40 Years of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

As we plan to grab the popcorn to take in all the glitter from the very special 40th celebration of ydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Jack Panebianco looks back at where it all began.

I’m not asking you to book flights to Sydney and dress up in drag, or to jump on your Harley Davidson and ride until you hit Darlinghurst, but please make sure to celebrate this year’s Mardi Gras however you can. When we think of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, our minds are quick to picture packed venues, extravagant floats, and glitter-covered bodies. This celebration is one of the biggest queer events in the world and has its sights set on reaching over 200,000 visitors this year. It’s an opportunity for the LGBTIQ community of Australia and abroad to come together and celebrate the things that make us unique. It also holds a great platform to express humorous, emotional, and sometimes political statements about society – particularly with the Mardi Gras Parade, which has been broadcasted nationally since 1994.

It’s a festive time for many, however it also does spark heated arguments within our community on topics such as drug and alcohol abuse, perpetuated standards of body image, internalised sexism and homophobia, the pink-washing agenda by major sponsors as well as political entanglements.

And still many are asking “What happened to our activist roots?”, “Have we missed the point of Mardi Gras?”, and each year more and more people are asking, “Why do we even march?”

To those seeking that answer, or those eager for a refresher, picture Sydney in 1978. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in NSW and the New York Stonewall Riots were only nine years earlier. The 24th of June was the coinciding date of the Stonewall Riots, and the anniversary had since become the day of San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day (now “San Francisco Pride”). The state of California was represented by a homophobic senator, John Brigg, who sponsored a proposition that barred gay people and their allies from teaching in public schools.

That same weekend was also the highly publicised visit of British conservative activist Mary Whitehouse for a festival of traditional values. To paint a vivid picture, Whitehouse’s closest equivalent would be the Harry Potter character, Dolores Umbridge, both in disposition and resemblance. Whitehouse would relentlessly write to the BBC accusing them that the shows they aired were the sole reasons for the “moral collapse of England.” She wasn’t a fan of social progression, so it came as no surprise that she also wasn’t a fan of ‘the gays.’ Her loss.

To show solidarity to their American brothers and sisters, whilst giving a glittery middle-finger to Whitehouse, the gays and lesbians of Sydney assembled in fancy dress with decorations and a flat bed truck and marched from Taylor Square to Hyde Park, causing a scene on Oxford Street. It was one of the most iconic examples of queer activism in this country. Though this act of courage was not without a fight. As they marched, police began to harass them. That didn’t stop the growth of demonstrators along the way. The group began to shout, “Out of the bars and into the streets!” Patrons in Oxford Street venues rushed to join the throng and chanted alongside them. The plan was to read out telegrams of praise and encouragement once at Hyde Park, however the driver of the truck, Lance Gowland, was arrested and the truck itself confiscated, despite the group having a permit to hold the demonstration. Fifteen hundred of those protesters stormed down William Street to Kings Cross where they were met with police brutality. Fifty-three arrests were made, and further abuse was reported within the cells that night. The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald published the names of those arrested – outing several closeted demonstrators and causing many to lose their jobs.  This pain and punishment sparked countless other protests and legislative amendments that led to a wider acceptance. In the years to come, more and more people gathered to march – not to protest, but to celebrate. Parties started to accompany the march, and the date was moved to summer to coincide the warmer weather. Since 1978, over 30 major legislative bills have been passed in favour of the LGBTIQ community in Australia, allowing us to thrive and grow. Australia has seen more queer representation in media, grown distinctive club scenes across the major cities, and created a better-educated Australia than in 1978. Because of those brave demonstrators we aren’t arrested for homosexuality anymore and we have become less afraid to come out. We continue to venture “out of the bars, and into the streets” thanks to those pioneers.

This is why we march. Despite the politics of funding, the pink-washing or ulterior motives, we march to mark how far we have come since that chilly night in June some 40 years ago and to remember the road we still have left to go. This is our journey, and this is our day. Show some pride.

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