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Religion And Sexuality Can Finally March As One

We've come a long way, but we still need support.

04/03/2017 6:15 AM AEDT | Updated 04/03/2017 6:17 AM AEDT

I remember the first Mardi Gras. It was 1978, and it was a different world back then. The march was just a few hundred gays, lesbians and drag queens out to celebrate their identity. The police responded with violence, as was often the way in those days when it came to gay rights. A number of people were badly injured. Fifty-three people were arrested, and their names were published in Sydney Morning Herald.

The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images
Homosexuals demonstrate in what would evolve into the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 1978.

Remember, it wasn't until 1984 that homosexual sex was decriminalised in NSW. It wasn't even just against the law -- back then people thought homosexuality was a mental illness, and against the will of God. I remember entering a gay bar as a young woman and it was so hidden and so secret that it felt like I had landed on another planet. Being publically 'outed' could destroy your family and your career -- and for some of the 78ers, it did.

Since that night in 1978, we've seen immense social change. Over the past nearly 40 years the Mardi Gras has turned into a huge celebration, known across the world. Last year there were more than 12,000 participants, 170 fabulous floats, and 300,000 spectators. The Mardi Gras has a lot of love and support from the community now, and plenty of straight people come to show their support and join the party.

The fact that we have a large annual parade with faith-based groups, police, corporations and more all marching together shows broad acceptance.

These days the police don't oppose us or threaten us -- they march with us. In fact, the NSW Police, NSW Parliament and Fairfax (publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald) apologised last year. This was deeply meaningful for the people who were injured, arrested and outed in 1978. Apologies and forgiveness are critical for healing.

I love that the Mardi Gras is now a celebration of this change and acceptance. However, we can't forget that despite this very public celebration of LGBTQ communities, there are still people who struggle at a family level. Even though the world has changed, at a personal level, telling Mum and Dad can still be traumatic.

LGBTQ people from certain cultural or religious backgrounds often have trouble with acceptance from their families and communities. Homosexual relations are still illegal in 74 countries and can be punishable by death in a dozen of these... Imagine 'coming out' if that was your cultural background! Many religious groups the world over still fiercely condemn homosexuality.

The fact that we have a large annual parade with faith-based groups, police, corporations and more all marching together shows broad acceptance. It sends a message to families and communities that this is normal, and that does help. Every year I march in the Mardi Gras I see that, little by little, there are more multicultural and religious groups marching. This mainstream event creates a safe, friendly and supportive space for people from these backgrounds to begin their journey to acceptance.

People with a disability face multiple challenges too, and can be dependent on a carer to facilitate their socialising, style of dress and -- ultimately -- whether or not they are able to freely express their sexuality. Last year I marched with Emily Dash, a young writer, actor and motivational speaker living with cerebral palsy. She was in a wheelchair, of course, and all dressed up for the Mardi Gras. There was such warmth from the crowd. It was wonderful to see her so happy, and see her break through the invisibility that people with a disability often seem to have. That night she demonstrated everyone can celebrate their sexuality -- they can dress up, go out, and be sexy!

Pacific Press via Getty Images
Participants take part in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade along Oxford Street in Sydney in 2016. More than a quarter of a million spectators watched 200 floats and more than 10,000 marchers in the 38th annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

Older people can also face barriers. These are people who grew up at a time when they were told, over and over, that their sexuality was illegal, an affront to God, and a mental illness. Growing up in a world like that leaves deep scars. If these people move into aged care, they don't know if they will face the same discrimination they used to, or have to go through the ordeal of 'coming out' all over again.

That's why I'm excited to be marching in this year's Mardi Gras with Uniting, under the banner of 'Love is Power'. Last year we focused on supporting LGBTQ seniors; this year we're marching for everyone who might still be marginalised in the fight for equality -- people of different religions and cultural backgrounds, people living with a disability, and seniors.

It's wonderful to see this changing and to see faith-based groups stand up and say that LGBTQ people are created in the image of God and our relationships are valid.

To have a faith-based organisation marching is wonderful. To have Uniting say to clients and staff that they will all be embraced, and they will not be embarrassed or shamed or discriminated against because of their sexuality, makes me weep with joy.

I went to an Anglican girl's school when I was young. Back then our social lives revolved around the church, which was perfectly normal in the '50s and '60s -- but the church had only negative things to say about homosexuality. For me, as a lesbian, the idea that it was against God's will was very hard for me personally. It's wonderful to see this changing and to see faith-based groups stand up and say that LGBTQ people are created in the image of God and our relationships are valid.

When I march next week this will be the first time I am able to embrace both my faith and my sexuality at the Mardi Gras.

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