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A Decade in the Making: My First Mardi Gras

By Hannah Wahlsten,WA LGBTQI Rights Network Convener

Over a decade ago before I came out to my family, before I became a LGBTQI activist, I watched the Mardi Gras parade on the television in my home and wished for the chance to be amongst the people that lined the streets.

All those years ago, I never believed that one day I would not only get my wish but that I’d walking in Mardi Gras alongside fellow Amnesty activists.

Last year was busy with campaigning in my community for marriage equality and broader rights for LGBTQI people. When I received the news that I was going to Sydney to attend Mardi Gras on behalf of Amnesty International WA LGBTQI Network, I was incredibly honoured with some very teenaged excitement thrown in. Yet it wasn’t until I was sitting in the Perth Airport at 5:00 AM on Saturday morning that it really hit me where I was going (not even as I packed my rainbow socks, suspenders and tutu) that for the first time I was going to Mardi Gras.

Hannah (second from left) with staff and SANT activist Vincent at Mardi Gras © Andy Miller Imaginarium Photography

My only experience previously with LGBTQI parades had been campaigning at the Pride Parade in Perth, the energy and anticipation at the start is always an extraordinary feeling, and a feeling I love. Being at Mardi Gras and seeing the 200 floats with the thousands upon thousands of my fellow LGBTQI people all there to celebrate our community (with lots of glitter) gave me that same feeling only amplified onto a grander scale. Particularly this year of all years when all our years of campaigning had finally culminated in Marriage Equality becoming law.

This is not the end. Defend Equality 

As we were the last float on the parade I had the opportunity to watch part of the parade with the rest of the crowd, finding an excellent spot to watch thanks to some of the wonderful Amnesty International NSW activists. Who, upon discovering it was my first Mardi Gras ensured I got the most out of it, with them I got to laugh, smile, cheer on the other groups and fill my heart with the extraordinary amount of love I felt for my community and reminding me why I continue to fight.

AIA Chair and National Director at Mardi Gras © Andy Miller Imaginarium Photography

Then it was our turn, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest to the beat of the music playing from the speakers in front of us as I moved onto the parade route with my fellow banner carriers and helpers. The music moving us as we danced along the route carrying the banner displaying our message “This is not the End. Defend Equality”.  

It was a message that reminded us that while we have won the battle of Marriage Equality there are many battles that we still need to fight. It reminds us that there are communities such as the Transgender community, the Intersex Community, LGBTQI Refugees and our beautiful LGBTQI Indigenous community that still have fights ahead and that we need to stand with them so that no one is left behind.

Lizzi and Nancy from AIA NSW LGBTQI Network
© Andy Miller Imaginarium Photography

We are honored to stand on the shoulders of the brave activists who came before us, like the 78’ers, who’s moving story was featured in the recent short telemovie ABC Riot. I was honored to see some of them in attendance, waving Refugees welcome signs. But we know for our community the fight does not end here. Amnesty International has always stood alongside our community, having marched every year since Mardi Gras began in 78 as a protest and this being the 20th year the Amnesty float was organised by activists.

It is so important we continue this fight, with recent cases like this January when police in Aceh Province Indonesia raided five beauty salons – a common workplace for transgender women in Indonesia – and arrested 12 people they assumed to be transgender women. We need to take action and stand with those abused because of their LGBTQI status and continue to stand in solidarity.

© Andy Miller Imaginarium Photography

As I marched, I was filled with a wonderful warmth (that only got larger), as we danced covered in glitter, down the street. I was so amazed that I was actually there cheering, laughing, dancing with all these other wonderful activists, some who had done this many times before, others who had never attended like me and ones who like me had travelled a great distance to be there. We had International representatives with us, alongside myself from Western Australia and a wonderful fellow activist from South Australia, all of us there together. But I know we cannot forget our LGBTQI brothers and sisters who still cannot live freely.

The next day as I sat in Sydney’s Domestic Terminal waiting to board my flight home with glitter still in my hair, the inspiration and energy from the night before still filled me, re energising me for the battles to come.

Mardi Gras was an experience more than ten years in the making and was worth every moment I waited.

Get involved with Amnesty International LGBTQI Network here

A big thank you to the NSW LGBTQI Network who has been organising AIA presence in Mardi Gras for the last 20 years. In particular to Lizzi Price, Robin Millar and Nancy Mills. We would not be as bright without you!