Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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Photo by Jeffrey Feng

Today, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s most famous and well-loved events, bringing thousands of visitors to Sydney to join in the celebrations

Michal & Shirley

It captures the imagination of Australia’s LGBTQI and mainstream communities, taking over the city for weeks on end, culminating in the world-famous Parade: a colourful and dazzling night of pride, celebration and self-expression.

So how did Mardi Gras reach this iconic status? The ironic thing is that the key reason for its success was the opposition it faced when it began. The first march took place on Saturday 24th June 1978 at 10pm and it was met with unexpected police violence.

Mardi Gras was Sydney’s contribution to the international Gay Solidarity Celebrations, an event that had grown up as a result of the Stonewall riots in New York. Mardi Gras was one of a series of events by the Gay Solidarity Group to promote the forthcoming National Homosexual Conference, and offer support to San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day and it’s campaign against California State Senator John Brigg’s attempts to stop gay rights supporters teaching in schools. It was also intended to protest the Australian visit of homophobic Festival of Light campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

Several hundred gays, lesbians and straight supporters – some in fancy dress and some simply rugged up against the cold – gathered at Taylor Square and followed a truck with a small music and sound system down Oxford Street to Hyde Park.

As revellers joined in along Oxford St, the police harassed the lead float along the route and when the march stopped in Hyde Park, where telegrams of support were to be read, police confiscated the lead float truck and arrested the driver Lance Gowland. Angered by this, 1500 revellers diverted up William St to Darlinghurst Road, where the police had closed the road. At this point the police swooped and violently arrested 53 men and women, many of whom were beaten in cells.

Over the months that followed, more protests and arrests took place – and the actions of the authorities came to be seen as heavy handed. By April 1979 the Parliament of New South Wales repealed the NSW Summary Offences Act legislation that had allowed the arrests to be made and created a new Public Assemblies Act which meant that Sydneysiders no longer had to apply for a permit to have a demonstration. They simply needed to inform the police. As such that first Mardi Gras march was a major civil rights milestone beyond the gay community. Up to 3,000 people marched in an incident-free parade in 1979.

In 1980 a key new element was introduced – the post-parade party. In 1981 the decision was taken to move the event forward to summer to enjoy better weather. The face of the modern Mardi Gras we know today was taking shape.

Throughout the 1980s, Mardi Gras faced considerable challenges but the rate of growth for both parade and party was considerable. The estimates for the parade audiences show it doubling every year until it reached 50,000 in 1984. Meanwhile the post-parade party, which had attracted 700 in 1981, was attracting around 6,000 people. The event was also beginning to generate sizeable profits.

The 1985 Parade was almost called off after the head of Australia’s AIDS Task Force was quoted as appealing to ‘the gays to be responsible enough to cancel the Mardi Gras activities’. The venue owners for the post-parade party tried to cancel that event, but in the end settled for a doubling of the venue hire fees!

A key part of the Mardi Gras experience was the clash between supporters and detractors of the gay community. From the mid-1980s onwards the most notable of the latter was the Reverend Fred Nile, a vociferous ‘moral’ crusader. He would pray for rain (which he did occasionally get) and turn out to denounce the parade.

The event began to enjoy extensive media coverage from the mid-80s onwards and the crowds continued to swell, from 200,000 in 1989 to over 500,000 in 1993. Large numbers of interstate and international travellers had started flying in for the event as well, generating an estimated $38 million for the NSW economy.

By 1994 the event had certainly moved to the mainstream. In a controversial move the ABC screened a 50-minute programme of edited highlights at 8.30pm. Despite the criticism the show gave the ABC its best ever Sunday night ratings. In 1997 the event moved over to Channel Ten, the first commercial broadcaster to cover the event.

Throughout the late ’90s and early part of this century, Mardi Gras continued to grow in tourist and spectator numbers along with an increase in the quality of the events and the scope of the festival. By 2002 the organisation had grown to encompass a large full-time staff, including its own travel organisation. So it came as a huge surprise to many when the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras went into receivership in March 2002. A combination of reduced tourist numbers after the 2001 World Trade Center attack, a tripling of insurance costs and a stubbornly high cost base had sent the organisation into the red.

A group of community organisations intervened at this point to fund a new organisation, New Mardi Gras, to ensure the continuity of the event and to buy the intellectual property from the creditors. Since 2002, New Mardi Gras has effectively run the key elements of the Mardi Gras season – a festival of approximately 100 different arts events, a 70,000-person daytime picnic called Fair Day, the Parade Post-Parade Party.

After a couple of turbulent years Mardi Gras was back to its old form. In 2006 Conde Nast named it as one of the world’s top ten costume parades, and Planetout named it as the best gay event in the world. In 2008 we marked our 30th Anniversary, and in 2012 we produced our largest ever Parade with 10,000 colourful participants. It’s continued to grow since then, and now we look forward to celebrating an extravagant 40th anniversary festival in 2018.

For more information about Mardi Gras and gay Sydney, visit the Pride History Group.

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