Pride… and protest

27 Feb 2023

Sandy O'Sullivan responds to Lidia Thorpe's protest action at Mardi Gras and speaks to the history of, and continuing need for, protest alongside celebration.

Pride celebrations across the world are sites of protest, born of challenges to a system in which we do not belong.  

It’s an anti-establishment activism that Indigenous people and queer people share.  And for queer Indigenous people, this fight is often central to our right to exist. 

Pride events have been used by the queer community to insist on our fundamental human rights, to challenge the state and police brutalities, to demand health care afforded to others, and finally to insist that as queer people, we belong. 

Many rights have been won on the battleground of these public events including marriage equality, employment and healthcare rights and other sometimes mitigated wins (healthcare and employment still not guaranteed in the colony).  Queer racialized people have been at the forefront of this work, and as the most marginalised group in the community, are often subject to particularly brutal responses from the police and from the system at large. There’s a reason to protest and there are many ways to do it. 

This year, World Pride joined with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to bring the international event to Sydney, pushing our rights and what we have yet to achieve further onto the world stage. Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras had its own beginnings in protest as a tribute to the Stonewall Riots.  Black trans women and other People of Colour were at the forefront of the riots held in New York City nine years before the protest event that would mark the first Sydney Mardi Gras in 1978.  

Stonewall was a protest and riot against cops who had brutalised New York City by targeting queer people who gathered. All of these events were born in protest, protest against a system that disproportionately affects marginalised people.  

This year also saw the return to Oxford Street, the first time in an open setting since the beginning of the Pandemic.  It was definitely a time for celebration.  And also a time for protest, and the ways that celebration and protest can be brought together is best found in the programming by Ben Graetz, a descendant of the Iwaidja and Malak Malak Clans in the Northern Territory and of Badu Island on the Torres Strait, and Ebony Williams, a Wiradjuri and African American woman.  Their First Nations-focused programming and engagement saw creative works that formed protest, from Bloodlines: the Huxleys – a tribute to those lost to HIV/AIDS in Marri Madung Butbut: First Nations Gathering Space to a series of response works to the first poetry anthology produced by Tranby – our college born of protest – at Boomali, a First Nations art collective long associated with protest work. Our very participation is protest. Graetz, Williams and the team embedded protest and action into celebration. They didn’t choose one over the other.  

The first Mardi Gras in Sydney involved the brutalisation of people by the cops. Reports following the events last night suggested that this continues.  Each year since Mardi Gras started inviting serving police officers to march in uniform, in spite of the history of brutalisation of our community members, there have been protests. These have included many individuals and organisations, including from Pride in Protest, the group that invited Senator Lidia Thorpe to join their protest in this year’s Parade. 

The social media responses to this action ranged from support for a call to remove uniformed police from marching, to criticisms that the parade is not a protest but a celebration. It included racist, transphobic and homophobic responses. Because of course it did.  But it also reflected confusion over the role of Mardi Gras and Pride, over the idea that protest and celebration could not exist alongside.  If settlers learn nothing from Indigenous people, learn that we know how to protest bad acts while we celebrate our existence. 

We are still fighting for our human rights on this continent. From equal healthcare, access to legal instruments to live and die in our gender, to addressing ongoing violence from the police and the carceral system, queer people – and in particular Indigenous queer people – have every right to refuse to march alongside the very group that causes them harm.  My first Mardi Gras was 38 years ago, and as an older queer Aboriginal person I didn’t imagine the protesting parade we experienced then – replete with attacks from the cops on horses, I got a kick in the leg for simply being there – would now be institutionalised into the same parade.  We brought them in, even as they continue to brutalise us. 

There has been a persistent movement to remove police – uniformed and on-duty – from marching in Mardi Gras and Pride parades around the country. These calls have challenged the assertion that police make people feel safer. Last night was not the first protest against their inclusion, it was just the most recent. 

Many of the rebuttals to Senator Thorpe’s protest focus on police brutality towards queer people at these kinds of events being a thing of the past.  Yet multiple reports suggested that immediately after the event a number of people were subject to police ‘attention’. 

These responses also fail to comprehend that for Blak people on this continent, being queer doesn’t remove the chance of being subject to intense police scrutiny or being brutalised by the system, evidence shows it increases it.  

This ongoing inclusion of cops in their uniforms, on duty, as an act of inclusion and celebration, makes my own attendance at Mardi Gras untenable. I don’t want to ‘celebrate’ and I definitely don’t want to protest alongside them. In 2021 police in NYC were banned from participating ‘…unless they march unarmed and out of uniform’  in a move that is being replicated across the world. Except for here.  

When I saw that Senator Thorpe, an elected politician, had been there to protest on my behalf, I cheered. She took a hit for the rest of us, and I’m grateful. Pride and the Mardi Gras was born of protest.  At a time when many of us are still fighting for our right to exist, we need that protest – and that celebration – more than ever.  

Cops, leave your work-cosplay at home, come as queer civilians in the struggle. 

For some a protest may seem unnecessary. In their utopia, they already have all the rights they need. And perhaps they do. But in the spirit of the first Mardi Gras and the ongoing colonisation of this country that disproportionately affects queer Indigenous people, and across the backdrop of an international and home grown climate where trans people are suffering constant abuse, expecting allyship from other queer people to Protest while celebrating seems a basic kindness.

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