Trade Union Involvement in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: A Lesbian Perspective

By Askew, Karen | Hecate, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Trade Union Involvement in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: A Lesbian Perspective


Askew, Karen, Hecate


Trade Union Involvement in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: A Lesbian Perspective

Lesbian and gay workers are employed in every industry and profession, each of which has its own separate industrial and union history. In NSW, before the Mardi Gras and before the NSW Anti Discrimination Act (1977) was amended to include protection for lesbians and gay men (1982), the oppression of the closet was an oppression shared by lesbians and gays in their working lives. They formed a vulnerable minority in the work force and needed protection from homophobia.

Protecting a career for a lesbian meant concealing her life. In the employer's eyes she was a working, single, childless woman. She was a lesbian only after working hours. In the workplace, from necessity, lesbians actively contributed to their own invisibility. Lesbians, historically have mostly worked, closeted, in traditional women's occupations -- nursing, social work, teaching/education, and the military as a few examples. They tend to need long-term, career-based employment to support a bread-winning, husband-free lifestyle. The unions that support these industries have, from the rank and file through to branch secretaries, a largely invisible lesbian membership. Ironically, these industries are often exempt from some sections of anti-discrimination legislation. It was not until 1992 that the defence forces removed a ban on homosexuals serving in the military. Religious employer groups, however, continue to invoke their anti-discrimination exemptions in relation to lesbians and gays in their workplaces. The culture of the closet still exists. Many lesbians in these industries now find that the workplace is the only place where they still need to stay in the closet. Private sector employers, if prone to discriminatory practises, are likely to disguise discriminatory behaviour by concealing it in other issues. Government departments are generally the most likely workplaces to allow open identification by gay and lesbian workers.

The culture of the closet was not restricted to work situations. For many lesbians and gay men, the culture of the closet was an artform; an oppression that pervaded many areas of their lives: family, friends, neighbours, landlords, Family Law Courts, wills and estates, workmates and employers. Usually, the workplace closet was absolute, sometimes complete with mythical heterosexual relationships -- just to keep them guessing.

The lesbian demographic within unions' membership was equally well hidden, but the philosophy and ideals of the unions offered the only possible workplace protection. Lesbian and Gay political activism in Sydney pre-dates the first Mardi Gras and was a kind of extra-curricular activity after-hours for many lesbian and gay union members/activists.

It is no historical accident that many of the initial meetings and discussions of the first Mardi Gras Parades revolved around venues such as the Trade Union Club (formerly in Foveaux Street, Surrey Hills), Stella Maressa's Sussex Hotel which was around the corner from Sydney's Trades Hall, and the offices of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), which shared floor space with the former Theatrical Employees' Union in Glebe Point Road. Liberation from the closets -- all of them, not just at work, was the aim.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade has its roots in a political demonstration in the winter of 1978. The first parade ended in a riot with the arrest of 53 activists. Following the arrests, the Sydney Morning Herald published the names, addresses, and occupations of those arrested. The Herald attempted to justify the publication of this information in an editorial entitled: `The Risks of Silence,' after winning a case taken to the Australian Press Council over the matter. This invasion of privacy resulted in the irrevocable `outing' of those arrested. Outed to family, friends, landlords and employers, many suffered personal harassment and lost housing and employment. …

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