It rained in fits and starts all day, but by the time the lights were on, the routines learned and the first float hit Oxford St, the clouds had miraculously cleared over the 39th Sydney Mardi Gras.
This year’s celebration saw the first float devoted to queer Auslan-speakers and teachers, a debut for the transgender Indigenous ‘sistagirls’ of the Tiwi Islands, and demonstrated yet again that the night of Mardi Gras is blessed with a bit more weather luck than any other.
The world-renowned pride parade for Australia’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, trans and queer community wound its way through the streets of Sydney with 184 floats, 12,000 participants and hundreds of thousands on the sidelines.
While last year Malcolm Turnbull made history as the first sitting prime minister to attend, this time he stayed away, citing “other matters” interstate. The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, and the Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, marched for their second and third times respectively.
Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, and local MP Alex Greenwich used the parade to push for marriage equality. Moore told the festival guide this year’s march was “as important as ever as we push to legislate equality through a free vote in parliament”.
Saturday’s parade opened with floats dedicated to Australia’s first nations and the “78er’s”, the parade’s foundational marchers whose night 39 years ago ended in police brutality.
It also featured floats from HIV awareness and LGTI health organisation Acon, Rainbow Babies and Kids Australia, a fresco of George Michael as Jesus, the Women’s AFL and the Gender Centre – which marched with the supportive parents of gender-diverse youth.
The “Force of Love” float poked fun at Bill Leak’s controversial “Waffen SSM” cartoon that drew parallels between marriage equality activists and Nazis.
Auslan float organiser Karen told the Guardian through an interpreter that she had “marched in different groups a couple of different times, but this is the first time we’ve titled one as Auslan Mardi Gras”.
I’m Indigenous and I’m really excited to be able to march alongside my people and my girlfriendMatika
In the park beforehand, participants finalised outfits and floats rehearsed their movements.
Matika and Claire, draped in the Indigenous and rainbow flags respectively, said it was their first year marching in the parade.
“I’m Indigenous,” Matika said, “and I’m really excited to be able to march alongside my people and my girlfriend.”
“It’s just wonderful to feel so loved and supported,” Claire said, “and it would be great if this kind of love extended to other minorities, on important days in their lives as well.”
“It would be fantastic if we saw the kind of support people show the LGBT community during Mardi Gras, for Indigenous people during Naidoc week, or Ramadan for Muslim people.”
Andrea Tipungwuti, who travelled to Sydney from the Tiwi Islands with her fellow sistagirls, said it “meant a lot to be here for our first time”.
“We’ve been trying for many years to get into this Mardi Gras,” she said.
For Matt, a 21-year old human rights student, it was his second year on the “No Pride in Detention” float.
“It’s important to recognise queer issues go beyond the mainstream coverage of issues like marriage equality,” he said. “There are people in these camps who have escaped terrible circumstances, just to have a chance at a life in a safe place. It’s important that we advocate for them, who would have been us in another lifetime.”
Marriage equality is such a minor thing, really but it’s about time we moved it forwardsKabi
He said he was “very pleased” Turnbull wasn’t in attendance. “It’s important that major queer organisations acknowledge that, at this particular point in time, he is not a friend of the queer community. We’ve seen his poor efforts in passing marriage equality, and in keeping refugees – especially queer-identifying refugees – in conditions that are not safe for them”.
His view was echoed by Kabi, who has marched 28 times, and decided this year to dress in a mask of the prime minister. “I think marriage equality is such a minor thing, really but it’s about time we moved it forwards,” he said.
“I think it’s a very privileged white gay or lesbian issue – but so much energy has been put into it and once we get it over with there are far more important things we could put our energy into.”
Di Natale said the fact Turnbull had chosen not to march this year was telling. “I think it shows where his priorities are,” he said. “You either stand for marriage equality or you stand for naked ambition and power. That’s what Turnbull has chosen – to appease the right of his party.”
Greens LGBT spokesperson Janet Rice said she considered marriage equality and trans rights as the main areas of reform at a federal level. “There are young trans people who at the moment can’t access hormones without having to go through the family court and all the trouble and expense.”
Katherine, whose portrait adorned the “E” of the parade’s opening “equality” float, said “the big push this year is trans-inclusivity and creating equality within the community. To bring the T in line with the LGBT”.
For Brisbane-based writer Benjamin Law, this was his first time marching and third time attending.
“I feel like it’s community but it’s also protest as well. Its origins are protest and as much as we celebrate it, the very fundamental meaning of Mardi Gras is to make sure you are heard and that you resist legislation and social and political constructs that work against our community,” he said. “I think it’s an act of protest, celebration and resistance at the same time”.