The 37th annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras kicked off last weekend with one of the most successful Fair Days in recent years. The festival—that began as a march for gay rights in 1978—has grown into one of the city's most popular events, attracting around 30,000 international and interstate visitors each year. But as participants are getting ready for the world-famous parade on March 7, questions are being raised as to exactly how reflective "lesbian" in the official title is of the actual event.
According to a recent survey by local street magazine, Lesbians on the Loose (LOTL), 54.8 percent of the Sydney lesbian community feels disconnected from Mardi Gras. 72.5 percent of these respondents think a more diverse program is needed to reengage them.
And it's not just at festival time that representation within the broader community comes under scrutiny. Many from the older generation lament the loss of bars that used to exclusively cater to lesbians.
Silke Bader, editor of LOTL, said she expected the results of the survey; but was surprised that over 40 percent of participants still felt a connection with a festival she believes hasn't adjusted to the times. For over 15 years, she's been part of discussions about how to engage the changing lesbian community, especially with the festival events and party.
"Tickets are too expensive, performances offered are too male centric, and overall marketing and promotion for the party have been visually geared towards gay men," Silke said. "Another area where the organization is making mistakes in not attracting the lesbian demographic, is that they haven't adapted to the growing numbers of families and older women."
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras women's committee chair Sam Turner said in 2012, the committee was set up to provide a voice for women within the Mardi Gras organisation and to ensure inclusion in programming.
"The conundrum with that particular demographic is that women like to know there are events specifically for them but they don't necessarily patron them or can't patron them for whatever reason, whether it's childcare responsibilities, whether it's fiscal or location," said Turner.
To address this, the 2015 event will feature more female DJs at the party, a women's hub at Fair Day, and at the beginning of the festival season, the Women's Soiree. "We've catered to women on a number of levels," Turner explained.
Candy Royalle, performance artist and poet, said she was surprised by the results of the survey, believing women who read LOTL would be strong advocates for Mardi Gras. However, she's not surprised others are feeling the disconnect.
Royalle identifies as queer: which refers to individuals living non-heteronormative lifestyles, many being artists or activists, who don't subscribe to the norm. They differ from the "gay stream": people who identify as lesbian and gay, but live quite heteronormative lives.
"The queer community is completely disconnected from Mardi Gras, because Mardi Gras events are not inclusive to them and things that they hold to be important. Mardi Gras itself is quite a conservative organisation," Royalle explained. "The reason I perform in Mardi Gras events is because I would like to reengage the queer community."
"If you think about why the Mardi Gras event existed in the beginning, and why it was born, it's so far removed from what it is now," she said, referencing the first parade was a protest march which took place on June 24, 1978. It consisted of an initial 500 participants, calling for a repeal of the NSW anti-gay laws and an end to LGBTQI discrimination in regards to employment and housing. As the march made its way down inner-city Oxford Street the numbers swelled to 2,000, before police violently moved in and arrested 53 protesters. "It's become disconnected because it has become apolitical," she said.
So are there alternatives available during Mardi Gras season for a lesbian community feeling increasingly disconnected from the main events? According to Bader there are a number of smaller parties that cater for lesbians across the city, but promoters of these events are struggling. This is why she takes aim at last year's Mardi Gras slogan: "There is only one party." She believes there should be an umbrella organisation that if not supports the smaller parties, at least endorses them. As for the queer community, Royalle explained, there are quite a range of alternative events put on around the city during the festival season, including Kooky and Lovecult.
Sydney used to have a range of lesbian nightspots. There was Ruby Red's in the 70s and 80s. Then into the 90s, there was the scene at the Leichhardt Pub and further on bars such as Delaney's and the inclusive Caesar's. But at the turn of the century, it all came to an end, leaving those in the community with token Wednesday night events at select bars. Does this loss of exclusive venues reflect increased isolation from the wider community or something else?
For Bader these changes are part of a global phenomenon that demonstrates a greater acceptance of the new generation of lesbian women. "The older ones who used to support lesbian venues 20 or 15 years ago have moved on and made their homes. Lesbian issues, venues, or places are no longer the priority," she explained. "The younger generation is happy to mix with straight and gay, as they are accepted in most parts of town."
Royalle believes that the number of lesbians in the community cannot sustain a dedicated venue. "But that being said, there's much more comfort in the community now that we don't have to be so separate," she said. "Women's spaces are really nice and it's good that we do have some things that happen on Wednesday nights, but I don't think it's so necessary to have these completely divided spaces."
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