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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.1-2 (2002) 81-99

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Mardi Gras Tourism and the Construction of Sydney as an International Gay and Lesbian City

Kevin Markwell

The capital of New South Wales is the oldest and largest city in Australia, and probably its best known. It is a vivid, busy, brash semi-tropical city built around the spectacular Sydney Harbour with its famous icons of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It has a large gay and lesbian community which holds international standing particularly through the world-famous Mardi Gras held each year at the end of February. 600,000 people watched the 1993 Parade and 20,000 people partied till dawn (and much later) in the spectacular costume party, the world's largest gay party. A visit to Mardi Gras is an absolute once-in-a-lifetime must for every gay travelling man. . . . Sydney is the gay capital of the South Pacific.

--Bruno Gmunder, Spartacus: International Gay Guide (1995)

The recent emergence of Sydney as the "gay capital of the South Pacific" and as an important destination in the itineraries of lesbian and gay tourists has been closely tied to the growth and development of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and to the concomitant expansion and rapid diversification of the Australian gay and lesbian tourism industry, especially since the early 1990s. 1 Beginning as an evening street parade following a day of political protest in 1978--a local commemoration of the New York Stonewall riots at a time when male homosexual acts [End Page 81] were illegal in New South Wales--and ending that day in a civil riot with at least fifty-three arrests, Mardi Gras has grown into a three-week international cultural festival that was estimated to have generated some AU$99 million (U.S.$55 million) in 1998 and that seems to attract more tourists to the nation than any other special event, as well as garnering the support of various corporate and government sponsors. 2 This essay examines the contribution that Mardi Gras has made to the construction of Sydney as a world-class gay and lesbian city, a city that has changed from an industrial port to a cosmopolitan, global capital increasingly dependent, for the last two to three decades, on an economy driven by consumption and leisure. 3 In particular, I will focus on the tensions that result from the competing demands placed on Mardi Gras by the needs and desires of its diverse gay and lesbian constituency and from the demands of global capital exercised through the gay and lesbian tourism industry. I will also show that Sydney's treatment of its gay and lesbian citizens has been and continues to be deeply contradictory. Mardi Gras itself is a site where some of these contradictions are played out.

Although an emerging literature (albeit a limited one) focuses on aspects of gay male tourism, little has been published that specifically concerns lesbians and tourism. Lesbians have been mentioned in journal articles by Briavel Holcomb and Michael Luongo and by Annette Pritchard, Nigel Morgan, and Diane Sedgely, but the social factors that constrain lesbians' participation in tourism and the particular experiences of lesbian tourists are not discussed in any publication examined for the preparation of this essay. 4 This bias toward gay men reflects in part a trend in tourism studies that privileges the experiences of men over women, as well as the reluctance on the part of many social scientists to examine tourism critically as a social and cultural phenomenon. 5 Several publications have focused on gay men also because they are concerned with HIV/AIDS and its relationship with tourism practices and experiences. Finally, research into gay tourism may be more male-centered because a more developed, better organized tourism industry caters to men than to women.

While international tourism is a globalizing force par excellence that involves the "international movement of people, international payments, cross-fertilization of culture, and international...


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