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.