Tomorrow Sydney will hitch up the frock, throw on the heels and jump head first into the Mardi Gras parade, the most public event of the month long Mardi Gras festival. The parade is surely Sydney’s biggest, most outlandish spectacle-loved by most, tolerated by the rest and despised by an increasingly small minority.
The parade began on a Saturday night in June 1978. First off it was a show of solidarity for protests then happening in New York City, with the added task as an awareness raising campaign against homophobia and for an upcoming gay conference. This impromptu parade had been organised by Sydney’s Gay Solidarity Group (GSG).
Dancers and revellers in the clubs of Oxford Street were drawn by the sound of whoops and hollers coming from a bunch of dancing, parading marchers following a small truck down the centre of the road, with the Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Glad to be Gay’ blaring from small speakers. By the time it got to Hyde Park, the truck had about 2000 people following behind.
The happy mood was not to last, as in Hyde Park the police were waiting. They confiscated the public address system and the truck. Not deterred, and seizing the moment, the leaders of the parade headed off again, this time down William Street towards the Cross, where an even bigger police contingent was gathered. Scuffles brewed to a small riot and 53 violent arrests were made. So began the first Mardi Gras.
The following court appearances highlighted a wider issue of civil rights and police heavy handedness. Their attempts to stop people entering the court and later violent arrests at subsequent protests eventually lead to a change in the law. The passing of the Public Assemblies Act 1979, put it back on police to prove a march or demo would be a public nuisance or danger. This was a major breakthrough not only for the gay and lesbian community but the whole community and its right to demonstrate. In 1984 this was followed by the decriminalisation of homosexuality amongst consenting adults as well.
The parade had another effect, this time more personal. Many of the participants felt personally liberated, marching with their partners or by themselves, openly proclaiming their sexuality for the first time. Sydney’s gay community was out of the closet and were not going back in.
The 1979 parade was incident free and attracted about 3000 people. In 1980 a post parade party was added and in 1981 it was moved to summer to take advantage of better weather. Things began to get lot more fun.
However there was still a serious message to the event. Civil rights, anti-homophobia and safety on the streets were real, everyday issues for the participants. But the event was beginning to attract the Sydney scene.
By 1984, 50,000 spectators were lining Oxford Street to watch. The enthusiasm for the event was also surreptitiously spreading into the community, challenging stereotypes and hang-ups. By 1989 200,000 people were watching, by 1993 there were over half a million. The event was huge. The parade took about 2 hours to pass, international performers clamoured to be part of it and even the police were marching. Serious issues still sat at the heart of the parade though, such as AIDS which decimating the community in the mid 1980s.
By the year 2000, the Mardi Gras had expanded beyond just the parade into one of Sydney’s major summer events, a month long celebration of arts festivals, carnival days and parties. 10,000 people were now participating in the parade itself.
This year sees the parade celebrate 34 years. It has just about achieved mainstream status, albeit a slightly kinky mainstream.
Sydney is unique in world cities in its acceptance of the gay and lesbian (and transgender, and bi, and queer and…) community. There are obviously still plenty of issues that need resolving and still many barriers to break down but it’s on its way. The parade of 1978 played a major role in all this.