Sydney Mardi Gras dismisses board members after Pride in Protest march

Pride In Protests's 'Mardi Gras Oxford Street Take Over' protest on Saturday, 6 March from the air. Photo: Pride In Protest/Fascebook/7NEWS.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has, without prior notice or statement of reason, stood down two of their seven board members, allegedly for their links to the Pride In Protest collective, opening a can of worms and controversy. Travis De Jonk reports.

Charlie Murphy and Alex Bouchet, who have been stood down from the Mardi Gras board without warning, have attributed their dismissal to their involvement in the queer activist collective Pride In Protest, which organised the boldly political ‘Mardi Gras Oxford Street Take Over’ protest on Saturday, 6 March; an event which took place on the same day as the official Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).

The Pride In Protest group, which has advocated for a Mardi Gras Parade without the inclusion of police, right-wing political parties and corporate sponsors, held their own march – which, they say, harked back to the “radical roots” of Mardi Gras as a “proud protest” – on Oxford Street several hours before the official Mardi Gras Parade.

The march, which Pride In Protest claim attracted 3000 people, featured protests against the so-called Religious Discrimination Bill, mandatory detention and forced deportation of refugees, black deaths in custody, alleged over-policing of queer and Indigenous communities, and called for the full decriminalisation of sex work in every Australian state and territory.

Murphy and Bouchet speculated additional reasons for being stood down from the board included their use of the words ‘Mardi Gras’ in their event, as well as the direct participation by Murphy in the protest march after Mardi Gras asked them not to.

The Pride In Protest organisation took to social media to express their anger at the Mardi Gras board machinations, which they claim constitute a breach of the Mardi Gras constitution, a conflict of interest and evidence of a right-wing agenda at Mardi Gras. 

Board members stood down by Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: Charlie Murphy (left) and Alex Bouchet. Image: Travis De Jonk.

“No community member should be punished for having a role in asking for a better world, and the fact these Board Members are doing so shows a deep reactionary current inside the SGLMG Board,” said Pride In Protest in an official statement.

“By choosing to punish Charlie and Alex for their participation in this march, they are punishing them for supporting the liberation of oppressed groups and fighting for the right to protest. This move, which is more brazenly partisan than anything in parliament, is also an abuse of the rights of the membership who democratically elected Charlie and Alex on a left wing platform.”

Pride In Protest also released a series of screen shots of private group conversations on social media taken by insider ‘whistleblowers’ at Mardi Gras, which appear to show active plans to attack and shut down Pride In Protest.

One group message on Facebook, purportedly from a Mardi Gras employee, proposed developing a strategy to “fight” Pride In Protest.

“I am now very concerned about Pride In Protest and as an employee, believe it is my duty to fight back and do everything in my power to protect our not-for-profit community organisation,” the message read.

“I would like to set up a meeting for those of you who would like to help design a strategy and plan this fight. Please also invite any others you believe would be interested in joining in and activating their network. I will not stand by and watch what happened to Auckland Pride happen to our beloved Mardi Gras!”

In 2018, New Zealand’s biggest LGBTQI event, Auckland Pride, banned uniformed police from their parade and eschewed corporate sponsorship, making it free for all to participate in the march. Instead of corporate sponsors, the organisation embraced crowdfunding models such as GoFundMe and sought local, community sponsorship.

A number of corporate sponsors withdrew financial support in response, including ANZ, BNZ, SKY City, Vodafone and Westpac, however, the 2020 Auckand Pride Festival became the biggest in the organisation’s history, with 75 per cent of the 154 event roster being free or koha entry.

Screenshots posted on social media by Pride In Protest. Photo: Pride In Protest/Facebook.

Another screenshot shows the employee writing: “They (Pride In Protest) are organised. They are crowdfunding their activities. They are gaining power and control of the narrative … we cannot sit back and hope they will go away.”

The screenshots highlight fears among some Mardi Gras circles about the growing power and influence of Pride In Protest over the future direction of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

However, In a joint statement, Mardi Gras co-chairs Jesse Matheson and Mel Schwerdt released a formal statement denying that Bouchet and Murphy’s dismissal had anything to do with their involvement in the Pride In Protest march, adding that it was a temporary move while the Board goes through its processes.

“The Board can confirm that board directors Charlie Murphy and Alex Bouchet were stood down temporarily from their positions for a period of 28 days, commencing 4 March 2021,” said the Mardi Gras co-chairs in their official statement.

“Reports they were stood down because of the Mardi Gras protest march are inaccurate.

“For now, the Board wishes to continue to manage this situation confidentially, respecting the privacy for all those involved.”

The statement continued: “While we understand this has caused some concern in the community, please know that as a board, we will always act in the best interests of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and continue to steer the organisation in the direction that you set for us.”

Bouchet, Murphy and Pride In Protest consider the statement from the Mardi Gras co-chairs to be a “non-response to community outrage over right wing backroom machinations” which has “failed to address concerns that they have breached the organisation’s constitution”.

Pride In Protest allege the Mardi Gras co-chairs have evaded calls for openness and continue a culture of secrecy by dealing with the situation privately. 

“Any transparent Board would allow minutes on the conversation to be made public to the members as it is a vital concern to them,” said a Pride In Protest statement.

“We call on the SGLMG board to immediately institute open meetings and end the secret closed door meetings which subvert the democracy of the organisation and transparency to the membership.”

– With Peter Hackney