On Pride events…

Continuing in my series of posts on my experiences in Australia contrasted with those in Canada, next is a consideration of two of the world’s largest pride events – Pride Toronto, and Sydney New Mardi Gras.

The two have a lot in common – they’re big, well-publicised events, in cities of roughly the same size, in countries with relatively advanced queer rights policies.

Also in common? Both have experienced financial difficulties in the last decade – with Sydney’s Mardi Gras going bankrupt in 2002, only to re-emerge as New Mardi Gras (earning income for a bit before massive losses in 2010, followed by a much smaller loss in 2011 and anticipating complete recovery by 2012), and Pride Toronto losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2010, with ultimate recovery still unknown.

Further? Controversy about parade participation.  Toronto has had its QuAIA dust-up (and, in earlier years, debate over allowing nudists to participate naked – something that Sydney still does not allow) which I’ve discussed tangentially here.  Sydney had a controversy over the participation of an animal rights group in 2010, which was ultimately allowed to march in 2011 as NMG created a policy restricting parade participation to either queers saying something, or other groups saying something about queers.  I particularly like the matrix on page 8 of the parade kit.

Interestingly, too, the dates of the events have been played with recently.  Pride Toronto has been moved a week later – away from the historic date of the Stonewall riots in New York, and into the Canada Day long weekend – initially as a result of the G20 being in Toronto in 2010, but now made at least semi-permanent by existing board and management.  In 2010, NMG rescheduled its famous post-parade party to the weekend after the parade, instead of immediately after the parade as was done historically (interesting, what has now become one of the world’s biggest circuit parties was originally suggested by the police to minimise what they saw as too many people wandering the streets after the annual rally and march in the very beginnings of the event).  It was moved back to the same day in 2011 after upset in the community and discovery that the whole thing was a result of the NMG staff / board accidentally booking the parade and party venues on different weekends and being unable to change it because the Antiques Roadshow had already booked the Hordern Pavilion by the time it was caught.  Of course, this was only revealed long after the ‘announcement’ that they ‘chose’ to move the dates for various reasons no one remembers anymore.

But what I really want to write about is the “bigger is better” approach.  Mardi Gras has embraced this approach seemingly out of necessity.  The event is huge.

Where Pride Toronto is technically a month long, the vast majority of it really takes place over a week, with almost all of its visibility taking place from Friday to Sunday in the form of a huge street fair, and (now) three marches (trans march on Friday, dyke march on Saturday, and the pride parade on Sunday).  There are various peripheral events, almost all of which are organised by external groups – there is one big company that organises some of the circuit parties (and, I’m sure, makes a fortune from them), a number of community groups (LGBTOUT and The 519 come to mind) organise their own Pride Week events, and many of the local businesses have various Pride-related activities, or simply benefit from being well-located (commercial vacancy rates on Church Street over the years have led to the common occurrence of a business opening right before Pride only to vanish again a few months later).  All of this comes together and forms a reasonably-sized festival, attracting lots of people from around the world – some estimates go as high as a million but it’s likely only in the hundreds of thousands.  Most of Pride Toronto’s revenues come from government grants and corporate sponsorships of the parade and festival, along with smaller portions from user fees for on-site vendors as well as beverage sales.  The organisation runs on about $3 million of revenue, and it’s only in recent years that it’s gotten that high.  Nothing put on by Pride Toronto, other than a fundraising dinner near the middle of the festival, has any admission fees.  It’s all run by 6 staff and 750 volunteers – when they can retain them all.

Sydney Mardi Gras, on the other hand, is a 2.5 week event, both officially and in reality.  It starts with a one-day-only “Fair day” held in a large park near Newtown (Sydney’s version of Toronto’s Queer West) – similar to Pride Toronto’s street fair, it has vendors, community groups, a stage with local performers and drag shows, food, and various activities for the whole family.  Oh, and a small handful of carnival rides, which were somehow more tasteful than I recall them being at Hamilton Pride a few years ago, though still kind of awkwardly out of place.  The event itself is free, with volunteers standing near the entrance accepting suggested donations of $5, which most people gladly pay (and you get a sticker as well as an entry into a draw for prizes!)

IMG_1747The drag queen on the #fairday dodgems is having way more fun than every1 else!

A week later is the Harbour Party, essentially a daytime circuit party with one of the best views imaginable – it takes places at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, which overlooks the Harbour, the Opera House, and the Harbour Bridge.  Tickets start at $100, depending on your membership status and when you buy the tickets (they get more expensive as the date approaches, and the performers are announced).  The week following this is the parade (held on a Saturday night, boasting attendance of about 300,000), followed by a million-dollar circuit party held in the Entertainment Quarter (formerly the Showgrounds – basically the agricultural fair grounds, comparable to Toronto’s Exhibition Place).  Tickets for the party start around $100 but most people pay at least $130.  The parade is free to watch, but in most previous years arriving many hours early was required – unless you choose to pay $75 or more for a reserved seat (though at least one set of paid grandstands was for an unrelated charity).  People who don’t go to the party after the parade have a little bit of time to wander the middle of the street, but it’s reopened to traffic very soon after, and most people end up going into the local bars and clubs, many of which charge increasingly excessive cover charges.
The two weeks in between these big events are filled with many other paid events – from the $20 political panel discussions to the Mardi Gras Film festival to $100 parties in Sydney Tower, the last of which all sold out within an hour or so of being put on sale.  A highlight for me was the “drag races” (drag kings and queens competing in various events, on the beach) at Bondi Beach—besides being free, it was really entertaining.  Another was a free historic walking tour of Paddington and Darlinghurst, led by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (apparently an international association of drag nuns, incredibly campy, informative, and friendly!)

The organisation itself runs on over $4 million of revenue, more than 55% of which comes from party revenues, a little under a million coming from sponsors, and the rest from donations, membership dues, and merchandise sales.  In 2010, they got less than $20 thousand in government grant revenue (in 2011 this was nil, but the city of Sydney gives at least $150K which might be recorded as sponsorship income – a few sponsors are government agencies), though the city and state provide a number of in-kind services (including, this year, a city shed that served as a float-making workshop for parade entrants).  They have 6 staff and 2,000 volunteers.

Mardi Gras is like almost every other major event in Sydney- big.  I said earlier it was out of necessity, and I do believe it.  There is a different vibe here than in Canada when it comes to public events. People show up en masse.  The city is about the same size as Toronto, but always feels many times larger because there are always people everywhere, at all hours of the day, in (almost) all places.  Mardi Gras is no exception.  The party after the parade attracts 15-20 thousand people historically, though it was under 15 thousand this year (and still felt packed).  If they didn’t make it that big, you wouldn’t get tickets (there have been past years where you still couldn’t even despite the high limits).  I was surprised, as were the volunteers supervising the parade barricades, that there weren’t countless amounts of people behind me watching the parade – resulting from a combination of the weather and the fact that the streets closed so early that those across the street from me were crammed in tight while no one came to our side were likely to blame.

The question often posed is whether bigger is better.  Having seen it in real-life, I feel like I have to say it’s not.  Don’t get me wrong – Mardi Gras was amazing.  It’s bigger than life in every way – only the Fair Day felt like a community festival, the rest of it feels like a futuristic and overwhelming blow-you-away once-in-a-lifetime sort of event.  The parties featured world-class talent, including some well-known Australian pop stars putting on stellar performances, and the very real possibility that Rihanna or Ke$ha might very well just show up (in the end, as best as I can tell, neither did).  But the community festival feel is exactly what I (personally) like most about pride events.  It’s nice to be amongst your community, and amongst supporters of the community.  Big parties are a lot of fun, but there’s relatively little about them that feels political, or community-based.  It really felt like a big series of parties, with a few noticeable sprinkles of gay mixed in.  I’m pretty sure if you held a series of circuit parties in similar venues with similar DJs in similar time slots for similar costs, you’d have almost the same crowd turning up, given the close links between the queer and circuit communities.

The other problem with the bigger-is-better approach is that everything was so expensive!! One shouldn’t have to spend all year saving money to go to pride!  From buying a membership to save on tickets ($25) to the Harbour Party ($109) to the Mardi Gras Party ($119), plus transaction fees, it’s already well over $250 just to get in the door.  It’s hardly affordable, and I had an “international” membership which is significantly cheaper than a domestic one (and comes without voting rights).  Strip away the expensive events, and someone with limited means basically has only the Fair Day and the Bondi Drag Races, as well as the parade (if they’re lucky enough to get a spot to see), as their Mardi Gras experience.  As a trade-off, though, there were very few brands being bombarded at me – though the ones that were there were all over the place (Google, Gaydar.com.au., and ANZ being three that come to mind).  The host of the drag races was actually told to stop making Grindr jokes because Gaydar.com.au was such a significant sponsor of the event.  But all of this was nothing compared to the overabundance of brands draped, lit, painted, and displayed in every possible way at Pride Toronto.

As I said, I loved every minute of Mardi Gras, but as a queer politics event it just doesn’t feel right.  It’s hard to propose an alternative that would work in a place where the event has become so big, like it has in Sydney, but I think the real lesson to be learned is to not let it get so big elsewhere.  The unfortunate part is that so much of the money to fund the actual community events comes from the huge parties that it would be difficult to switch back.  We’re lucky (in a way) in Canada that so much funding for the organisation comes from the government and sponsors.  There’s also no reason to say that parties can’t be part of the festival.  But having the community street fair, the local artists, and the public marches is so much more significant and, in my view, should remain so.

One final note – I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you view it) of attending the AGM for Pride Toronto in September 2010, and the AGM for New Mardi Gras in August 2011.  What a difference – the Pride Toronto AGM was a disaster – community members were prevented from entering, the board was underprepared and unwilling to admit mistakes, and everything possible was done to shut down debate.  New Mardi Gras, really only one year further in its virtually-identical organisational path than Pride Toronto, had a board that was incredibly well prepared, admitted where things went wrong that caused the losses to continue, had a strong plan to address it going forward, and encouraged the community to participate in the discussion, even making a point of sending out emails and tweets encouraging non-members to attend.  Sydney’s community is very male-dominated, and the board openly acknowledged it has a long way to go to bring the queer communities back together, and openly shared statistics on its membership and volunteer base to isolate where it needs improvement.  Where Pride Toronto’s meetings had votes that barely squeaked through due to a community divided, NMG’s votes (on motions put forward by the board) all passed unanimously.  I can only hope for Toronto that it will once again have a Pride organisation it can be proud of – a good board can go a long way.
Rainbows on Yonge Street

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Gras / Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.  I’ve blogged a bit more about the festival here.  I went to the flag raising at Town Hall and reconnected with someone I met at the Marina & […]


  2. […] also finished off that week by attending the Mardi Gras AGM, which I mentioned briefly in this post.  And from there, I hunkered down and spent most of my time working.  August and September are […]


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