In its 32nd year, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has become a bonanza for Sydney. This year’s parade attracted record crowds according to the event’s organisers and injected an estimated $29 million into the local economy. From its small and controversial beginnings, the event has well and truly become "mainstream".
Amid the massive crowds and amazing costumes, it is easy to forget that the first Mardi Gras, held in June 1978, was linked to a day of protest against police harassment and violence. On that day in June, the organisers had obtained permission to march, but it was later revoked. The police response was to violently break up the march and arrest 53 people. Afterwards, the Sydney Morning Herald published the names, addresses and jobs of those arrested, and as homosexuality was still a crime in New South Wales until 1984, many of those who were named lost their jobs.
I recently met someone who was beaten at that march. He spoke to me of the trauma of being abused as a "poofta" and "faggot" while two or three police officers shoved and kicked him.
It would be comforting to think that in 2010, when events such as Mardi Gras are attended by a broad cross-section of the community, these hate crimes are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
The ongoing problem of homophobic violence in greater western Sydney was the focus of a forum at the University of Western Sydney last week called "Being Out West". The forum, which I chaired, discussed homophobic violence as well as the inadequate response of police to many homophobic crimes.
So, away from the bright lights and sparkly outfits of Mardi Gras, what is the state of homophobic violence in Sydney?
In 2003 the NSW Attorney General’s department published a report called You shouldn’t have to hide to be safe. Even a quick glance at the figures in the report reveals some disturbing facts. More than half of the respondents interviewed had experienced one or more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence in the preceding 12-month period. Eighty-five per cent had at some time experienced such abuse, harassment or violence.
Interestingly, some 50 per cent of respondents lived in the inner city, with only 14 per cent described as living "elsewhere in Sydney".
It was clear at the Being Out West forum that gay people who live in western Sydney do feel vulnerable. To be "out" in a suburb where this is a rarity is to confront and even break down prejudices. The unfortunate truth, however, is that if you are gay and live in the suburbs, you also risk violence. This vulnerability is accentuated because of a lack of accessible support services — despite the best efforts of some under-funded organisations, individuals and even local councils.
(This is not to say that the inner city is a refuge. We should not forget the violence that takes place away from the Mardi Gras media spotlight — it has even been reported that gay hate crimes increase during the event.)
So what is the human cost of such crimes? One of the speakers, Greg Harland, described a brutal attack on him and his partner. Greg was born and grew up in the west and continues to live in the Blacktown area. Last year a group of men yelling homophobic abuse assaulted him in Seven Hills using both steel poles and bottles. The men, who stalked Greg following an incident in the pub, caused extensive physical and psychological injuries.
The story does not get any better when the police arrived. Greg and his partner were treated with indifference and the case was given a low priority. It was only after it received media attention that the case was assigned to a senior detective and taken seriously — something that one of the other speakers at the forum, Donna Adney, who is local area commander at Surry Hills as well as the corporate spokesperson on GLBTI issues for the NSW Police Force, acknowledged and apologised for.
On the night of the forum, Greg noted that he had almost pulled out of the event at the last minute. He told the audience that both he and his partner continue to live in fear of further homophobic violence within their home suburb.
Donna Adney told the audience that gay hate crimes remain incredibly under-reported in NSW — only 30 were recorded during 2009. This is a figure that no-one believes to be accurate and is the result of past police indifference as well as the fact that many gay individuals do not want to have their details recorded.
So do Australians really embrace homosexuality, as the high turnout at the Mardi Gras parade would suggest? A 2005 Australia Institute study found sexual tolerance, overall, was relatively high in Australia. Based on broad ranging research data, the report found that over two-thirds of the Australian population reject the view that "homosexuality is immoral". Given the attitudes towards homosexuality were most negative among older Australians (and unsurprisingly, young males), the report noted that over time it is hoped that homophobia will continue to decline.
While these conclusions can be cautiously welcomed, we should not rely on hope alone to address what is a serious and ongoing problem. Further, we should never take for granted that things are going to miraculously "get better". If we do this, we lose our vigilance against hate and ignorance — and record crowds at the Mardi Gras parade can’t take the place of that.
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