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Capital Queers take Canberra pride to Mardi Gras

Beatrice Smith

For many, Mardi Gras is synonymous with rainbows, floats and Oxford Street—not Canberra. 

But for the Capital Queers, a Canberra-based organisation responsible for the coordination of an annual Sydney Mardi Gras float, this weekend will also be a chance to represent the city where almost three out of every four residents said yes to marriage equality.

Founder of Capital Queers, Douglas Robinson, explains that for their eighth year at Sydney Mardi Gras the 80-strong group will embody a living, dancing rainbow with flag twirlers, flag bearers and drag queens marching behind one of ACTION’s iconic rainbow buses. As for costumes, they’ll be wearing t-shirts in the colours of the LGBTIQ* rainbow with a shiny silver CBR logo.

When asked whether this Mardi Gras bears more significance than others, Douglas laughs.

“In a word, yes,” he says.

“The passing of marriage equality, the fortieth anniversary of Mardi Gras, us having the full backing and support of the ACT government and taking the rainbow bus—it just gets bigger and better every year.”

As for how important it is for Canberrans to participate in the Sydney-based event, Douglas says it’s more than just a physical parade.

“It’s a celebration of queer identity and pride—I don’t think it matters where you come from,” he explains.

“Coming together with 12,000 other people to celebrate our [shared] identity is a really great thing.”

But the fortieth anniversary will also mark how far Mardi Gras has come from its dark past, where homophobia and police violence saw the first parade in 1978 descend into chaos.

Hugo Walker, who will march with the Capital Queers this weekend, remembers watching news coverage of the first Mardi Gras on TV as a deeply closeted 17-year-old living in Sydney.

“My dad was ex-Army and very homophobic so I was terrified that he was going to find out I was gay,” he says.

“I remember watching [the coverage] and being appalled at the police brutality and violence. It was also the era in which gay hate crimes were happening in the eastern suburbs—when the AIDS epidemic happened there was a lot of fear and ignorance. The NSW Coroner is [still] investigating around 70 of those deaths, where gay men were lured, beat up, put in the trunks of cars and then throw off cliffs near South Head.”

“I then became involved in the fundamentalist Christian Church in my late teens and in my early 20s was so ashamed of myself for being gay…I told my elder, who organised for me to go through gay conversion therapy—an excruciating experience of two or three hour-long sessions of exorcism.”

Now, many years later, Hugo sees Mardi Gras 2018 as a bittersweet celebration of how far the community and Australia have come, but cautions that we can’t forget the past.

“This year, the fortieth anniversary, [is] a huge mixture of emotions for me because it evokes strong memories of my teenage years—being terrified of my family discovering I was gay, remembering and witnessing [the] TV newscast…but we’re also celebrating the freedom we have now.”

“For my generation, it is still a political statement. Yes, we’ve made progress but we can’t take it for granted. It’ll be lots of fun and it’ll be a celebration, but tinged with poignancy.”

Marching for the first time in 2016, Hugo describes it as both liberating and overwhelming.

“Being a ‘GayFL’ player and dancing along Oxford Street to ‘Dancing Queen’ I was mostly in tears. Just the enthusiasm and compassion and warmth of the crowd was overwhelming, in a good way. Last year my daughter was with me…I was tearing up but they were happy tears.”

As for Canberra’s strong positive response to the postal survey last year, Hugo says that while he wasn’t born a Canberran, it makes him very proud.

“I feel very much a Canberran and it made me very proud of the ACT,” he says.

“I do enjoy living in Canberra because it is a safe space.”

For young Capital Queers member, Maddie Tranter, the positive result of the postal survey means that this Mardi Gras will be about celebration and looking to the future.

“[Older generations] make me feel thankful, because they had to go through all that and—yes—we’re dealing with our own level, but I really feel like they’ve done so much for us.

“Now, for us, it’s finding more of those minorities like asexuals and intersex peoples [who] are still misunderstood. But because of those who came before us, we now have a base. We know the way.”

For Maddie, it wasn’t just the yes to marriage equality that mattered, it was also the Canberra community’s meaningful expressions of support.

“I’ve seen the rainbow flags going up and down the Barton Highway and on the roundabouts—while you don’t think it makes a big difference, it’s that warm fuzzy feeling, knowing the people around you who are changing the world around you are doing it for you, not them.”

“This year I really wanted [attend Mardi Gras] because last year I did a lot of Asexual awareness in the local community and I’m still feeling that pride, and so I really want to get out there and march again. It’s such an amazing, exhilarating feeling.”

Feature image: Douglas Robinson, Capital Queers.


Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Online Editor involves eating, drinking and interviewing people - sometimes simultaneously. The master of HerCanberra’s publishing schedule, she’s usually found hunched over a huge calendar muttering to herself about content balance. Otherwise, you’ll find her at the movies or ordering a cheese board. More about the Author