The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is still seen by many young people as a relevant and necessary celebration of LGBTQI+ pride. Tahli Blackman reports.
As co-chair of the Mardi Gras Board, Jesse Matheson helps maintain the financial stability of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG) and provides leadership to the organisation. Matheson was nominated for the Mardi Gras Board in 2016, when he became one of the youngest members to be elected, at the age of 24. Three years later, he became co-chair.
“Mardi Gras has had a really significant impact on my life and my journey as a gay man,” Matheson tells The Sentinel.
“I first marched in the parade when I was 15 and had hardly met any LGBTQI+ people, still questioning myself,” he says.
“It was a really reaffirming and emotional moment for me to walk up the street and feel celebrated for my sexuality.”
The experience of young trans person Olivia Stewart, who Matheson heard speak at the 2021 My Trans Story event, resonates strongly with him.
Olivia Stewart attended her first Mardi Gras in 2018 when she was just 13-years-old. She and her mother joined the Trans Pride Australia float, where Stewart was the youngest person in the group.
In her 2021 My Trans Story speech, Stewart discussed how, at first, she was scared and hesitant to attend Mardi Gras, as that would mean she was coming out to the world as trans, which at the time she did not want to identify as being.
“As I saw my fellow trans participants approaching, I felt some of my doubts and fears drift away. These were my people,” she said.
“Mardi Gras was an event that let me see my trans identity as not something to be ashamed of, but to be proud of.”
Matheson says hearing Olivia’s story, he was assured that Mardi Gras is still having a large impact on young people today.
Jessica McDonald is a 22-year-old from Sydney who is marching in the Mardi Gras parade for the first time this year. She believes Mardi Gras will always be relevant to young people.
“It is incredible to see all ages and generations coming together to celebrate who we are as a community and individuals. I would encourage any LGBTQI+ person to attend Mardi Gras to get a sense that you are not alone, and you belong to a community,” she says.
McDonald is drawn to Mardi Gras because of how confident and free she feels at the parade. For a few years, she has been attending Mardi Gras as a spectator, but now she is marching to get more involved.
“Being able to go out and act unapologetically myself is such a freeing experience and really helps my confidence,” she says.
19-year-old Sydney resident Louis Asdr is marching in the parade this year for similar reasons. Asdr believes Mardi Gras is still relevant to today’s young people as the government neglects to recognise their mistreatment of the queer community.
“Mardi Gras is still a protest to me … for standing up to inequality. It is mainly about representation and being visible,” he says.
“The last two sitting weeks of this 46th parliament and the [Coalition’s] behaviour during the last few terms … is the main reason why I think Mardi Gras and the protest it represents is still very much needed.”
The SGLMG organisation caters to young people through a range of events. Before Covid-19, they held an event called Family Fun Day at Luna Park, which was about giving rainbow families the space to come together. There were craft activities, drag performances and other engaging ways of getting rainbow families involved and connected.
“We also work with Minus18 for the Mardi Gras Digital Youth Party for people aged 12-19. The online event has drag performances, live music, competitions and DJs for young people,” says Matheson.
“Being able to provide young people with a platform to speak their truth and tell their story is a big part of what Mardi Gras is all about.”
Mardi Gras membership is diversifying significantly as the organisation is currently headed towards having 3,500 members, 300 of whom are students getting involved in the governance of Mardi Gras.
“We keep the 44-year history of Mardi Gras at the forefront of what we do, but it is important to have young people who are invested in its future to continue to fly the flag of Mardi Gras,” says Matheson.
Matheson knows that there is a perception that SGLMG is run by older people, which he feels is false.
“Whenever I go into the office, I look around and see so many young people who are working for Mardi Gras and when I brief our volunteers, I always find a group of young people under the age of 25,” he says.
“We always say that Mardi Gras means different things to different people and all of those meanings are completely valid, whether it’s sharing a political message or going to the parade to party, they’re all valid ways of engaging with pride and Mardi Gras.”
The 2022 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will be held from 6pm tonight at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Moore Park. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival runs until tomorrow – Sunday, 6 March. For more information, visit www.mardigras.org.au.