Sydney gay mag in hot water after call for “buff” bodies at Mardi Gras

Buff bodies: participants taking part in the 40th annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday, 3 March, 2018. Photo: Joel Carrett/AAP Image.

The Sydney Star Observer has been accused of body shaming and racism after a controversial social media post. Peter Hackney reports.

The Sydney Star Observer, Sydney’s LGBTQI publication of record since 1979, is at the centre of a social media storm after a Facebook post calling for “buff” people to join its float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday, 6 March.

The post, made on Wednesday on the outlet’s Facebook page (before Facebook blocked the content of media outlets in Australia) read: “Would you like to participate in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras march at the SCG this year?

Star Observer is looking for 12 buff volunteers to join us on our float. If you fit the bill and would like to participate please call [number redacted*].”

The Star Observer calling for “buff” people to join its Mardi Gras float. Image: Facebook.

The post, which quickly ignited controversy, was deleted by the magazine a short time later – but not before being widely shared across LGBTQI social media pages and groups, and attracting comments slamming the publication for alleged body shaming, discrimination and reinforcement of outdated stereotypes.

One person wrote: “Exactly the reason why I avoid these events. Which I hate but I refuse to be made [to] feel bad about myself.”

Another said: “Oh look, non-inclusivity … groundbreaking. Not surprised though – which is kinda sad.”

Another poster stated: “I’d really like to see what they do if the only buff guys who apply aren’t also white.”

Former Mardi Gras co-chair and respected LGBTQI community leader Steph Sands was one of the more prominent people to comment.

Former Mardi Gras co-chair Steph Sands weighs in on social media. Image: Facebook.

Ms Sands bemoaned the direction the publication had taken in recent times, adding, apparently tongue-in-cheek, “Great inclusive call for all shades of our community to march in Mardi Gras with a ‘community’ newspaper.”

Elias Jahshan, who was editor of the Star Observer from 2013 to 2016, replied underneath, writing: “Been biting my tongue on the current owners as this is not their first WTF moment, but it was the last straw for me. It’s as if they’re seemingly determined to flush SO’s legacy down and they don’t seem to give a shit.”

Former Star Observer editor Elias Jahshan’s take on the situation. Image: Facebook.

‘Topless, chiselled, unwrinkled, white men’

One of those who weighed in on the controversy was Dean Arcuri, who formerly took scene photographs in LGBTQI venues, for publication in both the Sydney Star Observer and its sister magazine in Victoria, the Melbourne Star Observer.

Mr Arcuri is also the former editor of the Melbourne Star Observer, a role he departed in December 2019. 

“I wasn’t even slightly surprised to see this,” Mr Arcuri told the Sentinel

“After I left the Star Observer, one of the new scene photographers contacted me to say they had been instructed to take photos of topless, chiselled, unwrinkled, white men at the venues.

“He said he was told this had always been the policy and what I had always done – and asked me if this was actually correct.

“It wasn’t. I’m all about reflecting the entire community in all its diversity – all different body types, sexualities, races and genders,” said Mr Arcuri, who revealed he had also experienced pressure to focus his photographs on “buff white men” during his time at the magazine, but had always resisted. 

Alleging a lack of boundaries between the editorial and sales teams, Mr Arcuri said much of the pressure had come from the Star Observer‘s sales department.

Mental health impacts

The promotion of a ‘white, buff bodies’ culture within the gay community had the potential to affect people’s mental health, said experts in the field who spoke to the Sentinel.

Sydney-based registered mental health nurse Karen J. Pereira, who has worked in the sector since 1995, said such attitudes compounded harm in already vulnerable people.

“Belonging, self belief and being worthy of being protected are important to all humans. This statement by the Sydney Star Observer does the opposite of that. Attitudes like this make concrete the wrong beliefs in vulnerable people,” she said. 

“Body shaming from people outside the LGBTQI community is one thing. To come from within the community, from an organisation that is meant to represent and protect the community, affects people’s sense of worth … it is totally unacceptable.” 

“To quote the movie Mean Girls, they are saying: ‘You can’t sit with us.’ It is degrading, plain and simple.”

Pereira went on to compare the situation to the film Mean Girls – the 2004 cult classic about female high school social cliques and their damaging effects on girls.

“It translates to, ‘Only if you look this way, then you have a place with us.’ To quote the movie Mean Girls, they are saying: ‘You can’t sit with us.’ It is degrading, plain and simple.”

She added: “Not only is body shaming ‘not nice’ … it leads to detrimental behavioural changes, nutritional and metabolic changes and mental instability – eating disorders, body dysmorphia, isolation, self harm, reduced brain function, increased use of legal and illegal substances, unnecessary cosmetic surgery, risk-taking behaviour and increased suicide ideation.”

The Covid factor

Clinical hypnotherapist, psychotherapist, counsellor and sex therapist Dr Tracie O’Keefe also voiced concerns. She said the ongoing Covid-19 situation meant exclusionary behaviour had more impact than usual.

“Twelve months of Covid isolation and lockdowns has led to the most vulnerable among us having a greater susceptibility to depression and suicide,” said Dr O’Keefe, a spokesperson for Sex and Gender (SAGE) Australia, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of sex and/or gender diverse people.

“Many people in the sex, gender and sexuality diverse communities live alone and feel more excluded from the world,” she said. 

“We are made up of all shapes and sizes so it’s important to celebrate our diversity. A day with flags, bangles and the wind in your hair on a Mardi Gras float is always a big treat for everyone.”

Dr O’Keefe said the diversity of the LGBTQI community was one of its greatest strengths, and that “we need to show that diversity whenever we can so the heteronormative dominant sector of society can’t stereotype us”.

‘The intern did it’

The Sydney Star Observer was contacted for comment by the Sentinel on Wednesday afternoon and was told by a staffer that the Facebook post was “a mistake” and that “an intern did it, not a paid employee”.

He then excused himself from the call, advising that the editor or publisher would phone back with further comment. 

No further comment has been received.

Background

The Sydney Star Observer is Australia’s, and one of the world’s, longest running LGBTQI publications.

Established as The Sydney Star on 6 July, 1979 by the late Michael Glynn, a US immigrant to Australia, it has reported on – and played a role in – numerous LGBTQI social issues and legal developments, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality in NSW in 1984, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the successful campaign for marriage equality in Australia.

In recent years, the publication has faced serious financial challenges, and on 25 June, 2019 Mumbrella reported that the Star Observer had been rescued from voluntary administration by its current owner, Out Publications.

Out Publications then reinstated the Star Observer‘s previous name, the Sydney Star Observer, and also began publishing a Melbourne Star Observer.

Since then, both publications have gone through numerous staff changes, featuring a ‘revolving door’ cast of editors, journalists, contributors and salespeople.

*The mobile phone number concerned has been redacted in this report at the Sentinel’s discretion. 

Disclaimer: the author of this article previously worked for the Sydney Star Observer on a freelance basis for a brief period in 2019.

Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.