It was over in a second
A week has passed since Mardi Gras ended, and all this time I haven’t been able to write a blog post. I looked at the screen and smiled; writing is an exercise of memory. Then, I remembered and I smiled again. Where is the beginning of my story? I believe I can trace it back to August 2016, the day I booked the flight, decided to move across the globe, and set myself in Australia. “Come and visit me for Mardi Gras!” I started to tell my friends once I revealed my move to them. “Isn’t that in New Orleans?” one of them asked.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about it myself. From what I had seen in pictures and videos, it seemed like another opportunity for my brothers and sisters to cover each other in glitter and voice, with joy, the needed message of equality. But Sydney’s Mardi Gras was way more than that. After months of anticipation and weeks of planning, it all seemed to be over in a fraction of a second.
A bit of History
Sydney’s Mardi Gras started almost 10 years after the New York City Stonewall riots of 1969. “Out of the bars and into the streets!” was the call being shouted that night (June 24, 1978). People had gathered on Oxford Street as a nighttime celebration following a morning protest march in commemoration of the Stone Wall Riots. At first, there were only 500 that, with inviting shouting, became 2,000.
The peaceful march was brutally interrupted by the police. That night 53 of the participants were arrested, and although most charges were eventually dropped, The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of those arrested in full, leading to many people being outed to their friends and places of employment. Consequently, many of those arrested lost their jobs, as homosexuality was a crime up until 1984.
This two-week celebration started with Fair day and the arrival of my brother. After three planes and 37 hours in the air, he arrived from Puerto Rico with a very straightforward message: “Come back home”. He flew across the globe to tell me in person that he was expecting his second child and he wanted me to be the Godfather.
Joy is a short word to describe how the news made me feel. Of course I said yes, and out came my brother’s first, persuasive tactic to make me go back: “If you want to be his Godfather, I need you to be part of his life. I don’t want you to have a Skype relationship with the kid.” Smart…pretty smart. During the entire festival I couldn’t stop thinking about his words.
This is one of Mardi Gras’ most loved events and it attracts around 80,000 people each year. The best way to describe it is as a gigantic picnic party in which every single letter of our rainbow alphabet has a stall and a stage to voice their colors. With over 220 stalls from a wide selection of food, wares from local community vendors, and LGBTQI organizations, there was space there for everyone.
Under the sun
Fair Day is not only the first big activity of this two-week extravaganza, but it is also the first opportunity the locals have to see under the sunlight all those fresh off the boat tourists making their way to Sydney. It is also one of the few events that brings diverse groups within our community together.
Once the parties kick off it all gets pretty narrowed and targeted. Circuit boys pool party on Tuesday, Bear underwear party on Thursday, Lesbian dance at the Imperial on Friday and so on. It is not until the parade’s day that everyone gets together one last time.
After strolling my way through the stalls, dancing with friends, meeting new people, getting some numbers, and drinking fresh squeezed lemonade, my friends and I were ready for our next stop: The Beresford Hotel, every Sunday’s gay meeting point.
As we were walking out of Camperdown Memorial Rest Park in Newtown, I heard in the distance those familiar melodies that make every Puerto-Rican-in-exile’s blood warm and heart melt: salsa. One of Fair Day’s main stages closing number was a Salsa Latin local group that was playing all those tunes Dad used to have on a mix tape and played every time we did a road trip to visit abuela. From Puerto Rico to Australia, our music makes the world dance. “Come back home”
The Glamcocks were having their first Mardi Gras float at this year’s parade. I was stoked with excitement to be part of this historic event for my Burning Man family. Vincent and James, the same two brothers that drove me to Tropical Fruits, New Year’s Gay Festival, took care of all the logistics and were the ones responsible for making all of it happen. People often ask us what the Glamcocks are. We’re a group of over 2oo close friends that live all around the world. Here I’ll quote Jared, one of my Glam brothers:
“People often ask me, what are GlamCocks? They’re inclusive and positive and energetic and worldly and adventurous and accepting and loving and open and giving and responsible and creative and fun… and we reunite at Burning Man and all around the world to bring more people together. I truly hope every person has people like these in their life.”
Free from my phone
The day before our first rehearsal I took my brother to Figure 8 pools at the Royal National Park. Walking along the rocks I slipped and fell, losing my phone to the sea. I didn’t get mad, I didn’t resist. It was symbolic for me to lose my phone right at the beginning of the celebrations. Now I had just one option, stay fully present and take it all in. No calling or texting for hook ups, no snapchat, no worrying about what picture to upload on Instagram; it was truly a blessing, until I needed to use Google Maps to find the rehearsal spot.
Where in the massive park was the rehearsal meeting point!? I pretty much ran the entire place, and of course right at the end, after running for almost 45 minutes, I found them. There were over 30 cocks and 10 Australian friends dancing to Sia’s Cheap Thrills.
The Cocks, coming from overseas (San Francisco, LA, New York, London, Spain) with not much time to rehearse, were learning the choreography on a gigantic soccer field, led by the fantastic and energetic Michael Brown. I ran to the back lines and my New York City bestie Jeff and the beautiful Shane helped me with the steps. Between flying bats and sunset time, a drone recorded our first rehearsal from up in the sky.
Day on a Boat
The Sunday before the parade the incredible Alex Yim had planned a boat trip for all the Glams and his Australian friends. Four boats packed with men. My brother was returning back to Puerto Rico on this day. Right before leaving he surprised me with a big act of love. No other man, boyfriend or lover has ever melted my heart with such a meaningful act: He got his first tattoo.
“Why did you decide to do my same tattoo?” I asked him.
“If is meaningful to you, it is meaningful to me. You are the most important man in my life” he said.
His words will be tattooed forever in my heart. He left and a tear came down my cheek. The sun came out after days of rain. It was perfect weather for a boat day. And there I was surrounded by heavenly, gay scenery, thinking that the man that loves me the most had just left and wants me back home. His tactics did work. I was questioning myself. What’s here in Australia that I can’t find back home? Well, maybe this… 😛
Meet the Sistagirls
The day I’ve been waiting weeks for was finally here! Mardi Gras Parade! On my way to meet the Glamcocks and get ready, I ran into some of the beautiful Sistagirls waiting for the train. I couldn’t believe my luck. Sistagirls is a group of transgender Aboriginal people traditionally known in the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin.
While transgender people are found across many of Australia’s Indigenous communities, the Tiwi Islands has probably the largest sistergirl population in the country. There are roughly 2,500 people living in the Tiwi Islands, and the sistergirls say there are currently around 80.
I entered the train wagon and I saw these five shy trans women looking at me. I went and sat right next to them and with a big smile asked them if they were here for the parade. This question opened and relax them all. They soon started sharing all the details of their voyage, from what there were about to wear, to the parties they were going to perform.
Anastasia, with flirtatious confidence, asked me if I was going to watch the parade. After I told them all about our Glamcocks float she then asked me with curiosity “Which number is your float?” Our float is close to 100.
“100? We are in the top 30, then I suppose you are not as important as us.”
We laugh. Of course I wasn’t! They were the stars of the night, they knew it, and they were enjoying every moment of it. Their happiness was contagious.
We were so excited about the parade. It was their first time in Sydney as well, and after just two train stops they were already inviting me to come over and visit them on their island. I promised I would look for them before the parade started, and with hugs and kisses we said goodbye as if we knew each other for a lifetime.
Mardi Gras Parade
While walking to the parade’s holding area I was amazed by the amount of people that were already in the streets. In the six months I’ve been living here I had never seen Sydney’s streets that busy and energetic. As we walked to Hyde Park, the meeting point for all of those who were part of a float, we could see thousands of people already anxiously waiting for the parade to start. The atmosphere was electrifying.
Feathers, gowns, harnesses, glitter, naked bodies, sequined pants, silver, gold, red lipstick, messy make up, LED lights, aboriginal flashiness, boys, girls, trans, drags, speedos, shorts, huge wigs, and Courtney Act as a neon clown on top of it all: this was Australian queerness at is fullest. Epic. Just epic. The float holding area could have been the end of my experience and I would have gone home with a big smile.
It looked like a gay apocalyptic end of the world scene, like being trapped inside a John Waters movie. If the world ever goes down to hell this is my dream of a farewell. I grab one of my friends by the hand and we got lost in the sea of rainbows looking for the Sistagirls. And this is a photo timeline of our journey to them…
First we ate vegan burritos with the amazing Courtney Act
Witness some silver realness
And Afro gloriousness
With glamour golden hot stuff
Panini’s big adventure continued through the night
Even met a flawless wonder woman
Hang a bit with my friend and fellow blogger Barrett Pall
And finally found my Sistagirls
We were so happy when we saw each other!
The time had come
Our float was ready to depart, Courtney Act was in front leading us all, and for almost an hour we repeated our choreography through Oxford Street, showing our Glam and spreading our love. While we were repeating our moves, I kept thinking: “What lucky bastards we are.” 40 years ago guys were being beaten, imprisoned, and publicly shamed on this same street, 30 years ago it was an illegal act to love another man and walk in public holding hands, and here we were, being cheered on and celebrated by thousands of people and watched by millions.
But something didn’t feel right. It all seemed to end so quickly. I tried to stop to take it all in, but we had to constantly be moving forward. Cheap Thrills was on repeat and there was not much time to stop and breath. I took as many memory pictures as I could. “I will never again be this young” I thought…having the awareness that I was living one of the most joyful experiences of my life…got me high. High on life.
Why Mardi Gras?
Turn on the news. Despite all the fun we have on this events, hate crimes and injustice happen every second. While I was floating in happiness through Oxford Street, surrounded by beautiful boys in speedos, a transgender sister was dragged out of her home and beaten to death with stones in Brazil. Less than a year ago, 49 brothers were killed at a nightclub mass shooting in Florida, and Donald Trump has just revoked a landmark guidance issued to public schools in defense of transgender students.
We should not feel bad for our privilege
But we should definitely be aware of it and continue the fight so others can experience the same freedoms some of us enjoy today. Our rights are in constant danger with all these narrow-minded, egocentric people in power. And even in the liberal progressive countries there’s still lots of work to do.
Here in Australia, for example, they still don’t have marriage equality, and a lockout law has significantly impacted the gay scene. Sydney’s lockout laws were introduced in February 2014 under the guise of reducing alcohol-fueled violence. This silly legislation requires night venue lockouts at 1:30 am, with a last call for drinks at 3 am.
The areas affected by the lockout are Kings Cross, Darling Hurst, Cockle Bay, and the Rocks. Guess where all the gay bars and clubs are? Inside the lockout zone. The fight for equality is not over. We are still being cornered and seen as a threat in many places.
After Mardi Gras’ official pool party I posted these two pictures on my Facebook…
A friend that I love and deeply admire made a comment addressing the lack of diversity in the pictures I had posted.
Then our float parade video went viral with 2 million views, a thread of hateful comments had caused discussions between our groups. This opened a gate to a topic that I don’t feel I have the expertise to address, and that is okay. We need to address our discomfort in order to start making a difference. It is okay to not have the answers. But it is important that we ask questions without bringing each other down. How can we make our group and other Mardi Gras floats more diverse?
Maybe this is what felt wrong that day. Does mainstream media celebrate us as long as we maintain a cis standard white image? The parade did feel like a pop entertainment event, from us to them. Does having fun and entertaining in a parade cancel the purpose behind it? What is the message we’re sending by dancing surrounded by beautiful, ripped guys among glitter, confetti, and fireworks? Isn’t showing my radical self-expression, and kissing a boy in public a political statement in itself? To be political, does one have to be violent?
And right then, when I was questioning everything, this message, along with many others, was sent to our Burning Man group in regards to our viral float video:
“You bring so much joy to us! In our land m2m is unlawful and so we watch you and get wind beneath our wings of hope…” –Hakuna Mtu
Representation does matter but one type doesn’t have to cancel the other. There’s enough space underneath our rainbow for as many colors our individual selves shine up. Yes, we have work to do, but we need to fight together and not bring each other down. Question each other, open discussions, but always address the other with love and respect.
There’s always more space for improvement, we can always be more inclusive, listen more, love more. The parade was a joyful experience I will never forget, you can still find glitter all over my house and bed sheets. But I know that being gay and queer is way more than glitter and joy… it is history… let us not forget.