WHEN Jo Smith moved to Sydney two years ago from Canberra, she was not sure she would like life in the big city.
But after attending her first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade in 2015, she decided to get involved by joining the much-loved Dr Mark’s Marching Academy and will march with them this year.
“Canberra doesn’t have a sense of community, more so in the LGBTI community… I’ve met a lot of people through the group (Marching Academy), everyone’s supportive and cool.”
“I always thought I would hate it here, but now I don’t think I would live anywhere else.”
Jo, a warehouse manager at a boutique auto part company, came to Sydney to be closer to her partner, Cindy.
Growing up in the nation’s capital, it was almost impossible to escape politics and caring deeply about issues is ingrained in the 30-year-old. Some of the changes she would like to see include reforms so religious organisations cannot discriminate against LGBTI people, and greater support for youth coming out in high school.
“A lot of issues that affect LGBTI people, hit to close to home,” Jo says.
“When I was 19 I had a baby under not-fun-circumstances and unfortunately he passed away.
“At the time my family was involved in the church… the ministers were not okay (with my sexuality) and told me my son dying was God’s way of telling me I was living the wrong way.”
By participating in this year’s Mardi Gras with Dr Mark’s Marching Academy, she wants to help make LGBTI voices heard.
“Being in Mardi Gras is my way of saying I’m part of the community, too, and I’m there to lend support to our cause,” Jo says.
“I want to see good things in our community.”
Dr Mark’s Marching Academy has been involved in the Mardi Gras Parade for 15 years and it is one of the most recognised and beloved floats.
The brainchild of — unsurprisingly — Dr Mark, the debut march in 1999 brought together a group of people from Sydney’s inner-west. Since then the group has marched 13 times in total, with 2007’s Kylie Minogue-themed Impossible Princess procession and 2011’s tribute float to TV show Glee as highlights. Their 2008 Divas Thru the Decades entry was also lead by drag and trans legend Carmen Rupe.
It has become such an institution that its final rehearsal held at Erskineville Public School will have speeches from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and some of the 78ers — the men and women who participated in the first Mardi Gras in 1978.
Current float organiser Bradford Jeffries says Dr Mark’s Marching Academy was also established “to get people to celebrate things we have come to achieve as a community but also to recognise it’s still a protest”.
“We still have other goals we’re working towards, that we can do as a community,” he says.
At its peak, more than 400 people used be to part of the float with many more working behind the scenes. Due to health and safety regulations the number of marchers is now capped at 150 but according to Jeffries, it is “always full by the time it gets to parade”.
Bradford says they are sticking closely to Mardi Gras’ theme of Momentum this year, with plans to use racing cars to manifest LGBTI rights gathering momentum. Speed Racers: Nothing Can Stop Us aims to reflect on the history, the present and the future of the LGBTI community.
“We have to tie our message in that people will recognise in six seconds as we pass them on the parade route,” Bradford says.
“We have a group of people who are petrified of dancing (on the float) so we’re going to put them in cardboard cars… and they’ll be in a mock race.
“Each of the cars is going to be branded with a goal we want to achieve. So one will be marriage equality, ending HIV, keeping gay venues open, acknowledging the 78ers.”
Bradford adds that the float is keen to show it is purely a community one and can “speak to the community in ways that is authentic to who we are”.
It’s this strong sense of community — and one of the reasons why Dr Mark’s Marching Academy is widely loved — that Jason Starling does the four-hour round trip between Newcastle and Sydney three times a week to attend marching rehearsals.
“The group is a real mix of all people; gay, lesbian, straight, transgender, it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says.
“I wasn’t looking for anything specific when I joined and they exceeded my expectations… It didn’t matter if you were a good or bad dancer, everyone was welcome.
“Even if you weren’t a good dancer, they didn’t shun you, they developed you and worked with you until you got it.
“I’ve met some beautiful people I call friends. We care about the float and we care about our community.”
Bradford believes Dr Mark’s Marching Academy continues to be distinct from other Mardi Gras groups.
“We’re different because all voices within our group are heard, and we represent the broad array of community concerns and issues,” he explains.
“We also have a strong sense of place and purpose — we’re a very cohesive and united group, with all members in the group looking out for others — even well beyond the parade itself.
“Finally, we’re also about fun. We’re incredibly diverse, we have no entry requirements for the float itself — so long as we still have spaces available — we have huge sound and lights, and a fantastic, but not too challenging routine.”
In addition to conveying many issues to masses who attend parade, the float will also pay homage to its founder Dr Mark who organised it for more than a decade.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky Dr Mark has been able to create such a strong sense of community with this float,” Bradford reflects.
“For many of us, it reminds us that we are stronger together and that we’re united in what we stand for. We feel very privileged to be able to continue this legacy of his.”
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is on Saturday, March 5, 7pm-10pm. Details here
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