In thinking about Mardi Gras this year, it has occurred to me just how much I have changed over the years since it started, so with your grace and patience, I would like to take just a moment to trace some key developments of my life over the course of the life of the Mardi Gras and to show how even the most stultified man can change and grow.
1978 - First Mardi Gras 24 June. Violence erupted after the lead float was confiscated by police. Fifty-three arrests and many beatings ensued.In 1978, I was two years out of High School, studying at Univeristy. I had started a music degree the year before but hated the course and so started reading English Literature and Humanities in 1978. I had stopped attending the Catholic Church by then and was serious in my love for God and the things of God attenuated through an evangelical lens. I had joined the Uniting Church. I was in complete denial of my sexuality and probably agreed with the opponents of the Mardi Gras that such a sinful way of life should not be paraded on our streets.
1981 - the Mardi Gras is moved to its present location and into summer to better enjoy Sydney's fabulous weather.
In 1981, I had finished my degree and decided to study for a Diploma in Education, a twelve month monster of a study year that equipped a person to be employed by the then Department of Education. I was arguing good-naturedly with the Catholics in my study-groups about 'important' issues of the faith like baptism, the role of priesthood, the role of saints, the place of the Bible, the interpretation of Scipture and a whole lot more. I was repudiating everything Catholic back then quite self-righteously. As a 22 year old, I was watching everyone else have partners and relationships while I had none. The emptiness was growing inside me, but I persisted in the denial of desire and self believing that God would 'heal' me.
1985 - It was suggested by the Australia AIDS Task Force that the gay community should be 'responsible' and cancel that year's Mardi Gras.By 1985 I was working in a Christian school in Newcastle. I was one of its original and pioneering teachers. During these years, I taught not only English but religious education, assisted in weekly chapel services for the staff and students and paritcipated in staff retreats. I was fully involved in my own church too in a leadership role, both in preaching and in the music team. It was over this period that my mental health began to suffer as a result of such a long denial of the self. It was also during these years that I alttempted to rid myself of my gayness by every Christian means available. I prayed and fasted, was prayed over by countless holy men and women, tried divine healing and deliverance from demonic oppression, prayed in in the Spirit for hours on end and entered into spiritual warfare. Nothing changed. God remained silent and I remained gay and in denial, holding on to a fading belief that God was going to change me or make me stay this way in order to make me humble or to teach me some kind of life lesson. I wondered whether this was own personal Pauline-like "thorn in the flesh".
1989-1993 - The Mardi Gras was being televised on Australian TVs and mainstream Australia was seeing it in their loungerooms. Numbers had grown to 500,000 - an enormous pulic spectacle. Fundamentalist Christians were going into apoplexy at such a bald-faced demonstration of 'sin.' Chief among these was the Rev Fred Nile who eventually went into politics, going into the NSW Parliament's Upper House. Fred would regularly denounce the Mardi Gras and "sinful homosexuality" and would even do stunts, like all politicians do occasionally, and very publcily pray for rain on Mardi Gras parade night. His own Party began to be associated with an ultra conservative and anti-gay rhetoric.
In 1991, still teaching at a Christian school, still a local leader and well-known in the faith in Newcastle, I was asked to stand for Fred Nile's Call To Australia Party in the State election by standing for the seat of Waratah. I had no desire to do this, not because I didn't endorse the CTA platform, but more because I had no experience and very little time to put into an election campaign. As history shows however, against my better judgement, I agreed to do it and my name is now forever linked with having stood against the nasty homosexuals and their nasty lifestyle as a candidate for Fred Nile's Call To Australia Party. Outcome - the good people in the seat of Waratah were wiser than me and out of 35391 enrolled voters, I received 1008 votes. Thus my illustrious political career that began with with a whimper went out with a fizzle.
1990s - As the official history says, "Throughout the late Nineties and early part of this century the event continued to grow, both in terms of tourist and spectator numbers, the quality of the events and the scope of the festival."
1990s - For me, these were the years of turmoil. I had quit my job at the Christian school and lost almost all of my friends and certainly my social networks. My sexuality would not be denied and my fatigue at trying to suppress it had grown to huge proportions. I ran out of energy and simply hit rock bottom. It was during these years that I went to the top of the hill in Newcastle, swore at God and told Him that I was over waiting for Him and that I needed to find some answers for myself. These years were the beginning of my new life. It came out of the brokenness of the old life. It wasn't until I got honest with myself that I found the truth. And yes, the truth did set me free.
2008 - After some lean years with flagging numbers and then a new organisation to run it, the Mardi Gras celebrated its 30th Anniversary and is going strong.
In 2008, I had come through my great awakening and was out, partnered and happy. I had made friends and was living with my partner of then 7 years. I had returned to University and retrained as a Psychologist. I had completed my PhD in 2005 and learned about what really matters in life, having done my research in psycho-oncology which saw me running cancer support groups for many years. An amazing time! In October 2007, I started writing Being Gay Being Christian. It took me two years to write the first draft - much longer than the final product - and then another two years to refine it to the existing book. But as someone recently remarked, "It must have been a labour of love." It was!
2012 - While I do advocate inclusivity, I also believe that it is important to celebrate diversity. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is not the same as every other mardi gras in the world. It really is there to give the queer community their day to be out and proud, to have their families come along and support and even march and to feel the power of community. I would not like to see this diminished by watering it down. There is only one day in the year that LGBTIQ community can stand up proudly and be heard in a very straight world and consciously call attention to itself. It is important to remind the straight world that we're here and not ashamed. Though not without problems, the Mardi Gras continues to be a necessary corrective to a straight world that we are still part of Australia, that we are still queer and that we are part of the the fabric of society. Changing the name I think is a mistake and I hope the organisers re-visit this decision. Personally, I would be marching this year myself if I were not committed to other media engagements for BGBC; next year!!
And at the beginning of 2012 the week of the Mardi Gras parade, I find myself happy in my relationship, happy in my sexuality, happy in my faith and happy in the knowledge that God in His infinite wisdom created me gay and gave me this incredible gift by whose compass I get to navigate this wonderful thing called life.
To one and all - Happy Mardi Gras
Pax et Amor - Stuart