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One night at the Mardi Gras

Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal


"I am 36, gay and a virgin. I was always so scared of my own sexuality. Swear on god, I have never touched a man…” Wearing sequined red vest with a silver tie snaking on his bare, waxed chest Mohandas Vettathil was sitting on a sidewalk in Oxford Street in Sydney and pouring his heart out. Without a qualm, without any hint of guilt. The 31 st Mardi Gras, the world’s largest gay and lesbian parade, was still a few hours away, but the moussed Mohandas was no longer ashamed of, what he says, “the way I am. I am proud of my sexuality and here at the Mardi Gras my Being seems reconfirmed, justified,” he asserts and pumps a high-five with the man sitting next to him. Mohandas trained as a nurse in New Zealand , his parents in Kerala are unaware that their only son is a homosexual, and for 19 years he silently loved a German married ‘straight’ man. But the Mardi Gras was metamorphosing him; Mohandas was ready for a one-night stand “just to experience the sensual bliss, to shed the fear and humiliation of my sexuality that I have lived with for so many years…”

That evening of March 7, Mohandas’ was not the only story that I heard. That day began with the poignant story of Matthew Mitcham, Olympic gold medalist, who dressed in jeans and a striped tee, his hair ruffled, his eyes gleaming narrated the “fairytale of a skinny, short boy who always felt he was different…He was not good at too many things and then one day he discovered he could dive….” Just before the Olympic Games that skinny boy announced to the world that he was gay and one day that skinny boy brought the gold medal for Australia in the 10-metre diving championship at Beijing Olympics. But Mitcham was not standing amidst hundreds of reporters and a handful of cross-dressers as a diver, he stood there as a gay icon, as the Chief of Parade at the Mardi Gras. As Miss Wagga Wagga, a cross-dresser with mounds of glitter on his eyes and yard of tulle in his gown, posed coquettishly, Mitcham thumped the lectern and coaxed “you gotta to be proud of your sexuality. In 80 countries, homosexuality is an offence, in 7 countries you can be hanged for being gay. It is time for gay pride…” At 21, Mitcham is enough of an inspiration and he, like many others, wants the world order – and mores - to change.

Exactly thirty years ago on a June evening when a bunch of gays and lesbians gathered on a street in Sydney to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich village, New York (often considered a watershed in gay movement), they were hustled by the police, arrested and their pictures pasted on newspapers the next morning. A day after the parade many participants lost their jobs, most ostracized by family and friends for “unnatural sexual preferences”. The gay movement has come a long way since that fortuitous day when blood spilled on the street and screams for equality fell on deaf ears. In 2008, Australia granted same-sex couples and their children equality in federal law. However, it still lags behind in promulgating a federal anti-discrimination law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, that day on the streets of Sydney the gay leitmotif went beyond pleading for equality, it was pride, a pride that found a voice in the 9,700 participants and messages in 134 floats and thousands of revelers who lined up in the 2.4 km parade route not just to gawk but to cheer and support. Wearing a pink media pass that read Nations United – the theme of 2009 Mardi Gras – and lugging my heavy camera bag, I was caught in the melee at Hyde Park . A cross-dresser with a blonde wig and false breasts popping out of her teal cowl neck dress was posing with two petite Japanese girls who were squealing with excitement. In another corner a bunch of boys were strutting in leopard print briefs that barely covered anything; a young girl in a Playboy bunny outfit was screaming back expletives at boys who whistled at her black body suit and those pink bunny ears.

It was on the street beyond the Park that all the action was unfolding. Flashing my media card, I jumped over steel barricades to be in the thick of action. It was about 5.30 pm , the sun was still sweltering in the Sydney summer and Foreplay was already on. Yes, Foreplay, a team of sexy, rambunctious boys and girls fluffing the crowd with their pre-Parade foreplay (read: entertainment) – swirling their bellies, beating the drums and shaking a leg to the groovy samba. Under a busstop shade, Laura with cropped hair and blue corset was painting her breast in blue and white stripes, while her partner of six weeks Tabitha loudly proclaimed her desire to be a mother someday ( “I would f*&^ a gay friend of mine, have a baby”) and amidst the clamour shouted: I am liberated not queer. Her brusque one-liner ruffled no feathers. Perhaps everyone was feeling liberated – French Pierre with a red hibiscus in his hair was cuddling Duncan, his steady partner, while a Chinese Corney, her mouth painted aqua, talked of how her parents have “let me be.” Perched on a truck, a girl from the Pollys Club, the oldest gay social group in Australia, was sticking pasties on her bare nipples – topless and blonde, she puffed a cigarette so nonchalantly that even her nudity looked redundant, while a man in leather G-strings romped with a Mr Letterhead sash on his hairy chest – as member of Sydney Leather Pride Association he can only be spotted in leather. They call it the uniform of united tribes of leather!

And then I spotted Sayeed. If I had not chanced on his clean-shaven face, I would have thought that an Indian bride was to adorn the Asian float. Sayeed was dressed in red bridal finery, fake gold jewllery with red stones hung tight on his chubby neck, his black wig was combed into a neat end-curl and his chandelier earrings looked too cumbersome. Sayeed had been a closet gay in Delhi , he was mortified that family and friends would one day discover his sexuality and his penchant for cross-dressing. “Homosexuality is a criminal offence in India , but it is not the law, it is the stigma of the society that literally drove me seven seas away.” Studying tourism and hospitality became Sayeed’s perfect ruse to head to Australia . “I could not have been gay and happy in India , I had to escape,” Sayeed fumed, adjusting a naughty curl on his forehead. “But I am no longer afraid; away from home and the draconian laws, I feel proud to be gay,” adds the charming Delhiite, extending a quick handshake before hitching his lehenga and scampering to his group to add that final daub of pink powder on his wheatish skin. As I saw Sayeed smile, I remembered what Liz Dods, co-chair of the New Mardi Gras Parade Creative Working Group had said at the press conference, “You do not choose to be gay, you are born gay. It is not a disease, it is not a choice. So, why be ashamed of it?” Sayeed certainly did not look ashamed; his pride was so contagious that even I reveled in it.

It was getting dark and the clock was ticking away to 7.45 pm , the scheduled time for the parade to begin and mark the finale of a fortnight of the Mardi Gras that even lured into participation the famous comedienne Joan Rivers and her rapacious wit. If that was not pride enough, the Freemasons added to the adrenaline rush with their jig and Foxtel televised the show live after a gap of nearly six years. For someone straight, these facts might seem inane but caught in a crowd of gay, lesbians, bisexuals and transvestites I could sense how even the smallest step felt like such a giant leap for a community that has to struggle to be accepted the way they are, people who are still advised to “see a psychiatrist” to chase the idea of alternate sexuality out of their ‘sick’ minds.

“Oh! I do not like homosexuals. It is criminal. It is unnatural. It is sin,” the Chinese cabbie who was driving me to the Parade area was vehement in his hatred for homosexuality. “What if your son walks up to you and confesses he is gay, what would you do?” intrigued I throw back a question at the man looking pale in his blue shirt. “Oh, that is a difficult question. But I know he won’t,” he asserted. “What if he does?” I insisted. “He won’t. He can’t.” The Chinese man almost closed his eyes in denial of anything called homosexuality. In his world, there was nothing called alternate sexuality. Everything was straight, everything so like a catechism textbook.

But such unflinching hatred did not inhibit the Dykes on Bikes, who for 21 years have always been the first ones to roll the Parade. I was sitting on the divider of the road and thinking of the 25 years of the Deaf Gay and Lesbian Association of Australia, curious about what Miss Sandy Crack wear this year (she wore a frock of condoms in 2008), of Bobby Goldsmith, the first Australian who died of AIDS and of Lance Gowland, a hardcore communist who drove the truck in the first parade in 1978 and literally initiated it. And then a crescendo broke my reverie – the Dykes are coming, the Dykes are coming, the crowd screamed in unison. And then they came, 200 of them, sexy girls in sexier bikes, tattoos on their bodies, paints peeping from their vests, boots on their fishnets and so much leather that it could probably make a tarp around equator. On their Ducatis and BMWs, they came shouting, their slogans dying in the crowd’s euphoria….The boys followed, most bare in their skin, hunched stylishly on their bikes, revving them not just for an adrenaline rush, but also honking loudly to tell the world proudly that they are gay. And proud of being one.

In the next three hours, thousands of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transvestites walked by. In the crowd I spotted short-haired Jenine wearing a sari that her Sri Lankan partner had gifted her; Kelly, with her little daughter and her girlfriend of 13 years with whom she is now in a legal civil union; Pierre who thanks the Lord for being born in France and not in Egypt where even approaching a man can be construed as solicitation and can lead to death by hanging; Ilion and Norm Telligal, old enough to be senior citizens, yet looking dapper in their silver beard and barely-there thongs. Posing for me, Ilion had said, “Being here is such happiness. It is about partying in the middle of the city. But above all, it is about being yourself.” Everyone was dancing, there was so much merriment that even a spoof on the Pope as a whirling dervish had loads of takers. Everyone was conveying a message – beach boys in blue itsy-bitsy shorts and numbers painted on their backs, angels from heaven in black furry wings, nurses in white with blood on their cleavage-showing outfit, men from Japan in their geisha dress and Indians carrying the Trikone flag, marching in dhotis and lipsticks. Limping behind was an old woman looking frumpy in a floral peasant frock was carrying a placard that read: “I am proud of my gay son”, and a horde of mommies and mammas with their ‘rainbow’ children.

It was well past 10 pm , I was sitting on the divider framing my shots when a tall beach surfer hopped over my head hurriedly. I ducked and nearly toppled. Before I could get my bearings back, I saw Mohandas. He was walking confidently with his group. He looked happy. He smiled and waved back. “I am so proud…” In the hullabaloo of the Mardi Gras, I could not hear him. But I could read his lips. Mohandas was proud of his sexuality. He was no longer ashamed of being gay. For the boy from Kerala, the Sydney Mardi Gras was a proud moment.

Published in Caravan, 2009

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