Sydney’s WorldPride Party Masks Tough Truths for LGBTQ Workers

Hordes of revelers decked in hot pants and glitter are descending on Sydney for a 17-day party as WorldPride celebrates the LGBTQ community in events from massive street parties to a colorful march across the city’s iconic harbor bridge.

(Bloomberg) — Hordes of revelers decked in hot pants and glitter are descending on Sydney for a 17-day party as WorldPride celebrates the LGBTQ community in events from massive street parties to a colorful march across the city’s iconic harbor bridge. 

Instagram feeds will be flowing with images of a city proudly representing one of the most tolerant nations in the Asia Pacific region for same-sex relations. However, the rainbow-lined streets and rush of corporate sponsors like American Express Co. and Coles Group Ltd. to stamp their names on the party mask some uncomfortable truths about equality in Australia.

Around five years after the nation voted to legalize same-sex marriage in a contentious ballot, the impact of the bruising “no” campaign in which opponents openly voiced their prejudices is still being felt. More than 60% of LGBTQ workers hide their sexuality to some extent, and the portion has increased for at least the past two years, the 2022 Australian Workplace Equality Index shows. 

Hannah Roberts, a 30-year-old Sydneysider, who’s had jobs in sectors from fine art to law, said she’s only felt able to reveal her sexuality in her current role at a homeware and jewelry store, where she’s been for the past 18 months.

“There are definitely elements of judgment and discrimination that I have been worried about,” said Roberts, who identifies as pansexual, meaning she’s attracted to a person regardless of their gender. “It definitely held me back from sharing authentically.” 

While Australia is now a largely welcoming place for LGBTQ people to live and visit, prejudice around sexuality and gender still persist in a masculine culture that celebrates the “Aussie bloke.” The country languishes at 43rd place in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index, and fed up women were a key factor in the conservative Liberal-National government’s election loss last year.

Previous prime minister Scott Morrison was forced to withdraw anti-religious discrimination legislation last year that could have let schools fire teachers based on their sexuality and discriminate against some LGBTQ students, following a rebellion from some of his law makers. The new Labor government has still committed to introducing a revised version of the law at a later date.

Big Sponsors

WorldPride was first held in Rome in 2000 and is usually held every two to three years. Around a half-million people are expected to join 300 events in Sydney from Friday, and the festival should rake in about A$112 million ($77 million) for the local economy, according to the New South Wales government. This year’s event is sponsored by a long list of companies, with financial services giant American Express as a principal partner. 

Still, the increased commercialization of Mardi Gras has long been a sore point for members of the LGBTQ community, with some criticizing the festival for neglecting its roots as a provocative protest. Almost a fifth of respondents in a 2021 survey by organizers found it problematic.

“We believe unique perspectives, backgrounds and experiences are critical to the diversity of communities and the success of businesses,” said Corrina Davison, American Express’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand. “This partnership demonstrates our unwavering commitment to backing the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Sponsorship and public funding ensures that Mardi Gras and other WorldPride events remain free and accessible, and that the people who work to make them happen are paid, according to Kate Wickett, Chief Executive Officer of Sydney WorldPride. “Our partners are there for all of the year, not just when there’s glitter and glam and the camera’s out,” she said in an interview.

Traumatic Past

Robyn Kennedy was one of the original activists who gathered in 1978 to stage the first Sydney Mardi Gras parade, which quickly turned into a riot when hostile police started making arrests. Much has changed since then, when homosexuality was illegal and you could be sacked from your job for being gay.

“In Australia we’ve achieved a lot since the early days of the pride community going right back to 1970,” said Kennedy, who has a long history of LGBTQ and human rights activism. “There’s been law reform, there’s a greater sense of openness and freedom. But things are still not where they need to be in terms of full equality.”

Laws discriminating against the gay community have gradually been repealed in Australia over the decades, with Tasmania the final state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1997. Same-sex couples have been recognized in legally binding relationships for more than a decade. 

Many of Australia’s biggest companies have also in recent years dedicated resources to making their workforces more inclusive for LGBTQ staff members. 

“We’ve recognized for a very long period of time that our future of our business relies on continuing to embrace the benefits of a more diverse workforce,” Antony Shaw, CEO of HSBC Australia, said in an interview. 

Some 15,000 HSBC employees around the world are now members of internal Pride groups, said Shaw. The groups helped drive an initiative to introduce pronoun badges for employees in the UK last year to show solidarity with LGBTQ communities. 

Supermarket giant Coles says around 10% of its employees identify as LGBTQ+, and proudly boasts a store manager who’s also a drag queen.

Kennedy welcomes the event’s sponsors, as long as the firms have strong diversity policies in place. For her, on the 45th anniversary of a parade that largely defined much of her life, it’s more important that the global community’s traumatic history is remembered by future generations.

“I also think we do have to celebrate, because for so many years it was so horrible,” said Kennedy. “But we have the opportunity now to be joyous and have a good time. We earned it.”

–With assistance from Ben Westcott.

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