And so another Mardi Gras comes to an end. I had a good one this year. I was in an art exhibition and I won an award for my writing, re-energising my creative juices. Friends surrounded and supported me: I felt respected; I felt appreciated; I felt loved.
What else did I do? Saw two plays, which were fun. Knocked over a couple of exhibitions; a mixed bag but the occasional piece stood out. Did most of the Harbour City Bear’s events – the pool party (a great boisterous romp), the Underbear party (I’d been saving my white Aussiebum Wonderjocks for the occasion), a play party (no more information delivered), and a couple of nights at the pubs. Oh, and I also got pretty sick, but you can have everything.
I marched again. I wasn’t going to but a friend had never and wanted someone to hold his hand, and me being the honest sap said I’d join him. We all wore coloured t-shirts to match the colours of the rainbow flag: I was in red (natch); he was in blue. As we waited the half hour in formation for our signal to go I’d occasionally look across to make sure he was all right. Sometimes the look on his face suggested the tension – the waiting, waiting – was too much and the whole thing was soon going to overwhelm him, but then we started and we skipped and danced the Golden Mile to Fox Studios, and he seemed to be having the time of his life. His sister saw him on television; when he told me that I was incredibly proud for him.
This was the fourth time I’ve marched. That first march, which wasn’t that long ago, when I first saw and heard the vast walls of people I thought I was going to burst into tears. I remember saying to myself, “Clyde, hold it in there man, Bears don’t cry! You don’t want these people to see you crying!” I had to constantly gulp my emotions down, telling myself to stay calm, stay calm, and enjoy the sheer ecstasy of it all. When it was over and the noise and crowds had disappeared I sat under a tree and relished that sensation. It was better than any drug I’d ever taken. It’s a pity then, only a few Mardi Gras on, it now feels somewhat routine. It is true you can never reach those first highs again.
So this year I marched with the hope my friend would experience that same rush. Some days before, however, we’d gotten into a heated discussion where he referred to the event as a “parade”. “It’s not a parade,” I said in my best Poindexter, “it’s a march. There’s an important difference.” “Whatever,” he dismissed, but I stopped him there. “No,” I said, with forefinger carefully counting the beats of my words, “you need to understand what’s the significance of this event.” I then wafted on about the Stonewall Riots, and his eyes glazed over, but I do remember him saying it no longer mattered and we should just enjoy Mardi Gras for what it’s become. And I let it slide for I knew he just wasn’t going to understand the significance I felt.
The first time I had sex was on Wednesday 6 December 1995; I was 22. I’d just finished my first year of university. It took until the beginning of my third year before I, for want of a better expression, finally came out and attacked the world, so much so my studies floundered and I had to go part-time. But I didn’t care, I was out on the Oxford Scene – sometimes every night the week – and I was Discovering.
(It’s around this time I rocked up at Sydney’s only men’s-only bar, the Barracks, an underground den full of all those wonderful stereotypes – leather, moustaches, denim, workman’s clothing – wearing a navy blue velour pullover and a string of pearls wrapped three times like a choker around my neck. I thought I looked fabulous! At the bar this guy pushed in before me. I said, “Excuse me, I was here first.” He looked me up and down and with a wave of his wrist replied, “Darling, you’re wearing pearls, you’ll get your root tonight.”
I’m telling tales but the first time I went to the Barracks I was shitting myself. I’d spent the week psyching myself for the event. I’d told the barman of the restaurant I was working at I was going. He recoiled. “Why would you want to go there, it’s full of old men and perverts.” “Oh, you’ve been?” I asked. His lip curled. “No,” he said with a shocked laugh, “What sort of person do you think I am?”
That night I changed into the most working class thing I could muster: 501s, blue Bonds singlet and green Yakka work shirt – I’ve still got that shirt… actually, that outfit now sounds pretty gay. I practiced in front of the mirror my sure-footed über-masculine stance – a strange mix of wide legs and shoulder slouch with a quarter hip twist – and, having now found my character, swaggered to the Barracks’ back laneway entrance. I got in past the bouncer, headed straight for the bar, ordered a schooner and quickly found a seat on the benches along the walls. It was pretty crowded and some guy filled the space next to me and eventually we got talking. He was wearing a leather vest and a leather armband on his right arm. Now, I’d just begun reading up on gay culture, concepts and codes and knew that a band on his right arm meant he was probably a bottom, and with beery confidence I ask him about this. Yes a bottom he was, he said, that’s his boyfriend playing pool. With my beer glass empty I jumped down from my stool and asked if I could buy him a drink. He tapped me on the arm. “Ooo that would be lovely, a gin and tonic please.” At that moment, as I walked across the floor, I held my shoulders back and thought… I own this place!)
Where was I, this was supposed to go somewhere… Oh that’s right – out every night the week.
Back when I was young and pretty, strangers would come and talk with me and me with them. I recall chatting to drag queens, original cast members of Les Girls, many a barman (the story of John is for another time), men in suits, men out of suits, the famous Troughman (his skin glistened in that way oil on water glistens), businessmen, straight men, foreign men, any piece flotsam wandering the nights looking for somewhere to wash ashore. There were a lot of older men. We’d buy each other a round of drinks – even the score – and talk, and as I was new and unsure of many things I’d ask them what paths led them down to where they were today.
It just so happened a lot of these men were ‘78ers, those who were part of Sydney’s first gay and lesbian march on Saturday 24 June 1978. The rally was intended to show support for the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and to kick-start Australia’s own gay liberation, and the police beat the marchers all the way to Kings Cross where it erupted into its own Riot. None of it was nice, 53 people were arrested, but the following year in greater numbers they marched again, and then the year after that and then the year after that. Somewhere along the line Mardi Gras got moved from the bitter chill of June to the balmy nights of March, and somewhere else Mardi Gras stopped being a march and became a parade. Unfortunately I don’t know the history, more aware of what occurred in the US than what happened on my own street (I live less than a block from the old Les Girls building; I had my 30th in the pub that’s now there), but what I do know is those ‘78ers broke new ground.
Now, I look back and cringe slightly because every time I met one of these men, in my inebriated state, I would thank them. I would punch them on the shoulder or hold them by the hand and thank them for being there and having the courage to be noticed. Now, I roll my eyes thinking how I would in all earnestness speak about how their brave steps led the way for the rest of us to follow; how what they did gave strength to us to come; how I owe my very existence to their fortitude on that cold winter night – and it was the chilliest of Sydney weather – giving me the right to boldly go where they had tip-toed before. And every time they would watch me in silence and eventually, once I’d finished, say, simply, thank you. And then I would buy them a drink.
Now that I’m older and handsome, strangers don’t talk to me as much. Admittedly I no longer go out every night and don’t bounce back from a hangover as well as I used to, but I still go out. As I become one of the older men it saddens me that a great deal of those around me, with their bravado right to flounce and flirt and fuck whoever they bloody well please, have no understanding to how they got that right and have no consideration to those that came before them, those who first held the placards, burned the beacons and led the way.
It’s more than heartbreaking that Mardi Gras has gone from a student crew with bed sheet banners embracing a Day of International Gay Solidarity, to hordes of waxed glittered twinks squealing “Look at us, aren’t we just FAAAAAABULOUS!”. Of course I simplify, and I apologise. But it hurts me terribly more that my friend, someone my age, thinks that none of that history matters and that Mardi Gras is simply a parade. Circuses have parades; what the ‘78ers did was unify and march. I believe that the strength, courage, and will of those who first held their fists in the air is so much more than a procession of clowns and elephants.
That’s why I thank them.