Ben Graetz (he/him) – also known as Miss Ellaneous – is a descendant of the Iwaidja and Malak Malak clans in the Northern Territory, and of Badu Island in the Torres Strait. He was the festival creative director for Sydney WorldPride 2023 – a 300+ event festival and celebration of LGBTQIA+SB pride. Questions and answers may have been edited for length and clarity.
Ben Graetz: I think it's to do with acknowledging that we are still on unceded land. To honour and pay respect to the Traditional Custodians, as well as being a pride festival, we needed to put LGBTQIA+ Sistergirl and Brotherboy mob front and centre to allow us to take that space and lead it. What I think was really successful about Sydney Worldpride was that there were queer First Nations mob in decision-making roles – leading by us, for us and with us.
BG: We often see a lot of activations and events that embed First Nations cultures, but we rarely see one that has the focus of LGBTQIA+ Sister girl and Brother boy community also leading it. We did this through the programming and spaces we created. For example, Marri Madung Butbut (Many Brave Hearts) took over Carriageworks on Gadigal Land for six days over the festival, and was a Queer Blak First Nations-led space. Having the advisory committee early in the planning process also helped build this festival and spaces from grassroots.
What was important and unique in my role– I was the creative director for the entire Sydney WorldPride festival, not just the First Nations component – was ensuring that the whole event was inclusive of mob. A lot of the time we are only brought on to do the First Nations part, which can sometimes feel tokenistic or just a quick add-on. For this festival, the majority of feedback was how good the visibility and inclusion was throughout the entire festival, and I think that comes from having a First Nations creative director for the whole festival, not just a small component of it.
BG: Sydney WorldPride was a historical moment. It was the first WorldPride to happen in the southern hemisphere – a 17-day festival with over 300 events, and a massive focus on First Nations mob. There were so many highlights so it's hard to choose. I definitely think the gathering space of Marri Madung Butbut was a massive highlight. To have a space for six days over the festival where community could visit and feel safe, but also for non-Indigenous friends and allies of the rainbow community to join us. We wanted to create a sacred space where people felt welcomed and left feeling transformed or changed. I think we really achieved that, which was something I was very proud of.
There were so many events and moments that I really loved. Another one of my proudest moments was the Dylan Mooney mural in Kings Cross – such a big symbol of visibility. I don’t think anything has been done like that before in terms of a Blak queer representation of public art on that scale. There were so many proud moments, even the Black Books queer anthology, NANGAMAY MANA DJURALI. There are a lot of those legacy pieces that will be here forever.
BG: I think it's really about inclusion – looking at all inclusion from all angles in terms of First Nations culture, diversity, accessibility and sustainability. I think what was successful about Sydney WorldPride was that we had such an incredible team who had life experience and skills in all departments. It really made it a gold star event in terms of accessibility, community, diversity and inclusion as well as sustainability by working really hard to make some events carbon neutral. We were also working with incredible partners like the City of Sydney who focused on inclusion, accessibility and sustainable spaces. I think that Sydney Worldpride has set the benchmark moving forward for this level of consideration with events.
BG: I think a good first step is volunteering. When you volunteer you get experience and exposure to the multiple roles available. You get to see if it's something you want to do and continue. There are also great perks like seeing shows for free, being given merchandise, networking and meeting other people. It is a good way to know events and to see all different roles and responsibilities behind the scenes. After volunteering, if it is something you really enjoyed and are interested in, then I suggest reaching out to the organisations, like Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, or particular festivals or events to ask what opportunities are available. There is a growing interest in capacity building for mob and inclusion, so volunteering and then reaching out is a great way to start. Be proactive!
BG: It is important to remember that Pride festivals are born out of protest. At the core of what we do – although there are a lot of fun events, parties, glitter and sequins – at the heart of this we are still fighting for equality. Through WorldPride, we ‘party with purpose’ because even today there are 60 countries around the world where it is still punishable by law for being part of the Rainbow Community. Even today with things happening in America, we are still fighting for equal rights. That's why we will always have Pride festivals and these types of events. For us, we understand what it’s like being a Blackfulla. We know what it's like – we are fighting two fights, one for being Blak, and one for being queer.
BG: Just to keep front of mind that particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTQIA+ Sister girl and Brother boy communities, there are still a lot of challenges, especially in regional and remote communities. We are still faced with a lot of discrimination and barriers to being able to live our authentic lives. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in our own communities around acceptance, understanding and education to come together as one, and events like Sydney WorldPride are a good opportunity for us to create this.