The debate about Mardi Gras — outside of the silly conservative “do we still need it?” or ” do they have to dress like that?” arguments that are dredged up each year — is whether it is a party or a protest movement. When the dykes on bikes set off on Saturday night and the glitz and glamour parades down Oxford Street, the differences are cast aside. The two sides can and do co-exist, but increasingly there is tension. 

The mainstreaming of LGBTI rights means just about every major corporation is jumping on board the marriage equality train. This Mardi Gras has support from the usual crowd of vodka brands and underwear labels (a no-brainer for their core market) but over the past few years Mardis Gras has broadened its sponsorship with banks (ANZ has been a Mardi Gras partner for 10 years this year), telecommunications companies, and this year, even meat purveyors.

It’s a win-win for Mardi Gras and the companies associating with it. For Mardi Gras, sponsorship keeps the organisation running, and raising funds has not always been easy. For the companies, it is a chance to show off their social conscience and support their LGBTI employees. In other words, it is safe. 

Mardi Gras is so safe now even the leader of the opposition can march in the parade, and the prime minister can and did attend for the first time last year. But not everyone is happy about this situation.

[Your guide to groups that think marriage equality would bring on the apocalypse]

While both men attending the parade last year can be seen as a growing acceptance of LGBTI people in society, it came against a backdrop of Malcolm Turnbull attempting to foist an unpopular and divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage on the population because he was too weak to stand up to the right of his party. Late last year, moves were made at the Mardi Gras AGM to “uninvite” the PM from attending in the VIP section of the parade because of his failure to move on same-sex marriage and for allowing continued attacks on the Safe Schools program. Shorten — although he has largely adopted the Daniel Andrews playbook of being a socially progressive Labor leader — faced protests from a float near the Rainbow Labor float over the party’s refugee policies, until the protesters were moved away.

Businesses that don’t perfectly align with the beliefs of particular groups are also likely to face pushback. This year, for example, there has been a petition asking Mardi Gras to drop its association with Meat and Livestock Australia from concerned vegans opposed to animal cruelty. Melbourne’s version of Mardi Gras, Midsumma, also faced a sustained campaign from groups questioning why it would partner with News Corp given the sustained attack on LGBTI Australians over the past year in the pages of The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. There have also been questions in the past about allowing police to march in the parade given the notorious history of participating in, or ignoring, violence against LGBTI people in New South Wales and elsewhere in Australia.

[Turnbull v Mardi Gras: invitation stands]

The tensions always existed. Political floats were often booed by audiences who didn’t align with their political views, but that was generally the extent of it. Increasingly, as politics globally becomes more polarised and protest movements organise online, otherwise respectful disagreements can become ugly. Any organisation that isn’t holding exactly to the beliefs of the loudest and most politically engaged will find itself the subject of sustained campaigns — even the host of the event itself. But Mardi Gras as an event itself has to remain neutral. If Mardi Gras shifts from a community event to a political event, then it makes it difficult for many organisations, such as Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to participate. But some would prefer it that way.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who just want to be treated like everyone else and don’t particularly want to wade into any other political debate. Australian Marriage Equality recently launched a huge media campaign in which “everyday Australians” like lifesavers and doctors ask for equal rights. It is a powerful campaign designed to win over those who have been reluctant to support marriage equality, but some within the LGBTI community are asking why exactly they have to present themselves as being just like everyone else. 

There is, of course, a lot in between, but for the two extremes, it is hard to see the tension easing any time soon. A couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that if things had gone the government’s way, every Australian voter would be about to vote on marriage equality.

The revelation evoked mixed feelings because, on the one hand, it was a relief that minority rights weren’t up for public vote, but on the other, every argument against marriage equality is so completely exhausted that it would be better to be over and done with it. Even those in the LGBTI community who don’t particularly care for marriage as an institution want it passed now so focus can turn to other, arguably more important, issues.

And yet it drags on. As it stands, even before any piece of legislation is finally voted on, there will be yet another parliamentary inquiry, more public debate, and more division over how equality should be achieved.

As one of a core group of LGBTI journalists who have covered the whole slow process over the past few years, I have been on the front line, rolling my eyes at every ridiculous statement about bakers, giraffes and Nazi Germany all used to attempt to drag the issue out before its (I don’t want to say inevitable) conclusion. But my biggest fear isn’t hearing more of the crazy arguments from the bigots. My biggest fear is that, if the Coalition brings forward legislation similar to what was proposed in the exposure draft, that community will pressure it to be voted down if it isn’t absolutely perfect. The perfect will be the enemy of the good.

And the longer the debate drags out, the longer we rehash the same arguments over and over, and the bigger the cracks in the community get. In short, the Australian Christian Lobby wins. Any bill that passes, it loses. The group is already claiming that if the Coalition’s version of the bill is passed, it will just be amended in the future to remove the token gestures designed to keep Christian bakers happy. Just as on Saturday we hope to see happy faces from all political persuasions marching together down Oxford Street, we can hope that all sides will be open to compromise on the marriage equality legislation to allow it to at least pass. And let the Christian Lobby be proven right for once. 

Peter Fray

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