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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Officials have ordered the removal of a rainbow pedestrian crossing painted on a street in Sydney's main gay district, setting off fierce debate in a city known for its annual Mardi Gras gay pride event, one of Australia's main tourist draws.
Controversy over the crossing, painted in February to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the annual gay festival, is pitting those proud of Sydney's reputation for tolerance, such as gay former tennis star Martina Navratilova, against government officials who say it is a safety hazard.
The colorful stripes on Oxford Street were originally intended to remain for a month after the Mardi Gras in March, but the crossing has become something of a magnet for tourists, prompting calls to maintain it as a celebration of gay pride.
"Sydney will always be a gay-friendly, welcoming and tolerant place," said Alex Greenwich, a member of New South Wales (NSW) state parliament who leads a petition drive to make the crossing permanent.
"Local businesses have said it's good for business and tourists have considered it a great attraction. I think removing the crossing does send the wrong message."
Two rainbow crossings were painted in Los Angeles last June for Pride Month, but were made permanent in October as a way to market the city as a prime gay tourist destination.
But government officials say the Sydney crossing is a danger since people have been lying on the road to take photographs.
"Our position has not changed, nor has our responsibility to protect pedestrians and road users," said NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay in a statement.
"I am happy to work with (the) council on an alternative and permanent rainbow attraction that is not on a road."
The Sydney crossing will cost A$30,000 ($31,200) to remove since it was created with a special nonslip paint and the road must be torn up. The removal is set for April 10.
Greenwich said an independent safety audit has confirmed that there have been no traffic incidents or injuries as a result of the rainbow crossing and that increased monitoring of the crossing would be enough to maintain safety.
He has collected 15,000 signatures on a petition calling for keeping the rainbow crossing and gained the support of gay celebrities such as Navratilova and Matthew Mitcham, an Australian Olympic diving champion.
Pedestrians at the crossing were divided. Some lauded it as street art that should be removed and refreshed every year.
Financial services employee Nic Lochner, 22, said officials were ignoring community interests. "The rainbow crossing is a celebration of Sydney's diversity," he said. ($1 = 0.9609 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Michael Sin; Editing by Elaine Lies and Michael Perry