Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was formed in 1978 when the police violently descended on a street festival bravely celebrating gay rights when homosexuality was still illegal.
From that day forward, the Parade became a yearly fixture where the LGBTQI+ community would unite to fight prejudice, celebrate our community and call for equality.
In those early years, when homosexuality was still illegal, the focus of the Parade was very much about fighting discrimination within society.
But a new threat to the community would soon reveal itself.
THE EMERGENCE OF HIV/AIDS IN AUSTRALIA
In 1982, four years after the first Mardi Gras Parade, Australia diagnosed its first case of AIDS in Sydney.
At the time, little was known about the virus and many thought it was a disease exclusive to the gay community. Vilification and stigma surrounding AIDS and the LGBTQI+ community was prominent during this period, and it was difficult to get governments to act on the threat AIDS posed so the LGBTQI+ community sprang into action. Representatives from over 20 gay groups in Sydney established the AIDS Action Committee, which would later become the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON).
As years went on, the fight against HIV would be a recurring theme for the Mardi Gras Parade.
A TIMELINE OF MARDI GRAS AND THE AIDS CRISIS
In May 1984, homosexuality was finally decriminalised in New South Wales. But by then the dark shadow of AIDS had fallen over Sydney’s gay community.
In 1985, the now three-week Mardi Gras Festival was held against the backdrop of increasingly hysterical media reporting of HIV/AIDS. There were calls for Mardi Gras to be cancelled, with the Reverend Fred Nile suggesting it be replaced by compulsory public lectures about AIDS. Undeterred, the Parade went ahead bigger than ever before, with the theme ‘Fighting for our Lives’.
The AIDS Council of New South Wales’ first-ever Mardi Gras Parade float was in 1986, encouraging gay men to ‘Get Bold About Safer Sex’. ACON’s participation in the Parade has continued every year since, for over three decades.
By 1991, over 1,500 Australians had died from AIDS-related illnesses. With advances in combination therapies getting results in clinical trials overseas, the year’s Mardi Gras Parade was an urgent call for access to treatment meds. Activists held up placards with messages to the health authorities: “We Can’t Wait”, “We Haven’t Got The Time You’re Taking”, “Red Tape Kills” and “AIDS Drugs Now!”
In 1992, the Parade procession halted briefly at 10pm to observe a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for the many people in our communities who had died from AIDS-related illness.
The most memorable and moving moment at 1999’s Parade was the HIV/AIDS Remembrance Event, involving more than 1,000 people from community health groups and organisations carrying a sea of soaring red flags promoting the message: ‘Remember, It’s Not Over’.
Today, Mardi Gras remains an avenue to raise awareness about issues impacting people living with HIV such as combating HIV stigma and discrimination , while also being a vehicle to educate our communities on HIV prevention strategies, advances in treatments, and the importance of providing care and support to those who need it.
UNITING THE COMMUNITY
The AIDS crisis devastated the LGBTQI+ community, but it also united us. At a time when pleas to health authorities were ignored, the community rallied together to call attention to the issue, and support one another through tough times.
Since the beginning of the epidemic, HIV positive people have played a central leadership role in driving awareness, policy and health promotion. They fought through fear, anger, stigma, discrimination and hate to ensure people living with HIV got the treatment, care and support they needed.
Other marginalised communities such as sex workers and people who injected drugs were also instrumental in the early HIV response.
AIDS presented a very real threat to lives and this helped galvanize all LGBTQI+ people – the lesbian community in particular played a vocal and important role.
Mardi Gras’ Chief Financial Officer Gil Beckwith worked at the Victoria AIDS Council in the 90s.
“During that time, we all had a common enemy and it brought us together to fight hard – either on the dance floor, in the hospitals or anywhere else that we could,” Gil says.
“It was a harrowing time. Our community press at the time would be filled with pages and pages of people who had passed away. I met some amazing men who were dead within four weeks or six months. It was so indiscriminate, who died or who survived.
“I learned a lot about illness and health, anger and discrimination during those years.”
The AIDS crisis had a massive impact on the LGBTQI+ community. It decimated a generation of our community, it united us and it forced us to fight harder to have our voices heard. The role the Lesbian community played throughout the AIDS crisis largely contributed to the re-ordering of GLBT to what the world now refers to as LGBTQI+. The ordering of the acronym is not commonly thought of as having much significance, however it’s an important reminder of how the Lesbian community fought and cared for the Gay community throughout the darkest times in our history.
To this day Mardi Gras continues to work closely with ACON to keep raising awareness about HIV, promote safe sex education and combat stigma directed towards our communities. This is why World AIDS Day is so important. It’s a chance for us to remember its impact, to celebrate the lives of those who we lost, and reminds us of what we can achieve when we’re united.