A history of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
By ALEC SMART
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras takes place annually in central Sydney at the end of summer (Feb-March) with a range of activities, performances, exhibitions, workshops and a public fair celebrating gender diversity.
The highlight is the Parade, which currently features over 12,500 entrants in a cavalcade of elaborate costumes, which flows from the CBD into Darlinghurst, the traditional epicentre of Sydney’s gay and lesbian culture.
The participants accompany ornately-decorated floats, usually representing community groups and organisations, the spectacle enlightened by music and fireworks. The floats typically embrace an annual theme, or satirically poke fun at social issues or personalities hostile to the LGBTQI community.
Each year a Chief of Parade is chosen to represent the spirit of Mardi Gras. In the past this has included gay actor Rupert Everett, Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Mitcham, and world-renowned gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.
The post-parade party, which utilises Sydney’s Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, is one of the largest party events in Australia, attracting international stars. Previous headliners have included Tina Arena, Boy George, Kylie Minogue, Jimmy Somerville, Village People, Sheena Easton, Courtney Act, Joan Rivers and George Michael.
Mardi Gras is both an incredible public spectacle, social highlight and a multi-million dollar revenue earner for Sydney tourism. However, it was initially launched as a protest march and an opportunity for homosexuals to express pride in their identity, during a time when their activities were criminalised, they were targeted for violence and murder by gangs and police, and treated as mentally unwell.
On 24 June 1978, a chilly mid-winter’s day in Sydney, a crowd of up to 500 people – eventually swelling to around 2000 by 9.30pm in the evening – gathered in Darlinghurst’s Taylor Square to campaign for gay rights and commemorate the infamous Stonewall Riots.
The ‘riots’ they wished to remember began in the early hours of 28 June 1969 when New York Police raided the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, and the locals stood up to them.
Police harassment of venues that catered to the gay and lesbian community were not uncommon across USA, but the Stonewall bar invasion triggered a new resistance amidst a changing cultural climate of civil rights protests and opposition to the Vietnam War.
It inspired a movement to stand up to the authorities’ systemic marginalising of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community – now collectively known by the umbrella acronym LGBTQI.
Stonewall is considered one of the most important historic events leading to recognition, respect and ultimately human rights of the LGBTQI community worldwide. Previously, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the USA and Australia.
The Sydney rally in 1978, part of a worldwide ‘Gay Solidarity Day’, consisted of a protest march in the morning, a public demonstration in the afternoon, and then a festive parade from Taylor Square along Oxford Street to Hyde Park in the evening, to hear speakers and network.
However, as the crowds attending the evening fiesta approached the south-eastern corner of Hyde Park, NSW Police officers suddenly halted the march and impounded the lead truck carrying the public address system.
After demanding the participants disperse, the police then encountered unexpected resistance from the gathered revellers – most of whom had endured years of intimidation by Sydney officers.
A reportedly ‘jubilant’ crowd, many of whom diverted towards Kings Cross, danced and sang in the main streets around Darlinghurst, until, enraged, police officers removed their identification numbers and waded into the throng, bashing and arresting.
Fifty three people were taken into custody, including bystanders who joined the rebellion, incensed by police treatment of the marchers. Sydney Morning Herald printed the names and occupations of those arrested, causing some to lose their jobs.
The subsequent trials (the first of which police refused to allow the public and media into the open courtroom), brought considerable embarrassment to the NSW Govt and Premier Wran, a lawyer who prided himself as a supporter of civil liberties.
Further protests and arrests ensued, but ultimately, in May 1979, the Summary Offences Act – the hated law that effectively criminalised gay men with jail terms of up to 14 years (and allowed undercover police to entice homosexuals to flirt with them before they were arrested and charged with lewd conduct) - was repealed.
In 1984, Premier Wran bypassed his own party and introduced a private members bill to decriminalise being gay – NSW Parliament’s first conscience vote – and on 15 May 1984 The 'Crimes (Amendment) Act 1984' would decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 18.
In 1979 the Mardi Gras – derived from the French words for the Shrove Tuesday celebrations that take place prior to the abstinence of Lent (in the lead-up up to Easter) – was attended by 3000 participants, albeit watched by stern police.
In 1980 a post-parade party was added to the festivities (amidst the first of several re-names), which attracted as many spectators as participants – around 10,000 – then in 1981, Mardi Gras moved from mid-winter to the end of summer.
The parade was well on the way to becoming the world-renowned and beloved event that now attracts tens of thousands of revellers and spectators, is a massive boost to Sydney’s tourism, and draws international stars of music and popular culture to perform on its stages.
These days, NSW Police have a more constructive relationship with Mardi Gras, and now enter a float in the annual parade featuring LGBTQI police officers.
GLADD float, 2018 Sydney Mardis Gras. Photo: Anne-Marie Calilhanna (Facebook)
Timeline: highs (and a few lows) of Mardi Gras over the years
1978 – Newly-formed Gay Solidarity Group organise inaugural rally in June. Police halt march, bash revellers and arrest 53 for not dispersing, including members of the public who rush to marchers’ defence.
1979 – Rally renamed Mardi Gras, week-long festivities added plus fundraising dance in Balmain Town Hall.
1980 – Post-parade celebrations added at Paddington Town Hall, last winter rally.
1981 – First summer rally, but postponed from 21 Feb to 21 March due to torrential rain.
1982 – First post-parade party at Sydney Showgrounds. NSW Premier Wran’s Govt amended the Anti-Discrimination Act, making it illegal to discriminate against homosexuals. Roger McKay marched with an Aboriginal flag, the first appearance of an Indigenous flag. Introduction of the Sleaze Ball fundraiser at Paddington Town Hall.
1983 – Sydney City Council placed flags along Mardi Gras parade route. Australia Council provided $6000 funding.
1984 – First Mardi Gras program printed, Sleaze Ball held at the Sydney Showgrounds, homosexuality decriminalised in May. Film footage of the Mardi Gras parade featured in Cold Chisel music video Saturday Night.
1985 – Reverend Fred Nile suggested Mardi Gras be replaced by compulsory public lectures on AIDS prevention.
1986 – ACON (Aids Council NSW) entered their first float in the parade encouraging safe sex.
1987 – 10th anniversary Mardi Gras featured 35 events including a motorcycle rally. An estimated 100,000 attended.
1988 – First float Indigenous float featuring an Aboriginal activist dressed as Captain Cook. First involvement of Dykes on Bikes lesbian motorcycle riders. Channel 10 TV conducted a telephone poll asking if Mardi Gras should be banned, to which 57 per cent of 47,980 callers disagreed. Australian Tax Office (ATO) estimated a tax liability of $71,400, but later granted tax exemption to the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras association.
1989 – Event renamed Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Parade attendance up to 200,000. A lesbian woman took over the association presidency.
1990 – First Mardi Gras fair held in Glebe’s Jubilee Park.
1991 – Sydney Gay & lesbian Choir perform at parade opening parade.
1992 – Rainbow flag incorporated into Mardi Gras poster design. Economic Impact Study found Mardi Gras brought $38 million to local economy. Mardi Gras management worried about losing LGBTQI identity due to event’s popularity with mainstream revellers.
1993 – Mardi Gras rejected $33,000 condom advertisement that would have tied Playboy magazine’s bunny logo to the event. 500,000 spectators enjoyed the parade.
1994 – Kylie Minogue sings at post-parade party. Parade broadcast on TV for the first time, on ABC, and Cadbury Schweppes chocolate and beverage maker withdraws advertising in protest.
1995 – French artists Pierre and Gillies design main poster. Singer Boy George performs at after-show party.
1996 – Record number of 90 floats in parade. Telstra become major sponsor, first significant corporate investor. First Australian Defence Force float. Reverend Fred Nile threatens to sue after mock puppet of him in cage appears.
1997 – First gay NSW MP Paul O’Grady a guest speaker. Channel 10 TV takes over coverage of parade. Puppet head of Pauline Hanson MP carried along street.
1998 – 20th anniversary, 228 original marchers join parade. First time NSW Police also march in parade. Mardi Grass estimated to contribute $99 million to Sydney economy. Fair moves from Jubilee Park to Victoria Park, Broadway. First internet broadcast of parade attracts 20,000 online viewers. Kylie and Danni Minogue appear onstage together. Pauline Hanson loses seat in election and her puppet head explodes during public announcement.
1999 – AIDs memorial marchers carry over 1000 red flags.
2000 – Olympics-themed event. Centennial Park concert ended with Helen Reddy singing ‘I am Woman’
2001 – Lead float features same-sex couple and their children.
2002 – Mardi Gras recognised as Hallmark Event, exempt from paying police, ambulance and Roads and Traffic Authority fees, but sharp increase in insurance sees festival post $500,000 loss and go into voluntary administration.
2003 – New administration rely heavily on donations. Ian Roberts, first high-profile gay rugby league player in the world is Chief of Parade.
2004 – Former nun Monica Hingston, cousin of Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell, leads the parade
2005 – First time parade led by an Indigenous float.
2006 – Gaydar provide $1.5million in sponsorship.
2007 – Flash mob of spontaneous dancers danced a conga line from Opera House to Customs House via Opera Quays.
2008 – NSW Govt fund Mardi Gras for first time with $400,000 donation after they were criticised for spending $142 million on World Youth Day, a comparable-sized event. Olivia Newtown-John performs ‘Xanadu’
2009 – Mathew Mitcham, Australian Olympic gold medalist, was Chief of Parade.
2010 – 5,200 people stripped naked and lay down on the steps and forecourt of Sydney Opera House for an art installation by photographer Spencer Tunick. Parade and post-parade party mistakenly booked for separate Saturdays.
2011 – Debate over whether to drop ‘Gay and Lesbian’ from Mardi Gras and simply call it ‘Sydney’. Intersex formally accepted in LGBTQ acronym, changing it to LGBTQI. Eight Chiefs of Parade instead of one
2012 – Mardi Gras new logo revealed. Kylie Minogue appears with 140 dancers and performs medley of her best-known songs. Informal parties in back streets of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst amalgamated as Laneway Party. Chief of Parade is Shelley Argent, national spokesperson for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
2013 – Scissor Sisters close their Australian tour at parade after-party. NSW Police sign accord to work closer with Mardi Gras after video of an aggressive arrest of a teenager at the parade went viral. First time Australian armed forces march in uniform. City of Sydney Council paint giant rainbow crossing across Taylor Square, Darlinghurst, to celebrate the Mardi Gras. When it was painted over a few weeks later there was an international outcry.
2014 – NSW Premier Mike Baird’s unpopular LockOut Laws came into force over Mardi Gras weekend, restricting celebrations. Later in 2014, NSW Govt purged convictions of men previously prosecuted for sodomy. First appearance of People with Disabilities Australia in parade. SBS TV screened highlights of parade the following evening.
2015 – ‘Are You Ready For Freddy’ video, featuring dancers dressed as the late Queen singer and gay icon Freddie Mercury, filmed in Darling Harbour. Sydney Convicts LGBTQI rugby team lead parade.
2016 – NSW Govt, NSW Police and Fairfax Publishing make formal apologies to Mardi Gras participants for horrendous policing and media coverage of the first parade in 1978. Fair moved to Camperdown Memorial Park in Newtown.
2017 – 40th anniversary. Danni Minogue ends celebrations on the Opera House steps. Week-long Indigenous events, Koori Gras, added to Mardi Gras programme. City of Sydney sponsor a Say Yes To Love float to promote support for ‘yes’ vote in forthcoming national Plebiscite on Same-Sex Marriage.
2018 – Museum of Love and Protest at National Art School showcases forty years of parade costumes, photos, video and artefacts. 200 participants from original 1978 protest march join parade. Pop star Cher headlines Mardi Gras party.
2019 – Mardi Gras Party attracted over 12,000 people to Sydney’s Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park to celebrate.
2020 – Mardi Gras was held days before NSW’s Covid-19 lockdown placed severe restriction on socialising and entertainment venues. Gender Euphoria stage show brought together Australia’s biggest line-up of trans and gender-diverse performers to share a stage together.
Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists, 2018 Mardis Gras. Photo: Jax Fong