SYDNEY, Australia >> They were there for the Sissy Ball, a vogue-style dance-off that was last weekend’s contribution to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, a two-week gay pride festival that will culminate in a parade Saturday.
But as dozens of gay and transgender dancers popped and sashayed on the catwalk before a cheering crowd, the ball’s master of ceremonies reminded everyone what made the bash possible.
“Shout out to Red Bull!” he yelled.
Red Bull, the energy drink producer, is one of dozens of companies sponsoring and participating in Mardi Gras this year. Others include Netflix, Absolut, Airbnb and Tinder. The retail bank ANZ has decorated automated teller machines around Sydney, which it calls “GAYTMs.”
Just a few months after Australia legalized same-sex marriage, the corporate vibe is stirring up a new — or at least revived — debate about the coupling of politics and commercialism.
Organizers see corporate involvement as a sign of increased acceptance, an acknowledgment of gays’ spending power and necessary to keeping the festival alive and growing. But critics contend that corporatizing the event risks losing its activist roots and community spirit.
Corporations spent more than 1.2 million Australian dollars, about $950,000, on Mardi Gras in 2017, more than double the amount in 2007, according to event organizers. Ten percent of the floats in this year’s parade will be sponsored by corporate partners, they said.
And the inclusion of so many corporations has come at the expense of grass-roots activists and longtime participants. Gay Sydney Australia, a community organization, was denied a spot in the parade because of the many floats, and a teachers organization was allowed to march only after a petition was circulated.
“The sad thing is, the big companies got in,” said Daniel Matatahi, founder of Gay Sydney Australia, which was excluded despite marching for the past three years. “Netflix! How the hell did they get in? They have money. They’ve never been part of our community, never.”
This is a big year for Sydney’s Mardi Gras, which is commemorating its 40th anniversary, and an even bigger year for the country’s gays and lesbians. In December, Australia legalized same-sex marriage after an overwhelming number of citizens supported the measure in a nationwide survey.
But that acceptance did not come easily.
The first Mardi Gras took place in Sydney in 1978. Gays and lesbians, many of them out publicly for the first time, took to the streets for a pride parade. Police officers surrounded the marchers and arrested 53 people, in some cases using excessive force.
“We were not supposed to be seen, we were expected to hide who we were,” said Mark Gillespie, 65, reflecting on that first parade.
For him, political activism, not mainstream acceptance, is at the core of the event.
But today, Mardi Gras is a hugely popular — and visible — staple on Sydney’s cultural calendar. There are family-friendly carnivals, a film festival and a sold-out after-party headlined by Cher.
About 300,000 people are expected to attend this year’s parade.
In the past, advertisers kept their distance from the whole festival, which one Sydney minister in 1989 called a “moral sewer of the Pacific.”
Back then, corporations “didn’t want to know us,” said Tracey Atkinson, 60. “Now we’re the darlings of the free world.”
The legalization of same-sex marriage last year put gays further in the spotlight, and advertisers are hoping to capitalize on that exposure. But more than just a onetime marketing play, businesses are increasingly aware of the gay community’s consumer power and directing advertising toward it.
A 2016 study by marketing agency Out Now estimates the annual spending power of Australia’s LGBT community at more than $57 billion. Australian same-sex couples are likely to have higher personal incomes than those in heterosexual relationships, according to the 2016 census.
“Mardi Gras is a community initiative, and it’s a wonderful way to raise awareness and celebrate,” said Vanessa Hicks, a spokeswoman for Vodafone Australia, the mobile phone network sponsoring the event. “For us as a business, we see this as a natural way to connect with that environment.”
The event’s organizer says corporate interest is a sign of progress and acceptance. In order to participate, said Terese Casu, the Mardi Gras chief executive, businesses are required to have their own inclusion and diversity initiatives in place.
“The work that corporations are doing is not token,” Casu said. “It’s absolutely authentic and it’s genuine, and if it isn’t, they’re not with Mardi Gras.”
Google is one of the many companies proudly promoting their involvement this year. A Google grant program, combined with funds from the festival, contributed $63,000 for community floats.
One of those grant recipients, Giti Datt, 33, is marching in the parade for the first time. Her float’s theme is a gay Indian wedding.
“I was just crying and shaking,” Datt said of learning that her float would be included in the parade. “I think we have an opportunity to be visible. And that’s a way that we can change.”