2012 sees Sydney’s 35th Mardi Gras – a festival, parade and celebration that has become an important part of the city’s image, both at home and abroad, as a centre of gay and lesbian culture in Australia.
It’s supported by city government, widely discussed and portrayed in the media, and prominent in tourist guides, histories and travel writing about Sydney.
But it wasn’t always part of the mainstream, as Emma Grahame from the Dictionary of Sydney explains below.
Solidarity and police brutality
24 June 1978 was International Gay Solidarity Day, called worldwide to commemorate the Stonewall riots that had rocked New York city in 1969 and were widely regarded as a starting point for gay rights activism.
Sydney’s contribution was to be a morning street march, an afternoon public meeting, and a parade in the evening. When the crowd gathered for the parade, heavy-handed police intervention led to a change of route, and further conflict led to a violent confrontation with police, in which 53 people were arrested.
Later that week, police provoked further protest by closing the courts where the charges were to be heard, and more arrests were made. The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of those arrested, leading to involuntary outing at a time when male homosexual acts were still criminal offences. Some of those charged lost their jobs as a result.
Throughout the rest of the winter, follow-up protests drew further police response, and the treatment of gay demonstrators became a major civil liberties issue.
The repercussions of that first march included repeal of the Summary Offences Act in 1979, limiting the powers of the police in public places, and eventually the decriminalisation of male homosexual behaviour in 1984.
Resistance and survival
Meanwhile, the parade continued, with decreasing police harassment and more public involvement. In 1979, the theme of ‘Power in the Darkness’ was given to the parade, and despite a large police presence, no arrests were made.
In 1981 the parade was moved to February, and given the name Sydney Gay Mardi Gras. While political differences were played out in the organising committees over the years, the popularity of the occasion, both for participants and spectators, continued to grow, and the Mardi Gras came to have a secure and special place in Sydney’s cultural life. It has also become a major tourist attraction.
From the mid-1980s, as AIDS decimated the gay community, the Mardi Gras became a symbol of courage and solidarity more than ever. The 1985 parade was titled ‘Fighting for our Lives’, and went ahead despite calls from anti-gay activists that it be banned. Since that time HIV positive groups have had an important presence in the parade and festival.
Community and family
The communities that sustain Mardi Gras have always been varied. Lesbian activists were part of the first protest in June 1978, and a number were arrested. Since then, people who identify as queer, transgender, bisexual or intersex have also taken part and been recognised in the evolving names of the organisation and the event. Costumes, floats and displays have drawn on Sydney’s long drag tradition, and on gender-play of other kinds.
The flamboyant, explicit and exuberant nature of the parade meant that conservative media organisations were reluctant to cover it in the early years, and it received much less media notice than its size and popularity warranted.
In 1994, the parade and festival were themed ‘We are Family’, and the ABC filmed it for delayed broadcast. Now proudly led by the mighty roar of the Dykes on Bikes, the parade received the highest ratings in ABC history to that time, and has since been broadcast on commercial television as well.
Into the mainstream
By the twenty-first century, the festival and parade had become mainstream, with floats from banks, insurance companies and the NSW police. The Governor Professor Marie Bashir opened the festival in 2005, crediting the event with fostering:
“that sense of freedom which springs from the considerable diversity within our society – diversity of race, religion, culture and also sexual orientation.”
Politicians from both sides of politics, as well as Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore are staunch supporters of Mardi Gras, and often attend. Opposition to the parade and festival still exists among some religious groups, but seems to be waning. Major international stars travel to Sydney to appear at festival events and the Mardi Gras Party, held after the parade for thousands of revellers.
In 2012, the festival has a long calendar of varied events and is attracting Sydneysiders and visitors to a host of different occasions, celebrating diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex experience, as part of Sydney’s history and its present.
For more on Sydney’s gay and lesbian history, go to the Dictionary of Sydney at www.dictionaryofsydney.org and look for the articles on Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Gay men, Lesbians, Drag and cross dressing, and more.
Emma Grahame is the editorial coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney. Photos by William Yang used courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney – they are National Library of Australia image vn3097670-v (top) and vn3097633-v (inset).