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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 12-Feb-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 834

Mardi Gras has become too straight for comfort


GLBTQ is the acronym. It sounds like a sandwich filling but stands in fact for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (some versions even add I, for Intersex) and Queer -“queer” having become a kind of etcetera, a catch-all for sexual-and-gender-particularities-not-covered-by-the-aforegoing.

And the question? The question is this. What happens when being GLBTQ is no longer queer at all? What happens when gay goes straight?

It was sparked by the notion of moving Mardi Gras to Homebush. Delight was my first response, after I collected myself off the floor. Just to think of Mardi Gras’ bare-bottomed battalions mixing it with Tripodi’s V8 boys seemed to give the idea of drag racing a whole new glamour.

But then began all that earnest talk about Sydney’s demographic centre and how a lot of GLBT and Q people live west of (good God!) Bankstown, and I realised they were serious.

Of course it’s not going to happen. Not yet, maybe not ever. And the idea, being government-generated, was bound to evince the usual mix of idiocy and self-interest.

But k. d lang isn’t the only GLBTQ to have slipped of late from rock ‘n’ raunchy into a schmaltz more comfortable. The mere fact that Mardi Gras’ top-brass entertained the Homebush possibility, rather than flogging it mercilessly up and down Oxford Street as it deserved, shows just how far along the greasy path to normalcy this once-radical event has come.

History records that Della – no, no, not our beloved Minister for Death-by-Hospital but the token gay of the Sydney Push that was pretty much the length and breadth of this town’s intellectual life in the ’50s – later blamed Gay Lib, as it was, for the ruination of his sex life.

Whether through increased competition or diminished sense of adventure, identity politics decimated Della’s score-rate, especially amongst straight men hitherto tempted by transgression.

This tale cannot be confirmed, because Della has long since shed the pseudonym and gone respectable; gone straight, now that gayness is no longer a rebellion. And my point in recounting it is not that sexuality is discretionary – much as celesbianism may be the style du jour. Nor do I wish for another nibble – and yes, I solemnly abjure all sexual innuendo for the duration – at that old nature-nurture debate.

My purpose, rather, is to wonder what it might mean for Sydney, the world’s runner-up of gay meccas, when queerness is not only legal and accepted but becomes a genuine part of the norm.

There was a time, not so long ago, when gay culture was inherently interesting, even for non-members. This was less for anthropological reasons than because creativity thrives on repression. Outlaw status, in uniting an otherwise broad political church – from Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol to Alan Cumming – helped form a culture that was complex, subversive and funny in ways that straight culture could only envy.

But that time may be past, and not because straight culture has got more interesting. The gradual assimilation of gay culture into the mainstream – to the point where haute couture can largely be seen as the queer revenge – has been accompanied by a relentless gentrification.

As Obama uses the first weeks of his presidency to promise full civil unions, an end to employment discrimination, a repeal of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy and expanded adoption rights, gays seem set to become every bit as boring as the rest of us.

And after all, Mardi Gras is 31, an age when many feel pressured to abandon the urban chic-anery and head to the ‘burbs; settle down, spread out and spawn. Perhaps it’s inevitable that what began as a crazy-brave civil-rights protest – a memorial to New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots but an insistence, too, on the right to be seen – now, as New Mardi Gras, describes itself as “one of the world’s top 10 costume parades”.

Costumery is fun, and Mardi Gras is making money. But the radical chic that once fitted it to Oxford Street like a hand in, well, a glove has gone. Now both parade and precinct seem somewhat past their best, not so much down at heel as too well-heeled; middle-aged, middle-brow, middle class. And it is impossible not to feel just a little nostalgic for the days when Mardi Gras meant something.

This year, Mardi Gras has a “Nations United” theme, its logo echoing the UN’s without so much as a rude fingerful of spoof. The colours are rainbow, as ever, signifying inclusiveness, but less “oh my God I just love you ALL” than a Christ-like “bless you, my children”. And the entertainers include the 75-year-old Joan Rivers and the 73-year-old Roberta Flack.

Septuagenarian superstars are fine, in their way. But if Mardi Gras becomes any more tolerant and inclusive – any more G-rated – we may have to send it west just for an atmosphere in which it is still possible to give offence.


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