Senator Andrew Bartlett speaks about Sydney: Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – Adjournment Speech

On 4 March this year the Democrats were proud to participate in an important and joyful annual community event. The Democrats' float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade was one of over 200 floats. We were amongst over 7,000 participants, with many hundreds of thousands of people watching on the streets. Since the parade, the Democrats have received a number of letters asking, amongst other things, why the Democrats participate in this event, why the Democrats' leader, Senator Lees, sends a message of support, which is printed in the festival guide – which unfortunately the Prime Minister refuses to do – why the Democrats have a float and the broader question of why the Democrats stand up for and work so hard on the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
I think it is appropriate to take the opportunity to answer some of these questions and to put on the record the Democrats' reasons in relation to this issue. Since our inception as a political party in 1977, the Democrats have consistently championed the cause of the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, and more recently those of transgender people as well. We are proud to support these communities. We march in the mardi gras parade, firstly, to remember the bad old days, to celebrate how far things have come and to highlight so many of the things that still need to be achieved. This year we were able to celebrate advances in the equalisation of same sex couples in domestic violence laws in Queensland and the anti-vilification and de facto relationship laws in New South Wales. We look to Western Australia and to the federal parliament to lift their game, and we do have hopes, which we hope will be fulfilled, for the new government in Victoria.
The Democrats' float in this year's mardi gras parade included participation by a number of Democrat parliamentarians, including our federal colleague Senator Brian Greig, the first gay activist to be elected to the Australian parliament, me as the Democrats' spokesperson on these issues and the party's Deputy National Leader, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who also participated in another event as part of the gay and lesbian mardi gras festival – a hypothetical about the invention of a test for a gay gene, which raised some interesting issues. Also a part of the float was Senator Aden Ridgeway. This was his first mardi gras parade as a senator, and I think it was particularly important and created a certain symmetry, given that a big theme of this year's parade was the issue of reconciliation. Western Australian state MP Helen Hodgson, who has been very active in that state in trying to change that state's archaic laws, particularly in relation to their unjust age of consent laws, which apply unequally to homosexuals, also participated. New South Wales state MP Arthur Chesterfield Evans and former New South Wales MP Liz Kirby, who have worked hard in that state on law reform to equalise the situation for same sex couples, were also there. Over a hundred other Democrat members and supporters participated in the parade.
I think it is worth emphasising a recent survey by the Australian Council for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which confirmed recognition of the Democrats' record and position in this area. It found that nearly half of those surveyed nominated the Democrats as the party with the best gay and lesbian policies. It is a good thing to be recognised as having the best policies, but much more important is to see some of those policies actually implemented. It is of course an ongoing frustration at the federal level that there is still such a difficulty in getting acceptance and change to federal legislation. We are particularly keen to see the Sexuality Discrimination Bill, which has been before this chamber for four years now, actually come to a successful vote. Without this legislation, Australia will lag behind a growing number of countries, including New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and many others in terms of equal rights on the basis of sexuality.
The Democrats have participated in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade for a number of years. This year, as in previous years, we wore black in remembrance of the difficulties, the shameful discrimination and the oppression that had to be endured in the past, and we wore rainbow sashes in celebration of how far things have come and to call for further improvements. The parade's origin, as a civil rights demonstration, is an important and ongoing aspect. In 1978, many of those who marched were beaten and arrested. Fifty-three were charged and their names were printed on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, which led to some losing their jobs. I believe this year there was only one arrest, and that was a man selling milk crates off the back of a truck.
Another reason the Democrats participate in the parade is because we have a large number of members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgendered – a record number of whom stood as candidates at the last election. The rest of us march in support of our colleagues and to indicate our own support for the issues. It is important to emphasise that you do not have to be gay to believe that justice for gay people is an important human rights issue. There is a very broad diversity of groups that participate, including church groups and the police, and this year there were a number of reconciliation floats. There was plenty of satire in the customary mardi gras style, which provided extra vitality, humour and entertainment value as well as the political message of the parade. If you experience the parade only through a grab on the news, you might think that it is a domain of only the young, the glamorous, the barely dressed and the seriously satirical. But the thousands and thousands who march in the parade are much more diverse than the glimpses that you occasionally get on the news grabs.
The parade is a culmination of a three-week cultural festival which attracts tens of thousands of tourists and millions of tourist dollars into Australia. It sends a vital message to the world and to those in isolation in their own communities that Australia can be a diverse, accepting and occasionally glamorous community. The Tourism Council estimated that the parade drew 12,000 tourists directly, and they spent four times more than the average visitor to inject $41 million into the economy of the state of New South Wales, making it one of the biggest and most lucrative tourism events in Australia. One estimate placed the event's value for the nation at more than $153 million. The event this year was telecast live on pay-by-view cable TV as well as live to the world on the Internet, and there was a delayed broadcast on a free-to-air commercial station, getting the message out to millions of people.
As I mentioned at the start, the Democrats receive many letters relating to our participation in this event, and some of them are severely condemning. The letters tend to run along a common theme, and make statements such as: homosexuality isn't normal; the parade is heterophobic; it is an offence against God; it is a sick and unhealthy event; it causes serious erosion to family life, family morals, family values and family ethics; it sends a message to young people of confusion, sexual perversion and rebellion against society; and it endorses the spreading of HIV and other diseases. There are other phrases describing the parade as evil, wicked, a heinous blot on the landscape and similar themes. I not only unreservedly reject these claims but I think they are of concern because they highlight the depth of antagonism, ignorance and hatred that is still out there in the Australian community and that gay and lesbian people still have to endure in so many aspects of their lives. An unfortunate common theme of virtually all of these letters is their reliance on a warped interpretation, in my view, of Christian teaching. Unfortunately, some church leaders continue to reinforce this as well, and I think it is important for church leaders to recognise how much impact they have and how important their leadership is.
Leadership is something we have heard a lot about in this place, in terms of calling on greater leadership from public figures such as the Prime Minister in areas such as reconciliation – an area where the churches have done a great job. Unfortunately, the churches have not done such a great job in terms of oppression, hatred and ignorance in relation to gay and lesbian people. Recently the Pope made a quite positive apology for all of the wrongs that the church has done over thousands of years. They left out the gay and lesbian people, and, unfortunately, the Australian Catholic Archbishop felt the need to emphasise that this apology most definitely did not apply to gay and lesbian people. This is the same archbishop who made the outrageous claim last year that being gay was riskier than smoking. I would like to call on church leaders to recognise the extreme suffering that still exists in Australia and to show greater leadership in getting a message out to those people who are supportive of their church about the need for a more accepting, understanding and informed view of gay and lesbian people. I would like to call on them to try to change social attitudes so that the oppression, discrimination and violence that some gay and lesbian people continue to face is removed from the Australian way of thinking, in the same way as the Democrats will continue to remove such things from Australian legislation. (Time expired)

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