Has the rainbow flag taken on new meanings in better times. Photo: Wikicommons, Benson Kua

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By Michael Hitch

Rainbow flags, Drag Queens and a false sense of achievement?

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will return in 2019 to celebrate its 41st anniversary, but activists say the event is ignoring the suffering of queer refugees and forgetting its roots in protest in favour of commercialism.

The theme next year will be ‘fearless’ with the festival’s most visible event, the Mardi Gras parade, held on Saturday 2 March.

New events such as the Strictly Kaftan Pool Party have been added to the two-week program, while the popular Sissy Ball is expected to make a return to Carriageworks in Redfern.

The program begins on Friday 15 February and ends on Sunday 3 March 2019.

However, at the event’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) in late October community campaign group, Pride in Protest called for Mardi Gras organisers to recognise the abuse suffered by queer refugees in Australia’s offshore detention camps.

The lead board candidate for Pride and Protest, Holly Brooke said that Mardi Gras is becoming detached from its political past and that the politics of the organisation now focus on turning a profit, rather than achieving social equality.

“The refugees on Manus and Nauru are getting bashed regularly, are fearing for their lives, are facing persecution from the authorities and are facing general homophobic abuse within the community. The same homophobic abuse they’re fleeing from their countries of origin,” she said.

“There are some people claiming that we’re bringing a political agenda to Mardi Gras, which those people are saying has never been political and I just think that’s not true.

Ms Brooke continued “Mardi Gras has always been political and to this day is political. The political choices it’s making are just more conservative ones now. More aligned in some sections with the Liberal Party and corporate sponsorship.

Ms Brooke said there had been a shift in the politics of the people who are running Mardi Gras.

“In seventy-eight it was explicitly a protest, a street-party that was a parade turned riot that had influences from the gay liberation movement…it was activists who were running it for social justice” she said.

“I think the politics of the people who are running the organisation now are about pleasing corporate interest and having a big party.”

At the AGM, Pride in Protest proposed that Mardi Gras organisers conduct an internal review of their corporate partnerships on human rights grounds, focusing on major corporate partner, Qantas which has previously returned refugees from Australia to countries where they face imminent danger.

The motion was voted down by the conservative faction of the organisation.

Pride in Protest also called for that Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party to be disinvited from the parade due to the party’s positions regarding refugee detention on Nauru, gay conversion therapy, safe schools and the introduction of religious exemptions that allow the expulsion or firing of queer children or teachers from schools.

The group proposed that police should not be permitted to have floats in the parade due to the history of police violence towards the queer community, as well as ongoing police violence against trans and First Nations communities.

Other proposals included granting community floats access to the Mardi Gras workshop space – which is currently exclusive to corporate entries – and implementing a Mardi Gras membership fee model that is more accommodating to lower income members of the community.

All proposals were voted down at the AGM.

Pride in Protest board candidate, Salem Barrett-Brown said that she was disappointed at the decisions and shocked that an organisation such as Mardi Gras would turn a blind eye to issues relating to human rights infringements.

“It was disappointing to see them shut down discussion of important social justice issues in an organization that claims to represent the queer community and to prioritise diversity and equality,” she said.

“We are dismayed at the hostility of the Mardi Gras establishment to dissent and debate. The refusal to even support a non-binding review of corporate partnerships on human rights grounds is really quite astonishing and a major shift from the social justice roots of Mardi Gras.”

In the Mardi Gras 2019 program there is no mention of any human rights violations.

Instead Mardi Gras Creative Director, Greg Clarke is quoted saying, “In 2019 we shine the spotlight brightly on what’s happening in our world today and in the future, as we celebrate our fearless trailblazers. Our diverse and inclusive program is an exploration of sexuality, gender, body image, power, fearlessness, vulnerability, celebration and desire.”

Ms Brooke said that Pride in Protest’s aim is simply to push back against homophobia in whatever form it takes.

She said she believed this could best be achieved via the enormous media and social reach of events like Mardi Gras.

“If we [Mardi Gras] apply the same pressure here that they’ve done in other countries such as with UK Pride, we can give the same rights that we have to the people who most need it.”

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was contacted for comment.