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Sydney's Gay Mardi Gras seeks relevance alongside pizazz

Once a symbol of rebellion, the event has become mainstream

SYDNEY -- When hundreds of gay men streamed out of their semi-clandestine clubs and bars along Oxford Street in central Sydney in 1978 to join a "Gay Liberation" march in support of the similar Stonewall protest in New York, police moved in to break it up and arrested more than 100 people.

Detained overnight and paraded before a magistrate on minor charges of disturbing the peace, 53 gay men found themselves "outed" the next day in the Sydney Morning Herald, which listed their full names, occupations and addresses, causing some to lose jobs and disrupting relationships.

That protest has since turned into an annual three-week celebration of "gayness," now known as the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. As this year's event heads toward its culmination in a parade up Oxford Street on the evening of March 4, with 190 floats and 12,000 marchers expected, official attitudes could not be more different.

For the past several years, a squad of gay and lesbian police officers has marched in the Mardi Gras parade in uniform, along with groups from the armed forces, fire services and many other public institutions, along with groups of glittering drag queens, men dressed as nuns, and a phalanx of lesbians on powerful motorcycles known as "Dykes on Bikes". In nearby Taylor Square, the New South Wales state police force has a mobile office, festooned with pink and rainbow signs, to assist gay travelers from all over Australia and the world.

Not long after the 1978 protest, the state government of New South Wales removed the summary offences law used in the arrests, and then abolished laws against homosexuality.

Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald formally apologized to all those affected by the 1978 "outing." Meanwhile, a Sydney coroner has started an unprecedented third inquest into the death of an American graduate student, Scott Johnson, whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff in December 1988 amid suspicions it was part of a wave of gay-hate murders that police played down at the time.

Some churches still condemn the open display of homosexuality. Fred Nile, a former Protestant minister who sits in the New South Wales state parliament as one of two members of his Christian Democrat Party, leads an annual prayer for rain ahead of every parade. But that has not stopped the Mardi Gras event from becoming a popular spectacle.

"Pink dollar" tourism

The national, state and city tourism boards have focused on attracting the "pink dollars" of gay travelers. Destinations NSW, the state tourism body, said last year's festivities brought in 42,000 overnight visitors, who spent around $39 million Australian dollars ($29.4 million).

This was a sharp increase from the 2015 Mardi Gras, which saw 35,000 visitors spend about A$29 million. Mario Paez, a Sydney travel agent who is vice-president of the 160-member industry body Gay and Lesbian Tourism Australia, said the rise was partly due to the sharp fall in the Australian dollar against the U.S. dollar since 2014, as well as surging interest.

U.S. visitors account for the largest share of foreign gay visitors drawn by the annual event. One of them is Los Angeles-based software consultant Nick Morphis, who is making his eighth trip to the Sydney Mardi Gras, because the city is his partner's favorite travel spot.

At a sidewalk table outside the Stonewall Hotel, one of Oxford Street's biggest gay haunts, Sydney insurance manager John McWilliams and his partner Dafydd Goddard, who married six years ago in the U.S., were drinking on a recent afternoon with their American house guests Lance Williams, his husband Tyler Riedel and friend Scott Dace, who had all arrived that morning from Los Angeles. Even though he is staying for free, Dace estimated he will spend between $3,000 and $4,000 during his three-week trip.

But Mardi Gras tourism is diversifying. Paez says his travel agency, Planetdwellers, has just booked a "gay walking tour" for a group of Jordanians and handled a group of Malaysians attending the Mardi Gras parade. Over the last two years he also dealt with groups representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in China about booking travelers to Sydney.

"That's something that 10 years ago wasn't on the radar, but we can see it growing for Mardi Gras as an event tour," Paez said. "Hopefully, as the world becomes more open, you have travelers who can make it who weren't part of that before."

Big hotels close to Oxford Street, who used to signal a discreet welcome for gay travelers by a rainbow flag in their foyers, now openly seek out Mardi Gras visitors. "LGBT travelers have their preferences for places to stay, but it is now broad," Paez said. "It doesn't now have to be a gay-owned property. It's all over the place. The numbers that come now, you need more and more property."

Retail gets in on the act

Even outside festival times, Australian retailers are looking more closely at the gay market. Last June, market surveyors Roy Morgan Research reported that 19.1% of men who identified as homosexual agreed they were "born to shop" as opposed to only 6.2% of heterosexual men. Lesbian women also indicated more interest in shopping than straight women.

Some wonder if the Gay Mardi Gras still has a serious mission after the days when it focused on campaigns to end anti-gay laws, successfully promoting safe-sex practices to fight the AIDS/HIV epidemic and overcoming numerous legal and financial discriminations against gay couples.

"The Gay Mardi Gras of 15 years ago was a very different celebration to what it is now," said McWilliams, a regular patron at the Stonewall. "There's more commercialism in it." He talked regretfully about heterosexuals "infiltrating" what was once a tighter gay community around Oxford Street, and attending the Mardi Gras. But his American visitor Williams argues: "If you're going to be more mainstream, you are going to have other people. They have friends or family who are gay. They want to participate too."

One big issue remains. Australia still bars same-sex marriage, unlike many other Western countries. The conservative wing of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's ruling Liberal-Nationals coalition is insisting he fulfil his promise to hold a national plebiscite on the issue. The opposition Labor and Greens parties have blocked the referendum proposal in the parliament's upper house, arguing that such a poll would unleash a torrent of vilification against gays. They want it settled by a simple vote in parliament.

Trump factor

Turnbull is personally in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, and last year was the first prime minister to attend the Mardi Gras parade. But he cannot abandon his referendum pledge, made in 2015 to win conservative support for his bid to replace then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic who resolutely opposed gay marriage.

Sydney has long been seen by gays as a welcoming place like San Francisco "where you can be yourself," noted Paez. "Now our biggest question when we promote our gay walking tours is: Why don't we have gay marriage in Australia?," he said. "They can't believe it. It questions how welcoming we are, especially for Americans who have that right."

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president casts a shadow, too. "Dare I say it in front of our American friends, there'll be an anti-American theme this year," McWilliams said. There is a fair chance that a high-camp version of a familiar figure -- orange-complexioned, wearing a loose dark-blue suit and crotch-length red tie, and with a thick quiff of blond-silver hair -- will be the highlight of this year's parade.

Paez said his reading of social media and customer enquiries suggests that what is happening in the U.S. in terms of protests about Trump's conservative attitudes might depress attendance this year. "Some of the people are staying in the US to fight," he said, "to not show they are leaving for any reason."

So what is the point now of the Mardi Gras?

"I ask myself that and I look at Russia," said Paez. "How did it go from somewhere we'd send people confidently for LGBT support travel to have a great time in Russia, and now we'd warn them to maybe not go, or consider, or be very careful.

"So the Mardi Gras message for me is more important now. Because it's never going to be 100% accepted. Mardi Gras is there to showcase that we are around. There'll always be something to highlight, some changes. We're still a minority group at the end of the day."

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