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Christopher Kelly reports from Sydney on the world's biggest gay party

On Friday evening a few thousand people squatted outside the Opera House for the launch of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras 2002. Numbers were lower than usual; the weather had been all over the place all day, violent storms one minute, brilliant sunshine the next. In fact, thinking about it, the weather reflected the overall theme of this year's celebration. "We're celebrating Diversity both on a community level as regards to representation and on an art form level," says Festival Director David Fenton.
Running concurrently over 24 days, the season consists of an arts festival, a film festival and community fun days. The two events exciting David the most illustrate the programme's eclecticism.

The first, ‘Fuck Fashion’, is a fashion parade-cum-fetish party. “It’s cutting edge as far as the curatorial nature of the festival is concerned,” says Fenton. “It’s rubber, it’s leather, it’s medical; it’s whatever gets you through the night.”

The second, ‘Velocity’, is a dance party for 13–17 year-olds. “It’s important as an investment in regards to future Mardi Gras membership and important in regards to young people having a cultural voice,” says Fenton.

BUSH FIRES AND BUSH'S WAR

A decline in corporate sponsorship and an anticipated drop in US visitors have led to a downscaling of all aspects of this year’s festivities, including the main dance party – tickets are capped at 20,000, so if your name’s not down...

Rob Wordale of Gay & Lesbian Tourism Australia has a no-worries attitude to the industry’s downturn. “The local economy is in good shape,” he says. “There will be some impact as there'll be fewer international visitors, but a lot of it is because they'll be coming to the Sydney Gay Games in November.”

Visitors concerned the city has been reduced to charcoal can rest easy, apart from one or two sooty faces complaining of ash in their lattes, Darlinghurst managed to escape the Christmas fires unscathed.

THE PARADE

The cherry on the Mardi Gras cake is, of course, the parade. Its roots trace back to a protest march in 1978. People outside looking in would think that these days there’s not much to protest about this side of the sun.

There’s no denying we’ve little to complain about when considering the bigger picture, after all, gay and lesbian Sydneysiders have more to celebrate than gay and lesbian Zimbabweans. That said, with the Western Australian parliament expected to pass historical legislation later this month, New South Wales (NSW) will soon be the only state in Australia with an unequal age of consent.

“There is a perception that equality in Sydney is advanced,” says Anthony Schembri, co-convenor of Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby NSW. “Compared to other communities we’re not doing bad, but there are areas where gays and lesbians continue to be treated differently. The age of consent is a good example, young gay men still continue to be discriminated against and prohibited access to health and welfare services.”

NSW has come excruciatingly close to equalisation. In the late 90s, a bill calling for an equal age of consent of 16 failed by just one vote. Regarding other matters of state law reform, no gay friendly policies have been passed since same-sex partners won relationships rights in May 1999 – and even then gays & lesbians were denied the complete package of rights afforded to heterosexual couples.

As for the recently re-elected Commonwealth Government (Australia’s central parliament), you only have to look at its treatment of refugees to realise that the concept of compassion doesn’t compute. Prime Minister John Howard’s right-of-centre government was never expected to grant Australia’s gays and lesbians any favours, and it hasn’t. If anything, it has tried to drag the community back to the dark ages.

“Under Howard gay and lesbian rights have gone back years,” says Schembri. “It hasn’t just been the case of not getting any new reform, but a case of having to defend and protect existing rights.”

For example, the Government quietly reduced the country’s gay and lesbian immigration quota. (Unsurprising behaviour from an administration led by a man who once publicly said he’d be disappointed if one of his children were gay). “We’ve got an absolute code of silence from the Government on gay rights federally,” says Schembri.

So, without wanting to rain on the parade, while Sydney’s busy putting on the razzle-dazzle, it’s worth remembering that all that glisters is not gold.

You can get full details about all the Sydney Mardi Gras events on the Mardi Gras website.

SYDNEY'S GAY NIGHTLIFE EXPLORED

 

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