real life

This is for everyone asking whether we "still need" Mardi Gras.

It’s all big colours and loud music and lights shining and lots of sparkle. There are g-strings and shiny bras and nakedness and hair-sprayed hair. The parade is the ultimate display of diversity; a happy blend of ethnicity, accents, ages, backgrounds, religions, professions. Diversity in sexuality is a given. Every letter in the LGBTI acronym is represented. 1000 times over. There are straight people, too.

The Mardi Gras is an event that makes the gay scene seem fun and happy and ‘look how glittery we are’. Oh, how much do we like to party and how good are we at it?

But that’s not the reason for it. And this time, every single year, we hear the same debate: Is the Mardi Gras still necessary? 

There are two main arguments for why the Mardi Gras might be obsolete.

The first: we’ve come a long way and we don’t really need it.

The second: it’s sending the wrong message. It’s full of celebration and sparkle, while the reality of being a part of the LGBTI community is all too often the opposite of celebration and sparkle. It can be marked with pain, fear and sadness, and hiding your true self from the ones you love most.

Participants take part in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade along Oxford Street in Sydney last year.(Photo via Getty Images)

Yes, we have come a long way.

The first Mardi Gras in Sydney was a protest. It was a show of solidarity with the New York LGBTI community caught up in the Stonewall Riots. These riots started when the 'gay-friendly' Stonewall Bar was raided, its US patrons lined up against the wall and arrested if they were in drag, or if a woman wasn't wearing at least three pieces of "feminine clothing". Riots followed, where the LGBTI community around the globe, including Taylor Square in Sydney, stood up for the right to express their love and sexuality freely — without judgement and without arrest.

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A quick reminder: This was not centuries ago, this was the 60s. A time when homosexuality was illegal in the US and in Australia.

Yes, we've come a long way since then. Since the misguided era where bright torches were shone into dark cars and its occupants were arrested for "indecency". Where queers could only love each other in secret places. Where righteous doctors in white lab coats thought medical intervention might be a cure.

But we've certainly not come 'far enough'.

We've not come far enough legally.

Homosexuality is no longer illegal, but marriage between a same sex couple is. I could stop with that, but there's more.

'Gay panic', for example, is still a valid defence in the Queensland (QLD) court system. This is a precedent that enables people to plead "provocation" to murder or assault if it was in response to an unwanted homosexual advance. It leads to a reduced sentence. Right now there is a bill in the QLD parliament to revoke the 'gay panic' defence. Not everyone is for its dismissal.

And we've not come far enough socially. Not even close.

Statistics are the quickest, most stark, reminder of where the LGBTI community is at socially:

  • A 2012 study found almost half of LGBTI people hide their sexuality because they fear violence or discrimination.
  • Research out of La Trobe university in 2006 found 61 per cent of non-heterosexual people have experienced verbal abuse, and 18 per cent have experienced violence.... Anecdotally, these numbers are much higher.
  • Homosexual and bisexual people are twice as likely to experience anxiety and three times as likely to experience depression, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008).
  • Research clearly indicates discrimination, abuse, exclusion and prejudice are key contributors to the increased rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm.

Read that again: discrimination, abuse, exclusion and prejudice. Double, triple the rates of anxiety and depression than the heterosexual population.

Listen: A gay parenting campaigner's guide to raising non-bigoted kids. (Post continues after audio.) 

If that's not enough, there's more.

To those asking if we still 'need' Mardi Gras, I'd like to ask you about Dylan Souster.

This time last year, less than two weeks before the 2016 Mardi Gras, 22-year-old Dylan Souster was putting friends into a taxi outside his Waterloo apartment in Sydney in the early hours of the morning. He was hit in the face and called a 'faggot'. He regained consciousness on the ground, receiving kicks to the face and body from a group of men. A "Good Samaritan" came to his rescue. When he found out Souster was gay, the "Good Samaritan" also punched him in the face. Souster ran and was taken to hospital. He suffered multiple facial fractures, broken teeth and bleeding in the ears.

To those asking if we still 'need' Mardi Gras, I give you Tyrone Unsworth.

In October last year, 13-year-old Tyrone Unsworth from Brisbane was hit from behind with a fence paling outside his school after hours. He was terrified of going to school. Often called a 'faggot' and 'fairy'. He was knocked to the ground and was hospitalised for a broken jaw. A month later, on November 22, he took his own life. "Everyone wants me dead," he told his friend the day before. He was 13.

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Tyrone Unsworth was only 13 when he took his life in December, 2016.

Then, there's the second argument; that Mardi Gras dresses all these issues up into a something 'fun' and 'crazy' and 'over the top'. That it pigeonholes members of the LGBTI community into a fun bubble that is not doing us any favours.

There is something in that, absolutely.

There is the very real, and very dangerous, risk of hiding all the darkness, fear and sadness in the LGBTI community behind the bright lights and sequins, the parties and costumes of the Mardi Gras parade. Too easily, it could become a celebration that sweeps over the issues affecting the LGBTI community every day of the year that is not March, 4.

But the alternative is worse.

Without Mardi Gras, there will not be a way for future Tyrone Unsworths to feel like there's hope. The 'show' is a way of bringing those who are fearful of what their parents or schoolmates or colleagues might think about their sexuality into a community of acceptance. That fear is all too common.

The extravagance plays a role in raising awareness of the darker issues. How else will we talk about it? When else will we hear about it? Just like the first Mardi Gras in Sydney was about the right to love legally, this year's Mardi Gras - and all those to come - is about the right to love safely. Without fear. Or discrimination. Or the increased risk of self-harm and suicide.

The Mardi Gras should be about bringing the LGBTI community further into the light. And, if sequins and glitter and over-the-top parade floats are a way to make that happen, then that's what we'll have to do. Without question. Until there's no part of the LGBTI community still hiding in the darkness.

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