Re-Radicalising Mardi Gras: An Interview with Pride in Protest’s Bridget Harilaou

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Pride in Protest’s Bridget Harilaou

The first Sydney Mardi Gras parade was a protest march for human rights. Members of the local LGBTIQ community walked down Oxford Street calling for an end to the criminalisation of their lives and the freedom to openly express their sexualities.

But, in an overt example of why this assertion of rights was desperately needed, the NSW police ambushed the marchers on Darlinghurst Road. Around 100 officers with dozens of paddy wagons surrounded the demonstration.

The cops then violently moved in on the marchers. But, solidarity swelled amongst their ranks, and despite the fact that officers were wielding batons, they stood alongside one another and resisted the onslaught.

By the end of the night, fifty three marchers had been arrested. And their names and occupations were subsequently published in the Sydney Morning Herald, which could prove detrimental due to the political climate of the time.

Today, the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is a far cry from an event that NSW authorities would contemplate shutting down. Indeed, it’s now an internationally-lauded festival. And members of the NSW police actually march in the parade.

But, a group launched last month are calling for a return to the event’s radical roots. As far as the Pride in Protest movement is concerned, the time for protest is far from over.

Ongoing mobilisation

Pride in Protest acknowledges that over the 40 years since the first Mardi Gras, the rights of LGBTIQ people have significantly improved.

The NSW parliament decriminalised homosexuality in 1984, adoption by same-sex couples was legalised in 2010, and since June, married transgender people can now change the gender on their birth certificate without getting a divorce. And, of course, marriage equality is now legal.

However, as Pride in Protest point out there’s still reasons to mobilise. And just one of these is the current prime minister’s fixation on enacting religious freedom laws that would allow religious types to discriminate against people based on their sexuality.

Motioning for justice

The Pride in Protest group caused a stir last week, when they announced that they’d be moving a number of motions at the 2018 Mardi Gras Annual General Meeting (AGM).

One of the motions called for the banning of the NSW police, the Australian federal police and the NSW Police Association from taking part in the event. Another motion recommended that the Liberal Party also be prohibited from marching.

The group are further calling for a review of Mardi Gras corporate partnerships – specifically Qantas and ANZ – as well as a ban on seriously-flawed NSW police sniffer dog operations, and that the event endorse the BDS movement against the occupation of Palestine.

A letter signed by 70 prominent Mardi Gras members was distributed late last week warning that the Pride in Protest motions could “undermine the organisation and send it bankrupt”.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke to Pride in Protest member Bridget Harilaou about how the group’s motions fared at the AGM, the impact a review of the event’s corporate sponsors could have and how the group plans to mobilise moving forward.

Firstly, the Pride in Protest campaign is all about bringing the protest back to Mardi Gras, which initially started out as a LGBTIQ rights demonstration.

So, Bridget, why would you say its pertinent to re-radicalise Mardi Gras right now?

It’s been a long time coming. A lot of people have been disappointed with the corporatisation of Mardi Gras. So, it has been quite a few years in the making. In 2016, there was actually a motion passed to disinvite Malcolm Turnbull.

And also, in the climate of having a prime minister like Scott Morrison, who openly has ideas that conflict with LGBTI people. For example, his promotion of gay conversion therapy. He was an avid “no” campaigner. And he’s recently made comments in the media about gender whisperers.

He’s also had that thing come out about the Ruddock review, in which they were supporting the rights of religious schools to expel students for being queer or being the children of queer parents.

The Ruddock review recommended that teachers who are queer would also be able to be fired on that basis.

In the context of Scott Morrison, it’s very relevant.

Last Saturday, the 2018 Mardi Gras Annual General Meeting took place. Pride in Protest brought a series of motions and had four candidates running for the board of directors.

How did the meeting go in terms of what your group was hoping to achieve?

All of our motions failed. And at the start of the meeting, it was made clear that the board of directors only take motions at the AGM as recommendations.

The board of directors should be listening to their members. But, they made it clear right from the start that they were not going to be doing anything about these motions. These motions were just recommendations.

But, in any case, all of our motions did fail. And there was an experience of laughter, derision, bullying, not allowing people to speak and heckling during speeches from what we would consider the conservative side of Mardi Gras.

People who were opposed to our motions really treated us with a lot of disrespect. Pride in Protest are really proud that we did not return any such heckling or laughter at other people motions. We remained professional throughout the whole meeting.

And how did your candidates go?

Our candidate came fifth, so just one off being elected. And they actually had a really significant number of primary votes. But, when preferences were distributed, they were not elected.

One of the motions called for the blocking of police from taking part in Mardi Gras. Can you outline why they should be prevented from taking part in the event?

There’s a really long history from the very first Mardi Gras of police brutality. Police actually broke up the very first Mardi Gras with violence and arrest.

And a lot of people feel that the way Indigenous people are currently treated by police is shocking. Including deaths in custody and what happened at Palm Island. There’s the death of David Dungay Jr. His inquest is ongoing. The Guardian has released a database of deaths in custody.

There’s the two children who drowned in the river in Western Australia. And there’s also the footage of a young Indigenous man being hit by a police car.

So, as Pride in Protest has an intersectional focus, we are advocating for things like refugee rights, Indigenous rights, sex worker rights and children’s rights. We see these groups as a part of the LGBTI community.

Because there are queer Indigenous people and there are trans Indigenous people. And they’re targeted by the police with violence and discrimination.

So, it’s about the history of what took place at Mardi Gras and what they continue to do now, including homophobic violence. There were actually reports of police continuing to abuse people at Mardi Gras just a few years ago.

As a left-wing group, we see there’s a fundamental imbalance of power with police. They have the right to use violence against us.

Another motion sought to prevent the Liberal Party from participating in Mardi Gras. You’ve already touched on this in regard to Scott Morrison.

But, what is it about the track record of the Liberals that warrants them from being barred from Australia’s biggest celebration of LGBTIQ culture?

Scott Morrison’s positions are reflected in the policy of his party. If you look back at 2004, when the Marriage Act was amended, it didn’t actually reference gender. And it was the Liberal Party that purposefully changed that legislation to exclude same gender marriage.

And since then, they’ve had policies that continue to violate and discriminate against people who identify as LGBTI.

The Ruddock review was done by an ex-Liberal Party member. And on top of that, it was engaged with by the Liberal Party as a whole to inform their policies.

While we can frame a lot of things about Scott Morrison’s individual views, the institution of the Liberal Party has a track record of conflicting with the rights of queer people on a political level in terms of their policies and the legislation that they pass.

Pride in Protest is also pushing for the Mardi Gras to review its corporate partnerships with organisations such as Qantas and ANZ. Why do you believe this should be done?

As I said, we stand for refugee rights. And we also stand for the rights of all people who are affected by climate change, which disproportionately affects people from the developing world and also, queer people.

When big climate catastrophes happen, and people are forced to flee, LGBTI people become very vulnerable in these situations, just like in refugee camps or places where there’s huge congregations of people.

So, we see topics like climate change and refugee rights to be central to an intersectional approach to queer rights.

ANZ has a lot of investments in the fossil fuel industry. So, that’s where the climate change part comes into play.

And on top of that, Qantas are engaged in deporting refugees back to countries where they will be persecuted, often for their sexuality.

There are queer and trans refugees – who are not only held in detention indefinitely in countries where homosexuality is criminalised – but, on top of that, they are then deported back by Qantas to countries that may potentially execute or kill them.

We see Qantas’ role in that as something that’s worth reviewing. For example, London Pride was able to review their corporate sponsorships on human rights grounds. And that actually swayed Virgin against deporting more refugees.

So, we could have a real tangible impact if we hold these corporations to account. And that’s why we think it’s important.

Your group has called on the NSW police to end its use of drug detection dogs. Why do you believe the use of sniffer dogs is problematic and, as your group has described it, a “police overreach”.

The research that has been done by David Shoebridge shows that about 75 percent of the time they get it wrong, or two-thirds of the time. So, drug dogs are not accurate in the work that they do.

And they can also be used to target specific people, like Indigenous people, queer people and homeless people. People that the police simply want to harass.

And seeing that the drug dogs get it wrong, what’s the point of having the dog there? It’s an intimidation tactic.

On top of that, there’s been a lot of media around the fact that the victims of these police dog searches that find nothing are actually being denied entry into music festivals and venues that they’ve paid for tickets to go to.

Even a false positive from a dog can get you kicked out of a venue. That’s just a complete abuse of power. They’re restricting people from accessing a social event that they want to attend.

It’s police overreach. And seeing that they get it wrong so much of the time, we think it is time to end the use of sniffer dogs as an intimidation tactic and as a method of harassing people.

And on a different note, this week saw extreme right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro elected as president of Brazil. He’s been blatantly open about being a proud homophobe in the past.

What are your thoughts on the election of Bolsonaro and how this bodes for the local LGBTIQ community in Brazil?

We stand in complete solidarity with the LGBTI people of Brazil and also, the black people of Brazil. Because African Brazilians have also been targeted by Bolsonaro. It’s not just queer people. It’s also African people and the poor.

These right-wing agendas, that’s what their entire message is. They target not just us. They target everyone. And once they come for one of us, none of us will be safe.

We think it’s completely horrifying that such a right-wing, and potentially fascist, government has actually been elected in Brazil.

People are going to see an increase of hate crimes against LGBTI people. They’re going to see an increase in hate crimes against black people. This is proven. This is what happens when you incite violence and hatred and bigotry in the political realm. We see the physical violence on the streets.

The Bolsonaro government is a real danger to LGBTI people in Brazil and across Latin America. Hopefully, they will organise to protect themselves.

This is also reflected in Donald Trump’s decision to remove all mention of trans people from government websites and to make biological sex the only way that you can be recorded as having a gender identity in government documents.

And lastly, Bridget, the annual Mardi Gras meeting has taken place. Your group’s controversial motions were defeated. So, what’s next for Pride in Protest? Is your group just focusing on the organising around Mardi Gras or do you have a broader focus?

We definitely do have a broader focus. We’ve actually been promoting a series of rallies and events. This is not the only work that we do. We are actually activists 100 percent of the time. We do this work all year round.

So, regardless of whether there’s an AGM or not, we’re going to continue advocating for social justice in every area possible. And you can keep in contact with us on our Facebook page to keep updated about that.

We are going to be organising floats for Mardi Gras in February. And they’re going to be social justice oriented.

So, we will be seen to be standing in solidarity with these groups who are marginalised by Mardi Gras and the conservative elements of Mardi Gras.

Because, here’s the thing, if a Liberal politician who promotes gay conversion therapy is welcome to march in Mardi Gras – and their whole party is also welcome to march in Mardi Gras – a child who has been the victim of gay conversion therapy is not going to feel included.

So, when they go on and on about exclusion, they’re already excluding people, because it is a political decision to include corporations over marginalised community members.

A refugee is not going to feel welcome at Mardi Gras, when they’re locked up in detention on Manus Island. How included are they, when they’re in detention and we’re out partying?

So, those are going to be the themes of our floats that we’re going to have at Mardi Gras. And we are also still considering continuing our campaign at next year’s AGM as well.

Photo credit: Miela Malyon

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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