Make love, not history: the new meaning of Mardi Gras

So the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras has ‘rebranded’. Apparently being specific about what you’re celebrating is exclusive to the things you are not celebrating, and as everyone knows, being exclusive is bad. We should celebrate diversity and inclusion instead!

And so we get this:

So now we’re celebrating something so bland and asinine, everyone can get behind it, i.e. LOVE.

There’s a really weird double standard in the logic of this rebrand. Before the new logo, symbols are taken to matter: calling it ‘gay and lesbian’ is said to exclude bisexual, trans, intersex and straight people. After the new logo, symbols are taken not to matter: removing ‘gay and lesbian’ does not signify the de-gaying of Mardi Gras and replacing sexualities with love hearts does not de-sexualise it.

But symbolism matters all the time, and its meaning isn’t governed by the stated intentions of the brand’s authors (see Barthes, 1967).

Why does it matter? I asked a young (early twenties) Facebook friend, without consulting Google, what the purpose of Mardi Gras was.  He said to promote tolerance and celebrate diversity. Let’s call this the cover story.

I told him I view Mardi Gras as a commemoration of a historical event. His response was really interesting:

Ok, I didn’t know that. But then that seems like the perfect reason for Mardi Gras to rebrand themselves; their original purpose has evolved. I’d say that most people my age don’t know the origins and don’t care. They think of Mardi Gras something closer to the dictionary meaning: ‘day of carnival and merrymaking’.

Isn’t the Mardi Gras allowed to evolve and change? Or is it expected to forever chew on old cud; potentially alienating its market? The Mardi Gras and its experience is a product, their owners are right to cater to their market.

And let’s call this the real story. As people forget the history and grow up without the experience of oppression that makes it intelligible, they see Mardi Gras as just another party option, one among many. With patronage falling, sponsorship becomes more important for survival, and it’s a lot easier to get sponsorship without Gay & Lesbian in your title, especially with a conservative Liberal government in power. And I’m sympathetic to all of those concerns – getting the balance right is a matter of life or death for the organisation and the festival it stages.

But my young friend’s response really highlights what’s at stake: a lot of young men are embarrassed by sex, embarrassed by activism, and not terribly interested in the history that gives meaning to both. They see venues as commercial spaces and parties as products, and wonder why their experience of gay sociality is so harsh and impoverished.

I’d love to believe that queer theory can fill the gap, but lately it has all but abandoned community – as a concept and in practice – and retreated into cliquey academic elitism. Institutions like Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras that bridge the old and the new, the historical and the everyday, are more necessary than ever.

Author: Daniel Reeders

I study the cultural dimensions of the social governance of health.

9 thoughts on “Make love, not history: the new meaning of Mardi Gras”

  1. Agree wholeheartedly. As someone posted recently, this is merely “window dressing” by an organisation that seeks to gain wider economic appeal. Lovely words, thank you.

  2. ‘As someone who was at the first Mardi Gras in 1978 I am completely shocked that an event that was held in the name of gay solidarity, and included us all chanting ‘stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks’ prior to so many of us being brutally bashed and arrested that night seems to have been effectively ‘de-gayed’ by removing these words from the parade title. I had thought that Mardi Gras was actually becoming more inclusive, not less, and if anything it should be the GLBTI / Queer Mardi Gras Parade in this day and age, surely.

    No one can seriously think that our elders and youth, who continue to suffer fear of discrimination, bullying and persecution to the point of considering or committing suicide, have nothing left to fight for and no longer need clear, specific, mainstream visibility. We all do. The struggle is far from over.

    I wondered last week, when I saw the 1978 and 1979 posters being used by Mardi Gras on their new ‘through the ages’ poster and as their profile picture on Facebook, whether something similar to the butterfly might be the new symbol – a tribute to the first events, to the 78ers, and to the designer of those posters. To me the new symbol is not just two hearts, to my eyes it is an immediately apparent direct reference to that butterfly on our first two posters, and it needs to be acknowledged as such and the designer of that beautiful original image credited for that.

    Hopefully Mardi Gras will reverse this decision that erases its true history, consult with 78ers about the way forward, and embrace rather than alienate large parts of the GLBTIQ community’.
    Jo Harrison

  3. I applaud the message of Infinite Love. This is a radical idea that has great resonance in contemporary GLBTIQ culture. A courageous and leading repositioning, which we could never have conceived if not for the 78ers who spilt their blood on our streets, and unleashed our pride and determination to be accepted in all our diversity.

    Now, with the GLBTIQ community set to host an all embracing Mardi Gras, the conservatives must be squirming lest the entire nation be seduced into the heaving pitt of possibility.

    Infinite Love is a great vision, captured timely, and by one of the few organisations in the world that has the credibility to own it.

  4. G & L Mardi Gras has never represented all gay people. Some of us are uncomfortable that this is how the straight community thinks gay people are or gets the idea it represents all gay sexuality. It does not. Some of us would rather drop dead then prance about in a tutu with our bits hanging out and yet we’re trying to put across that we’re normal as anyone else in order to get equality in lots of areas. Just make it a party I say – the next generation is not labelling itself anything, thank goodness, and we’ll all be left to peace and quiet and equal rights next gen hopefully. In the meantime, if you want a big party – not in the name of rights for me thanks as it is counterproductive and damaging for some of us – just have a party.

  5. yeah yeah, I’m sure you would. People with divergent views and who are not represented by other side never have a say, do they? We’ll just go sit in a corner and shut up, be invisible, just as others have had to do over the centuries. Sorry that you can’t take an opinion that doesn’t coincide with yours that you have to call me judgemental – I wonder who really is judgemental, your attack is personal, my opinion was not about any individual, but about an event and how some of us feel damaged by it. We’re all judgemental, try walking down the street in a tutu and find out. I’d be happy if I could just be regarded as normal by this religion-ridden society thanks.

  6. In case anyone is wondering, I replied to Margi’s remark saying I’d rather live in community with people who have the guts to ‘prance around in a tutu with their bits hanging out’ rather than boring, judgmental people like her. Then I deleted the comment, because I think readers don’t need me to point that out about her comments. Now she has replied, so I have to reinstate it. I’m seriously considering disabling comments on this blog. Conservative fuckwittery like this just saps my will to write.

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