On the eve of Mardi Gras, ABC hosts look to history, activism & community

At a sensitive time for the LGBTQIA+ community, hosts Courtney Act & Remy Hii reflect on Mardi Gras’ past and navigating the future.

It’s been a tragic, difficult week for Australia’s LGBTQIA+ community.

The deaths of Jesse Baird and Luke Davies just a week before the annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras hangs heavily upon the Sydney community in particular.

This week organisers of the Parade initially uninvited the NSW Police from marching before both sides agreed to LGBTQIA+ Liaison Officers marching, but not in uniform.

However that decision has subsequently angered activists in the wake of an ongoing investigation.

Earlier this month there were also clashes between protesters who confronted police at Melbourne’s Midsumma Pride March.

Mardi Gras, which was borne from a 1978 protest to end to police harassment but resulted in arrests, has long navigated civil rights, politics, sexuality, and a health epidemic through its expression of identity, defiance and celebration.

ABC broadcast host Courtney Act (aka Shane Jenek) said, “In 1978 people were bashed and jailed, and then had their names published in the Sydney Morning Herald. That led to people losing their jobs and being outed to their families and being disowned. Then there’s also the Royal Commission and the harrowing Gap murders and all of these gay hate crimes over the ’70s ’80s and ’90s.”

Even this week comments this week by NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb distressed many and drew headlines in both mainstream media and LGBT press.

“I think that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in general, in shoring up the police’s relationship with not just the Queer community, but all of the communities that we intersect with,” she continued. “There’s a lot of solidarity with People of Colour, broadly, and First Nations People, and then members of our community as well. So I think it’s really important for Queer people that the police are protecting us.”

Actor Remy Hii also points to a complex Mardi Gras history ahead of his first hosting role for ABC.

Mardi Gras for me has always been a celebration of love and Queer history in Australia, and first and foremost the fact that it started as a protest,” he says. “People in Australia didn’t have those rights up until the 80s when homosexuality was legalised.”

Hii is also familiar with activism from his family ties.

“I moved down to Sydney in 2009 from Queensland to study at NIDA and that was the first Mardi Gras I went to. NIDA had a float in the parade that year, and my mum had grown up in Sydney when she moved from England in the 50s. She was at all the Vietnam War protests, so a large part of my social conscience or my activism is definitely, in part, largely thanks to my mum.”

Hii, who has played gay characters in both Neighbours and Wellmania, will also share hosting duties with ABC Queer’s Mon Schafter and non-binary musician G Flip.

“I got a call from the ABC out of the blue and I thought someone must be pulling my leg,” he recalls. “It’s such a huge honour and one of those things that comes around once in a lifetime, or a career, and I’m really thrilled and excited to be part of it.

“I passionately believe in saying yes to the things that scare you, and there’s nothing scarier than getting in front of the cameras for that long, at one of the country’s biggest events. But I’m really looking forward to it. I know that I’m in really, really good hands sitting next to someone like Courtney Act.

“Mardi Gras is both a celebration and a reminder of the sacrifices, the battles, the fights that people fought before my generation, so that we could live equally as humans,” he observes.

“We’ve now got legalised marriage and we can walk down the street with people we love and not be prosecuted for it.”

Despite the achievements of 2017’s marriage equality, Courtney Act knows there is still much progress to be achieved, including with police.

“I think that we’re a place that can get it right. I think that we should be taking care of all of our citizens,” she believes.

“I don’t think the idea is to just ‘get rid of the police’ altogether. Let’s think about how we can better serve all members of our community.

“When it comes to Mardi Gras this year it’s a controversial thing, and I think the police should listen to the wishes of the community and have that conversation. More than just save face, I think that they really need to show through their actions, their training and their systems that they’re really willing to fix these problems that occur for Queer people, People of Colour and other communities who are not served as well by the Police.”

Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade screens 7:30pm Saturday on ABC