Today, Sydney Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s most famous and well-loved events, bringing thousands of visitors to Sydney to join in the celebrations. 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. This year, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of our festival, and remember that it was not always like this, however.
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 harrassed 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 police came to be seen as heavy handed.
By April in 1979 the parliament of New South Wales repealed the NSW Summary Offences Act legislation that had allowed the arrests to be made and created a new Public Assemblies Act which meant that Sydneysiders no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.
The rate of growth for both parade and party was considerable. The estimates for the parade audiences show it doubling every year till 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 cancelled 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 Nineties and early part of this century the event continued to grow, both in terms of tourist and spectator numbers, 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.
Despite some warning it came as a huge surprise to many when the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras went into receivership in March 2002. A combination of reduced tourist numbers after September 11th, 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 is back to its old form. In 2006 Conde Nast named it as one of the world’s top ten costume parades in the world. Meanwhile Planetout named it as the best gay event in the world. In 2008 we celebrated our 30th Anniversary. In 2012 we produced our largest ever Parade with 10,000 colourful participants.
Sydney Mardi Gras remains the one truly global gay annual event and a uniquely attractive escape from the Northern Hemisphere winter.
During 2010 and 2011 we carried out a set of consultation exercises and initiated a project to add a new sense of purpose to our event. The results of this is that in November 2011 we announced three things:
- That our organisation, after 9 years, would change its name back to Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras to provide a link to our past and that we would retain our Sydney Opera House and Pink Triangle logo for the organisation
- That we would rename the event the Sydney Mardi Gras to better reflect our muti-faceted LGBTQI community, offer an embrace to the wider world and
- That we would adopt a new symbol of Infinite Love to reflect our new ambition – to inspire the world to love each other by celebrating the power and beauty of diversity.
For more information about Mardi Gras and gay Sydney in general you can visit the Pride History Group.