Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Tackles Homophobia

Elyse Villani and Alex BlackwellElyse Villani and Alex Blackwell

Big names in Australian sport were cheered by the crowds as they helped shine a spotlight on homophobia at Saturday’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Over a dozen elite, professional athletes led this weekend’s parade, including Aussie Rules, Rugby, Cricket, Soccer, and Olympic LGBTI athletes.

The Mardi Gras parade is one of the largest gay events in the world. Nearly 10,000 people took part in the parade watched by hundreds of thousands of people in person and many more through a national TV broadcast.

The first three floats of the parade were dedicated to highlighting: the success of elite gay athletes; the commitment by  the major Australian professional sports  to promote a more diverse and inclusive sporting environment; and the international success of the Sydney Convicts, who last year won the Bingham Cup, the world cup of gay rugby.

“More than any other nation, Australians admire and are influenced by their sporting heroes. The example set by great sports men and women in denouncing homophobia is a powerful weapon against this irrational and vicious prejudice, as is their support for campaigns which aim to eradicate discrimination forever,” said Ignatius Jones, Mardi Gras’ senior parade creative. “This fight against discrimination in sport is part of the great civil rights struggle that Sydney’s Mardi Gras has led in Australia for 37 years. As long as even one gay or lesbian kid is afraid to play sport, one of Australia’s defining activities, for fear of being denounced as a dyke or a poof, Mardi Gras has a purpose. And as long as even one teenager is so desperate that they voluntarily end their lives because they are gay or lesbian, Mardi Gras is relevant.”

The float, carrying the elite athletes showcased the logos of the five major sports that signed the joint, historic commitment organized by Bingham Cup Sydney last April to eliminate homophobia: National Rugby League, Australian Football League, Australian Rugby Union, Football Federation of Australia and Cricket Australia. The elite straight ‘athlete allies’ on the float stood alongside well-known LGBTI athletes. It was the first time Olympic Gold Medalist Daniel Kowalski takes part in the Mardi Gras parade. He was joined by Matthew Mitcham (Olympic Diving) and Jai Wallace (Olympic Trampoline).

It was also the first time Alex Blackwell was in the parade. Blackwell is one of the most successful openly gay athletes in the world. The Vice-Captain of Australia’s national female cricket team also captained her state team for 10 consecutive Australian national championships. Blackwell was supported in the parade by fellow cricketers Elyse Villani and Greg Matthews.

“It was very exciting to be part in the parade as a proud, gay Australian athlete and stand beside some wonderful straight allies. I think one of the best ways to combat discrimination is for LGBTI athletes and their allies to be visible. Coming out is a very personal choice, but I was able to summon the courage to come out myself because I had role models who came out before me. I hope this float sends a message to all athletes that everyone should be welcome in sport regardless of their sexuality,” said Blackwell.

Aussie Rules football (AFL), Australia’s most watched sport, had numerous high-profile LGBTI allies in the parade: Sydney Swans Mike Pyke, Nick Smith and Heath Grundy. Swans ruckman, Mike Pyke, said, “Mardi Gras is a huge part of Sydney’s culture and we are excited to be part of it. Equality right throughout the community and in sport is something we should all strive for. We think the Swans provide a really inclusive environment for fans at our games and we know we have significant support from the LGBTI community. This is just another way of getting the message across that professional sport encourages an inclusive environment.”

(L-R) Sydney Swans Nick Smith, Heath Grundy and Mike Pyke, and Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham prior to boarding the Anti-Homophobia in Sport float at Mardi Gras Sydney, March 07, 2015. The Lead float in this year's Mardi Gras features high-profile Australian sports identities from across several sports.(L-R) Sydney Swans Nick Smith, Heath Grundy and Mike Pyke, and Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham prior to boarding the Anti-Homophobia in Sport float at Mardi Gras Sydney, March 07, 2015. The Lead float in this year’s Mardi Gras features high-profile Australian sports identities from across several sports.

The first three floats were dedicated to sport. The LGBTI Olympians and Alex Blackwell were in cars immediately ahead of a float carrying the elite athletes and the logos of the five major sports who signed the commitment last year to eliminate homophobia. This truck was followed by another carrying a human ‘Bingham Cup’ the world cup of gay rugby which the Sydney Convicts (Australia’s first gay rugby union club) won last year in Sydney. Dancers coated in silver danced on platforms in the shape of the cup. This float was followed by nearly 500 marchers and dancers from the various gay rugby clubs in Australia and other LGBTI sporting organizations in Sydney.

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