Mardi Gras Parade as relevant today as ever

From noon today, the rainbow flag will again fly above Sydney Town Hall. Raising the flag marks the beginning of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival and sends a strong message about Sydney's unwavering support for our GLBTI communities.

The flag was designed in 1978 for the first San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Images of the parade inspired long-time Australian gay activist, Ron Austin, to suggest including something similar as part of a planned day of international gay solidarity. That event, on 24 June, 1978, described as "a night time parade and fiesta" was Sydney's first Mardi Gras.

This year I will again join gay and lesbian friends in the 37th Mardi Gras Parade, now the largest night time celebration of GLBTI pride in the world.

But Mardi Gras is much more than glitter and glamour - it remains an intensely political event and is still as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1978.

For anyone who cares about human rights it's hard to ignore the appalling discrimination our GLBTI communities still face.

Our national school curriculum will be reviewed by someone who believes homosexuality is unnatural and questions whether students ought to learn about such relationships at school.

Gay men in NSW charged with offences prior to decriminalisation are still carrying around criminal records just because of who they loved.

While same sex couples can now marry in many other countries, in Australia they are still denied this most basic right. We live in a world where GLBTI people can still be imprisoned or executed just because of who they love.

And most terrible of all we have evidence that shows GLBTI Australians are six times more likely to take their own lives than other Australians.

Mardi Gras, like the rainbow flag, remains a vital symbol. Symbols are important. They are potent for men and women whose true natures are forced to remain invisible, because of the fear of discrimination, ostracism, persecution or even death.

I will soon be asking Council to support the creation of a tangible, permanent symbol for Oxford Street - the historic home of Sydney's gay and lesbian community - to be unveiled in time for the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras in 2018.

A piece of public art that will celebrate what has been achieved and remind us what must still be done. A destination, a meeting place and an icon that people will want to photograph and share with others. Something that will send a strong message that Sydney is a safe, accepting, flourishing city and that cities that are accepting are not only possible, but preferable.

In 1978, few could have contemplated that an event that was conceived as a street party, became a protest march and ended in a riot could have any future.

But we still need Mardi Gras to showcase the strength and diversity of our GLBTI communities.

We need it to applaud the victories won so far, to use wit and colour to campaign for full equality and to remind everyone that lesbians and gay men are everywhere, in all walks of life - that they are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. That they count.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday 7 February)

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