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History of Sydney Mardi Gras

Explore more than four decades of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras history on Google Arts & Culture. Witness magical moments of Mardi Gras love, protest, diversity, activism, pride and creativity we’ve made together over the years. Read stories, see photos and watch videos on the interactive Timeline here on Google Arts & Culture.

The Original 1978 Mardi Gras Marchers

Saturday 24th June, 1978. At around 10pm, a small crowd began to gather in Taylor Square rugged up against the cold – it had been a big day. A morning street march and public meeting had been held. Those gathered were now primed for the street festival that became the first Mardi Gras.

Saturday 24th June, 1978. At around 10pm, a small crowd began to gather in Taylor Square rugged up against the cold – it had been a big day. A morning street march and public meeting had been held. Those gathered were now primed for the street festival that became the first Mardi Gras.

But how did this come about? Well, in March 1978, San Francisco activists wrote to Ken Davis and Annie Talve. They asked for solidarity activities on the Stonewall anniversary to coincide with their march against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative on the California ballot. Ken and others called a meeting of lesbian and gay groups and individuals, which became the Gay Solidarity Group. Two weeks before 24 June, reps from CAMP Inc. suggested that a night-time, fun event for our community be added. The late Marg McMann, Co-President of CAMP Inc., dubbed it a Mardi Gras.

As 11pm approached, a throng of people – some walking, some dancing, a few even skipping – marched down towards Hyde Park. Chants of “Out of the bars and into the streets” joined the sound of gay liberation anthems ‘Glad to be Gay’ and ‘Ode to a Gym Teacher’. A small sound system and some banners were on the back of a single flat-bed truck driven by Lance Gowland.

The NSW Police, however, were not in such a joyous mood. Despite issuing a permit for the march, the police began to rush revelers down the street. When the marchers reached Hyde Park, the police confiscated the truck and sound system.

The crowd spontaneously marched up to Kings Cross. Once there the police swooped in, blocking the dispersing crowd and throwing people into paddy-wagons. The crowd fought back and 53 were subsequently charged at Darlinghurst police station.

“You could hear them in Darlinghurst police station being beaten up and crying out from pain. The night had gone from nerve-wracking to exhilarating to traumatic all in the space of a few hours. The police attack made us more determined to run Mardi Gras the next year.” – Ken Davis

The Gay Solidarity Group, other groups and individuals and came together for a massive political and legal effort – the Drop the Charges campaign. With pro bono legal assistance from the Council for Civil Liberties, they fought the charges in court. With growing support from many communities, they demonstrate for the charges to be dropped. But the Police continued to arrest protesters: 

• 26 June – 300 protested outside the closed court in Liverpool St with 7 arrested

• 15 July – 2,000 take part in largest ever gay rights march with 14 arrests 

• 27 August – 300 march down Oxford St from the 4th National Homosexual Conference with 104 arrests

• The total arrested in June, July and August 1978 was 178.

Most of the charges against those arrested were eventually dropped, though not all. The NSW Summary Offences Act, which had given Police very wide powers to arrest people, was repealed in May 1979. 

The Sydney Morning Herald published the names, occupations and addresses of all those arrested – outing many and causing some to lose their jobs, rental accommodation and family relationships. This was the authorities’ attempt to keep the community in line, but Sydney’s gays and lesbians would not get back in line. Little did those who witnessed and joined in the event know, this was to be the start of Mardi Gras. This would become a defining moment not only in our LGBTQI rights history, but a defining moment in the cultural heritage of Australia.

– Written by the Mardi Gras 78ers Committee

The Full Mardi Gras History

On a cold night in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1978, a small group of protestors formed to contribute to the international Gay Celebrations, the resulting police violence and arrests created a defining night in not only Sydney’s GLBTQI community but Australia’s cultural heritage.

On a cold night in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1978, a small group of protestors formed to contribute to the international Gay Celebrations, the resulting police violence and arrests created a defining night in not only Sydney’s GLBTQI community but Australia’s cultural heritage.

“You could hear them in Darlinghurst police station being beaten up and crying out from pain. The night had gone from nerve-wracking to exhilarating to traumatic all in the space of a few hours. The police attack made us more determined to run Mardi Gras the next year.”

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. 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. The face of the modern Mardi Gras we know today was taking shape.

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.

Mid History of Mardi Gras

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. Its themes each year represent the issues of the day and encourage marginalised groups to join a larger family of supporters.

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. 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.

Learn more about the history of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras on our interactive Timeline here.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is a non-for-profit member-based organisation with deductible gift recipient status. Donate here.

Hall of Fame & Lifetime Achievement Award Winners

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Awards recognise excellence across our Festival seasons, honouring those individuals and groups among us who go above and beyond to make the festival extra special.

  • 1992 Bruce Belcher, Lance Gowland, Brian McGahen, Ron Muncaster, Kimberley O’Sullivan, Peter Tully, David Wilkins
  • 1993 Cath Phillips, Colin Fawcett, Leggs Galore, Robyn Laverack
  • 1994 Barry Cecchini, Bruce Pollack, Peter MacDonnell
  • 1995 Bill Whittaker, Murray McLachlan, Ron Austin
  • 1996 Corby Beard, Miss New Zealand (Brent Beadle), Richard Cobden
  • 1997 Kathy Pavlich, Susan Harben
  • 1998 Margaret McMann, Stephen Allkins
  • 1999 Gillian Minervini, Phillipa Playford, Tony Crewes, Rodney Thorpe
  • 2000 Bill Morley, David McDiarmid, John Marsden
  • 2001 Brian Hobday, Gary Leeson, Ron Smith
  • 2002 Dr Richard Liddy, Jade-snow Kemety, Katrina Marton, Phillip Diment, Richard Wherrett
  • 2013 Gary Leeson, Jem Masters, Laura Jamison, Steve Warren
  • 2014 Ignatius Jones, Jane Becker, Kevin ‘Kabi’ Rigby, Liz Dods, Ron Muncaster, Steph Sands
  • 2015 Eamonn Lorraine, Michael Rolik
  • 2016 Rene Rivas
  • 2017 Ann-Marie Calihanna
  • 2018 Leonard Watson
  • 2019 Sveta Gilerman, Peter de Waal
  • 2020 Teresa Leggett
  • 2021 Kathy Sant, Jenny Mann
   Year       DateTheme
1978 Saturday 24 JuneMarking ‘International Gay Solidarity Day’
1979Saturday 30 JunePower in the Darkness
1980Saturday 28 JuneOutrageous Gay Mardi Gras – Festive Ball
1981Saturday 21 March (postponed from 21 Feb due to torrential rain)We are the People our Parents Warned us Against
1982Saturday 27 FebruaryOn Our Way To Freedom
1983Saturday 26 FebruaryOur Lives/Our Selves
1984Saturday 25 FebruaryWe’ll Dance If We Want To!
1985Saturday 23 FebruaryFight for our Lives
1986Saturday 22 February(no theme)
1987Saturday 21 February(no theme)
1988Saturday 27 FebruaryCelebrating a Safe Sex Summer
1989Saturday 18 February(no theme)
1990Saturday 17 February(no theme)
1991Saturday 16 February(no theme)
1992Saturday 29 February(no theme)
1993Saturday 27 February(no theme)
1994Saturday 5 MarchWe Are Family
1995Saturday 4 MarchFairy Tales & Lesbian Legends
1996Saturday 2 March(no theme)
1997Saturday 1 March(no theme)
1998Saturday 28 February20 Years of (R)evolution
1999Saturday 21 FebruaryEquality in Diversity | Celebrate the Future
2000Saturday 4 March2000gether
2001Saturday 3 MarchOut There, Everywhere
2002Saturday 2 MarchHappy Mardi Gras!
2003Saturday 1 March25 Years of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer Culture
2004Saturday 6 MarchMetamorphosis
2005Saturday 5 MarchOur Freedom, Your Freedom
2006Saturday 4 MarchDance · Love · Radiate
2007Saturday 3 MarchObjects of Love
2008Saturday 1 MarchBrave New Worlds
2009Saturday 7 MarchNations United
2010Saturday 27 FebruaryHistory of the World
2011Saturday 5 MarchSay Something
2012Saturday 3 MarchInfinite Love
2013Saturday 2 MarchGenerations of Love
2014Saturday 1 MarchKaleidoscope
2015Saturday 7 MarchPassion
2016Saturday 6 MarchMomentum
2017Saturday 4 MarchCreating Equality
2018Saturday 3 March40 Years of Evolution
2019Saturday 2 MarchFearless
2020Saturday 29 FebruaryWhat Matters
2021Saturday 6 MarchRise
2022Saturday 5 MarchUnited We Shine
2023Saturday 25 FebruaryWORLD PRIDE  – Gather, Dream, Amplify
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Acknowledgement

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we celebrate and work.

We pay our respects to Elders past and present and recognise the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities.

Always was, always will be Aboriginal Land.

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Acknowledgement of country

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras acknowledges that our events take place on Aboriginal land. We acknowledge the Gadigal, Cammeraygal, Bidigal, Darug and Dharawal people who are the Traditional Custodians of the Sydney Basin.

We pay our Respects to their Elders past and present. Always was Always will be Aboriginal Land.