My favourite black shorts and top, or those hideous yet sparklingly endearing rainbow angel wings…? Heels or sensible shoes? Choosing what outfit to wear tomorrow to the Mardi Gras party seems to consume a disproportionate amount of energy than it should.
I can’t but help feeling guilty that I’m even worrying about such a triviality. I’m sure this was the last thing on the minds of those brave, courageous people who took to the streets in 1978 in what was Sydney’s first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
There were 53 arrests that night and hundreds more victims of brutality from the police, who removed their identification numbers as they marched into the crowd. Those arrested were initially denied access to their lawyers. It was a dark night for justice, liberation and freedom when people in power failed those that needed protecting the most. Many lost their jobs when The Sydney Morning Herald published the names, addresses and occupations of those arrested that night. The physical scars might have healed but the public shame projected on them and the emotional trauma endured long into the future.
Unfortunately change can be painfully slow, but so much has been achieved since that ugly night in Darlinghurst forty years ago. In 2016, both the Police and Sydney Morning Herald subsequently apologised for the hurt and trauma caused.
In the eighties, NSW became the first state to pass laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuality. In the nineties gay men and women were finally allowed to serve their country in our armed forces, and in 2003 the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexuals was finally equalised.
And who could have missed the huge moment just a few months ago when Australia voted yes to same-sex marriage.
Growing up in the eighties and nineties on the Central Coast of NSW, I was quite shielded from these stories of inequality. But when my best friend Matt came out to his Dad at the age of 18, and was disowned, this was the first time I directly experienced the feelings of anguish and pain that can come from homophobia.
At university I was a passionate advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer – or LGBTIQ – rights, and finally discovered my own sexual orientation at 28. Whilst out to family and friends, it would take me quite some time to come out in my workplace environment.
In hindsight, the energy and effort I expended on covering it up was frustrating and difficult. It wasn’t until I came to Westpac that I’ve experienced the freedom and joy that words cannot describe of being my whole authentic self.
Corporate Australia has undergone its own journey towards greater LGBTIQ inclusion. Many organisations, including Westpac, have led the charge and have seen the value in becoming inclusive workplaces. This change has often been led by employees who have had the confidence and courage to speak up and take action about discrimination.
Giving employees an opportunity to really be themselves diverts the energy that would have gone into hiding, back into focusing on doing a better job. Organisations such as Pride and Diversity have evolved to support employers to be more LGBTIQ inclusive. It’s not just Australian businesses that are seeing the benefits of being “gay friendly”. I was thrilled when Westpac became the first Australian business to sign up to the United Nations LGBTI Standards for Business, which aim to provide protection to LGBTIQ people not just in Australia but wherever we do business, whether at home or overseas.
Closer to home the struggle isn’t over. Suicide and self-harm of our young LGBTIQ people continues at alarming rates, particularly for those in rural communities. Our transgender brothers and sisters continue to face challenges just to be recognised as who they are. I’m playing my small part with my team at work to make sure our workplace is a safe and welcoming one, and contribute back to the community as much as I can.
In all honesty, who cares what I wear tomorrow night! The fact remains that the actions of those courageous people over 40 years ago means that I can breathe easier whilst dancing up a storm.
For me, Mardi Gras is a time to celebrate those that stood up for future generations and it’s also a time to remain visible, loud and proud, as there is still so much more to do.
Yes the parade can today seem like opulence, extravagance and show, but it remains an important event in the LGBTIQ calendar with enduring memories of pain and injustice that cannot and should not be erased or forgotten.
By Michael Bennet
Editor, Westpac Wire