cobden said at the time: We have to ensure that the Mardi Gras name and logo is never snapped up by a commercial buyer.
But regardless of whether the parade took on a name or not, continued bitching is guaranteed. David Mills said this was to be expected from a crowd who had seen it all before.
It stands to reason that you can only watch or be in the parade so many times without getting bored, he said. Those people wondering why it doesn’t feel fun any more should realise they’ve been doing it for 20 years.
[But] so long as there’s always a group of people for whom it’s new and exciting, it will be all right. We don’t all get over things at the same time.