Mardis Gras Fracas: No Pride In Detention Makes No Apology For Marching For Nima And Ashkan


The organisers of a Mardi Gras float threatened with expulsion after protesting refugee policies behind a Bill Shorten press conference remains defiantly unapologetic. Amy Thomas and Ed McMahon explain.

Our small organising group for the No Pride in Detention float at this year’s Mardi Gras didn’t anticipate the controversy that has surrounded us in the aftermath. But we’re thankful that it has drawn attention to the campaign against refugee detention, and at the same time, raised a debate about what Mardi Gras should be all about.

Our float, one of the best attended in the parade, was forced to move several places behind Rainbow Labor at the last minute, after we’d initially been scheduled to march behind them. This unexpected shake up followed an abusive confrontation by Mardi Gras staff, who threatened us with expulsion.

Mardi Gras claims they were acting on reports from police. But there’s a circular blame game going on. The police claim they were acting on reports from an unspecified source. Bill Shorten’s office has denied involvement.

It is remarkable that in the very same week the NSW police were forced to apologise for their infamous mistreatment of the first Mardi Gras parade-makers, the 78ers, today’s organisers were so willing to so blindly trust the police’s word.

And it’s also remarkable that Mardi Gras has “stood by” their public abuse of a young queer activist.

The truth is, there was no assault or harassment towards the Labor float. There is no evidence of it, because none exists.

The only possible event they could be referring to was a peaceful protest at Bill Shorten’s press conference. Yes, we stood behind Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek as they spoke to journalists. Yes, we chanted “we’re here, we’re queer, refugees are welcome here”. Yes, we held up signs, with slogans like “Unionists for Refugees” and “14 years imprisonment for homosexuality on Manus and Nauru”.

We’re glad we did so.

If Malcolm Turnbull hadn’t made such a selective appearance, we can assure you, we wouldn’t have let him get away with it, either. It was Turnbull, and his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the current overseers of the camps, that featured in our signs and our chants.

We were not marching in the parade to attack Rainbow Labor, and especially not Labor members, many of whom we know support our cause. We certainly had no plans to disrupt their float. Nor do we reject Shorten’s newfound anti-homophobia (better late than never).

We aimed, simply, to march, dance and chant behind them in a display of support for refugees and asylum seekers.

We make no apology for our determination to both campaign against the current Turnbull government’s offshore processing and detention regime, and to challenge Labor’s acquiescence to it.

Our determination to use our platform in the parade to fight for social change represents what Mardi Gras should be — or at least, used to be — that is, a protest.

Our float’s solidarity with refugees is in fitting with tradition. In 1978, one of the key chants was “stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks”. That’s why ‘78ers are writing to us to express their support for what we did.

Behind the mini media firestorm over the treatment of our float is something so much more scandalous and sinister, and that’s the bipartisan policies of cruelty acted out every day on Manus, Nauru and throughout the detention network.

Instead of marching with us in Mardi Gras, a gay refugee couple, Nima and Ashkan, were locked in their home on Nauru, where they live in fear.

Nima fled Iran because he couldn’t live in safety or peace as a gay man. He disclosed his sexuality to the Australian government. And although he has been found to be a refugee, he has been ‘resettled’ in Nauru, a country were homosexuality is illegal, and punishable with 14 years imprisonment and hard labour.

new matilda, nauru
Final approach, flying into Nauru. (IMAGE: Tatters ❀, Flickr)

He fell in love in detention with another asylum seeker, Ashkan. But instead of being able to live freely as a couple in love, establishing a new life, they can only leave their home once a week, and even then only with company. After beatings and abuse, they’re scared for their safety and anxious about their uncertain future.

We know Nima and Ashkan by name, but there are many more like them who we do not know. Of the single men on Manus Island, reports estimate that there may be 50 gay men amongst the asylum seekers. Some allege that staff report homosexual activity to authorities. The punishment, as on Nauru, is up to 14 years behind bars.

LGBT and queer refugees are put in an invidious position. Often, the success of a refugee claim about sexuality rests on the asylum seeker being able to ‘prove’ their sexuality (and by narrow Western stereotypes about gay and lesbian lifestyles).

And yet, offshore processing places them in a situation where being out of the closet and living that sexuality puts them in danger. We know that the Salvation Army presented refugees on Nauru with a slide advising them that homosexuality was illegal and to obey local laws. Nima and Ashkan allege they were told the same by Australian authorities.

If politicians profess to support the right of LGBT and queer people in Australia to marry whom they choose, and to be safe from bullying and harassment in our schools, what about those same rights when it comes to refugees, and that same safety?

Australian authorities have also said that Nima and Ashkan can go to Cambodia. But just this week it has been revealed that an Iranian couple who were ‘resettled’ there have felt forced to return home. A Rohingya man has even returned back to Myanmar, the site of mass killings of his people, instead of Cambodia. It’s an expensive and appalling joke.

There is one place Nima and Ashkan and all the refugees can be resettled in peace and safety, and that’s Australia.

No Pride in Detention is just one part of a nation-wide movement for refugee rights that is growing in all sections of society. We’re proud to have drawn attention to what LGBT and queer refugees face, but we know that the camps and detention centres are not safe for anyone. We know it is a lie that ‘stopping the boats’ is about ‘saving lives at sea’ when our politicians are so willing to destroy the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in detention.

A #LetThemStay protest in Sydney. (IMAGE: Andrew Hill, flickr).
A #LetThemStay protest in Sydney. (IMAGE: Andrew Hill, flickr).

The #LetThemStay campaign, and in particular, the stand by the Lady Cilento hospital workers to defend baby Asha, has electrified the movement. Together, and especially thanks to the support of workers and the union movement, we’ve been able to keep baby Asha here — and so far, all 267 asylum seekers and refugees the government wants to send back to Nauru.

Thousands will march nationwide on Palm Sunday calling for Justice for Refugees. We’ll be there and we hope thousands more, including Labor members, will be there too.

Mardi Gras needs to ask what kind of parade it wants to be. Does it want to be a real protest platform for those rights that are yet to be won? Does it want to stand for the most vulnerable, like Nima and Ashkan? Or does it want instead to become a politically safe parade that puts the comfort of corporate donors and the publicity-seeking of politicians ahead of calls for justice and freedom?

In the end, our march in the parade was a triumphant one. It was a moving and affirming experience to have throngs of people in the huge crowd greet us with so much recognition and enthusiasm.

They joined in our chants, gave us the thumbs up, nodded their heads, and showed us what side they were on.

Mardi Gras would do well to choose it, too. History will show it’s the right one.

Ed McMahon is an organiser of No Pride in Detention. He is an activist and currently studying a Masters of Law at the University of Sydney. Amy Thomas is an organiser of No Pride in Detention. She is an activist, and PhD candidate and tutor at the University of Technology Sydney.