15 March 2023
By: Elise Thomas
Overall WorldPride 2023, hosted by Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, was a tremendous success enjoyed by tens of thousands of people from around the world. However, several concerning incidents occurred during the event, propelled by hate speech and conspiracy theories brewing online. These included vandalism, an ‘unauthorised protest’ march through a well-known LGBTQ+ friendly area and a bomb threat to a Drag Queen Story Hour event. These incidents underscore the need for active monitoring of online mobilisation against LGBTQ+ people, and a better understanding of conspiracy communities, fringe religious groups and far right movements in this context.
The WorldPride festival in Sydney, which ran from 17 Feb to 5 March, and coincided with the city’s 45th annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, were in many ways a reflection of the progress Australian society has made in its attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. Just 40 years ago, homosexuality was still criminalised in Sydney and in the rest of the state of New South Wales. This year, for the first time ever, a sitting Australian Prime Minister walked in the Mardi Gras parade. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, also later joined a march over Sydney Harbour Bridge to mark the end of WorldPride. Members of the 78ers – who attended the first march for LGBTQ+ rights in Oxford Street in 1978 and were violently assaulted by police, arrested and publicly shamed in the media – were presented with the keys to the city by Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore. Over 12,000 packed the streets to watch this year’s Mardi Gras parade. Beyond the parties, WorldPride also featured political events including the largest LGBTQ+ human rights conference ever held in the Asia-Pacific region.
— Sydney WorldPride 2023 (@SydWorldPride) March 7, 2023
This bright picture sits against a darkening backdrop, however. The past year has seen a surge in hate speech and conspiracy theories targeting LGBTQ+ communities around the world, translating into harassment, physical violence, legislative repression, and in some cases injury and deaths. In the US and Europe, LGBTQ+ events have been targeted by right-wing protests; books presenting LGBTQ+ relationships have been banned; conspiracy theories baselessly conflating homosexuality and trans identity with paedophilia have been embraced by powerful voices in politics and the media; LGBTQ+ legal rights are facing a sustained attack from legislators making political hay from culture wars; and multiple mass shootings in places like Colorado, Norway and Slovakia, have targeted LGBTQ+ venues.
Weaponised homophobia is also increasingly woven into the heart of high stakes geopolitics. Homophobia has long been a key tool in the Kremlin’s toolkit, and in his delayed annual address in February, Vladimir Putin attempted to draw on anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment as justification for his disastrous invasion of Ukraine. We have also seen how Hungary, with the support of an international conservative network spanning some of the US Republican party, has led the way in walking back sexual and reproductive health rights of those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Australia in many ways sits downwind of the US information ecosystem. Culture wars brewing in the US eventually drift across the Pacific, as populist politicians and influencers in Australia see what’s working for their counterparts in the US and attempt to replicate it locally.
As the pain of COVID-19 restrictions recedes from public memory, many who built their platforms based on opposition to vaccines and lockdowns now seek relevance elsewhere. For some, this has meant trying to catch a breeze off the back of the homophobic and transphobic moral panic in the US, including adopting the ‘Groomer’ conspiracy which resurfaced most recently in Florida.
Despite celebration and solidarity from most of the public, the Sydney WorldPride and Mardi Gras celebrations were also met with a spike in homophobic and transphobic hate speech and conspiratorial comments in some online communities. In one example, a mural commissioned for WorldPride depicted a man (originally intended to be Vladimir Putin, but when that was perceived as too controversial, a teddy bear mask was added) drinking a white Russian in bondage straps. Images began to spread among online conspiracy communities. Some online commenters associated the mural specifically with the Balenciaga conspiracy from late 2022, while others wrapped it into broader false equations between LGBTQ+ people and paedophiles. White paint was thrown over the mural and the words “leave the kids alone” were scrawled across it, clearly referencing the ‘groomer’ slur. A replacement mural in the same place was later again defaced.
Among the most widely shared posts about the mural was an Instagram video from a Sydney rapper, Anthony Lees AKA Spanian, who launched into a homophobic rant against the mural and Pride celebrations more broadly. He described it as “a bunch of deadset paedophiles hiding behind some fucking gay pride” and “no fucking different [to the Balenciaga campaign], what they’re doing.” The video directly referenced the ‘groomer’ slur, saying “times [sic] up.”
Lees has since been dropped by his management company and his comments have been widely condemned by others in the Sydney music industry. His video was shared widely on Instagram and clips taken from it shared across TikTok and Telegram. The original video has since been removed.
A second and more concerning event in which online mobilisation appears to have contributed to offline risk occurred during the drag story hour at Manly Library on 25 February. The event was organised by the Northern Beaches Council as part of the WorldPride celebrations. Across the US and UK, Drag Queen Story Hour events have become a particular focus for mobilisation by far right and conspiracy groups. In Australia, a number of Drag Queen Story Hour and other drag performances have been targeted by protesters in recent months. Most of these protests have been very small and met with significantly larger counter protests.
In the two weeks leading up to the Sydney event, fringe and far-right political figures (including One Nation’s Mark Latham), white nationalist Telegram channels and conspiracy theory communities began circulating flyers and contact details for the event online. They encouraged their followers to contact the library to complain about the event, and to show up on that day to protest. While the main voices calling for this were Australian, international far-right figures including Mark Collett of the UK white nationalist group Patriotic Alternative amplified posts targeting the event.
Someone did much more than just email a complaint. An hour before the event, the library was completely closed in response to a bomb threat which had been made to library staff and sent to local media. The threat reportedly claimed that a bomb had been planted at the library to “kill all paedophiles.”
After checking the building, police allowed the event to proceed with additional security measures in place. Outside, a minute protest of eight protesters was outnumbered roughly ten to one by counter-protesters there to support the event. Two of the protesters were reportedly local women; five were young men with covered faces who had reportedly travelled to attend the event.
In the closing days of WorldPride a third event took place, although some participants have denied that it was aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. A group of around 30 black-clad men allegedly connected with the ‘Christian Lives Matter’ Facebook community and the group’s organiser Charlie Bakhos marched through King Street in Sydney’s Newtown, a well-known LGBTQ+ friendly area. Bakhos has subsequently denied being involved in organising the protest, claiming to have only shared videos which were sent to him. The group appeared to have a significant overlap with the Men’s Rosary Crusade, a group which regularly prays outside St Mary’s Cathedral.
The group, some of whom concealed their faces, loudly chanted The Lord’s Prayer as they marched and were reportedly disruptive to outdoor diners and bystanders on the street. Police attended and could be seen in videos of the event appearing to escort or shadow the march along the street. Police have subsequently described it as ‘unauthorised protest activity’ but say that no arrests were made.
Bakhos and others involved in the unauthorised protest have since claimed that it was not aimed at the LGBTQ+ community, but rather intended as a protest against a joke about Jesus made by queer comedian Reuben Kaye on a national TV program. However, the Christian Lives Matter Facebook and Instagram pages both feature multiple posts about the WorldPride events.
Two posts, for example, show what appears to be a series of events. An earlier post shared a video of two people painting the steps of the Pitt Street Uniting Church rainbow, in support of ‘Rainbow Christians’. In the video, the person holding the camera aggressively harangues one of the painters about how acceptance of same-sex relationships is fundamentally anti-Christian. He tells the painter that she is going to hell, and that homosexuality is an “abomination to God.”
The second post, made a day later, shared a video of at least two men at night smearing grey paint over the steps. In the video one man says clearly, “f*ck LGB”. The post describes them as “superheroes with buckets of paint cleaning up our city.”
It is not clear if there is any connection between Christian Lives Matter and the people who vandalised the church steps – but it is clear that Christian Lives Matter supported their actions and chose to amplify it by sharing it to their Instagram audience. The steps were promptly repainted rainbow.
A third video posted by the Christian Lives Matter Facebook page shows at least two men being stopped by police from entering a Mass for queer Christians during WorldPride. It is not clear what the men had intended to do if they had been allowed inside the Mass.
Overall, the 2023 Sydney WorldPride celebrations were an enormous success. Over 50,000 people including the Prime Minister marched over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the final celebration, the biggest bridge march in more than 20 years. There were marriage proposals and historic milestones and a lot of people who had a really, really good time (and now need a bit of a rest).
However, the multiple incidents that took place during WorldPride underscore the need for active monitoring of online mobilisation against LGBTQ+ people, particularly during key in-person events. Australian authorities and law enforcement need to recognise the genuine threat which international conspiracy theories (particularly US-derived conspiracy theories) and international violent mobilisation against LGBTQ+ events like Drag Queen Story Hours pose to communities and events in Australia.
A troubling insight which emerges from the incidents that occurred during WorldPride is that they do not appear to have been centrally coordinated or led by a specific group or individual. The distributed nature of the threat to LGBTQ+ communities in Australia, and around the world, highlights a need for a better understanding of the evolving dynamics between conspiracy theory communities, fringe religious groups and far right movements around anti-LGBTQ+ mobilisation and violence.