Culture / People

A Mardi Gras 78er and a next generation activist in conversation ahead of WorldPride

rudy jean rigg

Before progress can be made, we must first make peace with our history. No one understands this better than Rudy Jean Rigg, a non-binary, autistic, trans teacher and one half of Rainbow History Class; the wildly popular account educating on everything from the origins of the binder to the history of the rainbow flag.

Ahead of Sydney WorldPride and the 45th Mardi Gras, RUSSH invited Rudy Jean Rigg to sit down with queer community elder, David Abello, a disability activist, academic and 78er, to discuss how Mardi Gras has transformed from a demonstration orchestrated by Abello into the celebration of pride we know it to be today. Below, they reflect on their experience growing up, the evolution of LGBTIQA+ activism, and Mardi Gras traditions.


What was the world like for you growing up?

David Abello: I'd love to say it was a much better place. We're accused of thinking that all the time, old people, but there were good things about it. And bad things.

I was exceptionally lucky. I came from a family where there were homosexuals and communists in every generation of the family the last five generations. My mother's uncle was gay. He was loved by my mother and he took her and her brothers and sisters in when their father died. So I grew up just being me; odd and unusual and accepted for the way I am.

Of course, it didn't make me immune from the real world and oppressive regimes: anti-homosexual thinking, sexist thinking. All of us were exposed to that in the past and in the present. But I was kind of lucky. Very few of my friends were that lucky. A lot of people didn't have that kind of family support. They were kicked out of home – there was quite a lot of homelessness at the time. People went through some quite traumatic experiences in separating from families. But at the time, my relationship with my family, it was quite unusual. It was good and supportive.

But like I said, I was not immune from the world. I wanted to do primary school teaching. So I did a Diploma of Primary Teaching, and I got reported for being homosexual about two months before I finished, and I got kicked out. So that's when I learned that it doesn't matter how good you are, if you're queer, that's it. I really thought that I would be such a good teacher it wouldn't matter if I was queer. So lots of things happened throughout my life, terrible things, traumatic things, for me and my loved ones.

Rudy Jean Rigg: I also had a really unique and unusual experience when compared to a lot of my peers and people I grew up around, or even people I'm meeting now and having learned about their experiences growing up.

I had a really supportive family. I also had queerness around me. So I never really went through the experience of feeling very isolated and very alone. My best friend of 15 years came out as trans when we were 14 or 15, and I unfortunately got to learn about some of the harsh realities of being queer through his experience. But aside from that, I think given the generational gap and the time that has passed between 1978 and now, a lot has changed but in some ways it hasn't.

I think sadly an inherent part of the queer experience is a very particular feeling of isolation that I think we all go through at some point in time. But that being said, I've never been kicked out of a job. I've never felt my livelihood has been threatened because of my queerness or transness. That is a privilege and it's something that's only come from people fighting for it. So things like that I don't take for granted at all.


David, what led you to protest on June 24, 1978?

DA: I joined the lesbian gay movement in 1975 just at the tail end of the gay liberation period. Gay liberation didn't last very long, about three years – pretty good for a radical social movement, that it didn't tear itself apart for a little while. So I was already involved in the community through that movement. I went to the first meeting that decided at the end to call itself Gay Solidarity Group and plan these events. The call came from the United States, Europe and Britain, particularly, who were facing attacks from right wing moralists. Attacks on gains that they had made in the previous few years and they could see these being lost. So the Americans called for an International Day of Homosexual Solidarity and that was on June 24 1978.

We had a march in the morning – that was the biggest march we'd ever had in Sydney. A queer march of 500 people doesn't sound much these days, but it was a lot. We didn't actually know about each other until we saw each other on the streets. That's when the Zionists started fighting with the Palestinians and the leather queens started picking fights with radical lesbians. I don't want to paint too bleak a picture, but that's when we became fully aware of our differences and that was a really powerful moment.

We had a do in the afternoon at Paddington Town Hall, a discussion about homosexual rights movements around the world; and we had our second meeting when some people from camp put up the idea of a Mardi Gras in the evening. So we went ahead and organised that. There were different views about whether it was safe, whether it was putting people in danger, would the men be sexist if they were dressing up? I actually supported it and voted for it because that was the first thing we'd ever done at night and I knew it would be a riot. That's sort of why I was there.

That started a whole year of campaigning around the charges being dropped from that event and the subsequent events. There were a lot of protests that people got arrested at through the year. So it was a very important time for solidarity. The Gay Solidarity Group's first thing was staffing the phones at camp for victims to ring up and get help. After that everything did change: the relationship between the police and us was exposed to the rest of the community. Some people say that the audio from that night – there was no TV news – caused quite a lot of concern and distress to people. So that first event did actually get us a lot of support by revealing how the police were. Our demands were around dropping those charges, but also ending discrimination at work, changing anti-homosexual laws.

I say homosexual a lot because in keeping with proper use of terminology, that's what lesbians and gay men generally called themselves early in the movement. There weren't a lot of transgender people there that night. There were a couple of Kings Cross locals who were just there on the night and got caught up in the thing. Later, a couple of transgender 78ers spoke about never feeling properly apart of that community and being body-shamed among various other things. Their experience of that night was not very positive. So when I write about what happened in 1978, I always include that side of the story. I think we're probably better at these things now.

RJR: I think with time having passed now, what was the Gay Liberation Movement is at a place now where I think we as a community do realise the importance of recognising the intersections between people's identities. It's always more fruitful and effective to band together. Because at the end of the day, I think the people I'm around definitely understand that it's no good trying to separate ourselves into separate groups because we're fighting for inclusion and we're fighting for equality. We're fighting to be respected and to be seen, and to me that means you can't then look at someone else and go: 'well, you don't belong here'. That doesn't make sense. That's an incongruent argument to me. And so when I go to events and unless it's a specific night at a club, I don't see any sort of exclusionary language which is fantastic. I think it's helped me feel more included as I did come out as non-binary and trans later in my queer experience at 22-23.


David, can you tell me a little bit about your work that you do campaigning for disability rights? How does that kind of intersect with your work as a queer activist?

DA: There's a long history to it, of course. I was part of a small group of people who founded the first open employment service for people with disabilities in Australia, that was in Parramatta called Active Job Services. For 14 years I was on the management committee of the Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association of NSW. I founded Access Plus in 1998, it was a really important queer disability group because we made a lot of advances in the sexual freedoms of people with disability, particularly people with disability who needed support, encouragement and resources to be independent and have a sex life. So we still do that. And we're still controversial, because of the shit that's said that people with disabilities can't be free, they can't be individual. That it's not good for them to be different, you know? People used to say that in the movement: 'we get sexual, then we'll have to worry about the threat of eugenics'. But I don't think things have gone that way fortunately.

The intersection happens around life. Of the two things that conflict in your life one of them is rules. The other thing is desire and expectations; being regarded as a sexual person who has freedoms was a very important part of pursuing equality and access. Access Plus had a profound effect. 40 years ago if you had an intellectual disability you would likely be living in a group home. If you were gay or queer you would have kept that a secret. 40 years later if you're living in a service, you're probably living on your own with support rather than a group. And you can go online and look up your organisation and look up at its sexuality policy. It's all there and it's very explicit. All those services happen now and it moves me actually. Sometimes I'm surprised that we got so far with disability given the level of paternalism people with disabilities always had to deal with.


So much of the time, queer people are asked to focus on narratives of trauma. Can you tell me about the joy that arises from your unique standpoint?

RJR: Being autistic for me is a gift. I think one of the gifts that it has given me is that I inherently – some people view it as a struggle, but I don't think it's a struggle – don't compute societal expectations and pressures in the same way as other people. And so I've never had a problem being myself. I often get asked 'how do you just be you?' And I'm like, 'well, I don't know how else to do it'. And so I think that's a really beautiful intersection between those parts of my identity. Being able to see the world through a specific lens, that isn't the lens that's afforded to most people, is so unique and precious to me. That way of being really lends itself to being a lot more open and a lot more willing to learn, to be curious and to accept people for who they are, because I'm well aware that I am different but I don't think that that makes me any less of a person.


How does activism look different today? What are your hopes for the future of queer rights in Australia and overseas?

DA: I think radical activism is very familiar to me – contemporary, radical activism – because it's probably more like gay liberation. Gay liberation wasn't about sexuality, it was about pulling apart the society and destroying it and reducing it to its rudiments and then rebuilding it. The contested ground was oppression, the response was liberation. Not reform, change, or selling off the interests of one group to get the support of another group, which is the sort of things we see in politics all the time.

Groups like Pride in Protest, who I support, remind me of the politics of the past. Some of the language is different – not so many people call themselves a communist anymore – but there are other radical identifiers. I think there's a radical politics in the present and the past, and there's a reformer politics in the present and the past. The latter will get you some distance perhaps, but it won't do with fundamental issues over which the culture is unable to move on from.

It depends on how extravagant your demands and actions are. Legalising male homosexual acts took a long time and many lives. Having children was a huge new demand and put us in conflict with communities, religions, schools and child protection laws among everyday things. I have a 32 year old son, he was worth the fight. The sexual freedoms and rights of queers with disability confronted every kind of moralistic and paternalistic force. Our fight at this intersection was world-changing.


Rudy, you've grown up with social media and modern technology and you act as an educator on these platforms. What are the pros and cons of online activism?

RJR: In a lot of ways over the last 15 years, we've seen, at least in my millennial generation and Gen Z, this sense that the culture and the people growing up within it feel a sense of autonomy that perhaps we didn't really know how to grasp onto earlier. We've forged our own way through that by utilising the tools at our fingertips, which is social media, and posting about experiences and sharing how we live and what we like to do, or what we don't like, and everything that goes with it. But I think it is really interesting seeing brands and companies jump onto that and pull parts of different cultures under their wing, particularly coming from the perspective of Rainbow History Class, which is what I co-create with Hannah McElhinney. We're there to educate, and we're there to share stories, and we're there to bring to life the history that none of us were taught in school. So I guess when it comes to the pros and cons, for us, it's been an incredible pro being able to create our own thing. It's content, but it's also more than content. It's always been more than that.


Do you have any feelings about the more commercial aspect of Mardi Gras?

RJR: Look, I'm still learning about the commercial elements of pride. Last year was my first time at Mardi Gras and despite being out as a queer person since I was like 11 or 12, it is still something that I'm learning about and understanding. I think what people assume is that it's a very black and white thing, and for some people it will be and that's their perspective. For me though, I really do like doing the deep digs. I like knowing everything. What I've come to understand is that it's very nuanced. It's far beyond a huge company pouring money into one campaign and then closing their door on the community.

It's systemic, any issues that are seen within the commercialization of Pride goes back years and generations. For me though, I think you always have to be cautious and understanding of who's participating in what and why. And sometimes it's really hard to know why, because it's a huge company with hundreds of employees. My hope is that anyone's involvement in things like Mardi Gras and Pride is that the effort they're putting in isn't just a dollar value and that it's going towards making the world a better place.

DA: I did a survey of 78ers in 1998 and probably the most common term confronting me when people talked about how they felt about Mardi Gras was "ambivalence". People were ambivalent even back then. It was hyper-masculine in the early years and it reflected the culture it was born of.

There wasn't a lot of money involved in the early days when you had bars with floats and organisations in the community with floats. Then years later, you look around and you see a car ad a little way back in the parade or half a dozen Holdens. It makes me feel dirty sometimes. I walk up the street thinking 'this is not what we wanted...this is great, but it's not what we anticipated'. So I have some feelings around that. I always share concerns with Pride in Protest and other member groups about appropriate sponsors and inappropriate sponsors. I think it's good to question big alcohol money and also question some of these companies about what their employment policies are, what support they actually provide to their staff, and what diversity they really have in their organisation. You have to talk the talk and walk the walk. I have to say that the commercial aspect of it gives me a dirty feeling. But that's my perspective anyway.


How do you celebrate Mardi Gras and Pride? What do you do to pay tribute to this history?

RJR: With Rainbow History Class as my full-time job, I'm in this headspace 24/7, 365 days a year. I love seeing the community come together around Mardi Gras and Pride Month and at different times of the year as well, Queer History Month, for example. I love seeing all parts of the community come together. I really enjoy meeting new people from experiences that I have no idea about. I love seeing the art and the culture that comes out of this; the sport, the events. I don't really have any traditions. But in terms of Sydney WorldPride, I am actually one of the official hosts with the ABC, and called a queerespondent which is super cute and cool. So I'll be up there doing some online coverage for Sydney WorldPride. Rainbow History Class also has three live shows which we're really excited to be putting on. It's been a long time coming.

DA: I am going to go in the parade this year as I've done in the past. I'm not going to do the bridge walk because I physically can't. And I think even if you've got your scooter there, it's going to be a nightmare. And I would encourage anyone with a disability to find out what they're getting themselves into.


How do you navigate burn out?

RJR: I'm lucky in that I do this with Hannah. So it's not a solo endeavour and we keep each other in check. That being said, we're very chaotic people, so sometimes it doesn't really work out that way. But I think you just have to put the phone down. You've got to put the phone down. I don't look at particular parts of social media or particular outlets of media for the sake of it, because I know that I'll get wound up in that.

But also it's funny because yes, this is my job; yes, this is my life. I do this every day, but like, it's fine. It's not all of who I am, you know? I don't put the phone down and go, 'okay what other queer thing can I do?' I mean, I just do other stuff. I go for walks and do workouts and play video games and play my bass guitar. You've just gotta have a good balance. So that's how I avoid burnout though it is very difficult being autistic, you're always dodging burnout. It's just being kind to yourself and being patient.

DA: I've gone way beyond burnout. I just live with it. In my research I have identified among long term activists two big risks: disappointment about how things turned out and the long-term opportunity costs of activism – the risk of finding that you don't have a career or assets or certainty in the future.

In human years, I'm about 140. In gay years, I'm about 200.


What's the most joyful thing about this time of year for you

DA: Probably those moments where you're at the front of the parade and everyone's screaming out their gratitude and acknowledgement. All of that can be quite overwhelming. Even if things haven't turned out exactly the way we wanted them to. Yes, there's a joy in that.


Are you proud of the legacy that you've forged?

DA: You don't always know what the outcome will be. I think it was Bourdieu who said you can never predict the outcome of a social movement and in a sense, you see life unfold out of those moments like a big washing machine where everything comes out pink.

It's good to live, I think. It's good to be unafraid and it's good to be proud. I think pride is an important thing. Because the opposite of that is shame and silence. And that can't do, that just can't do. We can't live in shame. We can't live in silence.


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Image: Witches and Faggots, Dykes and Poofters (1980)