Today Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s most famous and well-loved events, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to Sydney to join in the celebrations. It all began on a chilly winter's night in 1978, when the police descended on a street festival bravely celebrating gay rights when homosexuality was still illegal. This timeline reveals four decades of Mardi Gras passion, protests and pride - with each year’s heroic moments creating Australia's unique life-affirming kaleidoscope of LGBTQI self-expression.
SATURDAY 24 JUNE 1978
Sydney's newly-formed Gay Solidarity Group developed a day of events culminating in the first Mardi Gras street festival. They intended to raise local issues such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, mark the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York, protest the Australian visit of homophobic Festival of Light campaigner Mary Whitehouse, and promote the forthcoming 4th National Homosexual Conference.
The first Mardi Gras march ended in violence, but the police crackdown fired up a community who would no longer be silent.
On Saturday 24 June 1978 at 10pm, several hundred gay and lesbian people and their 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.
"Out of the bars and into the streets!” they yelled. “Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks!”
As more revellers joined in along the route, the police harassed the lead float. Then when the march stopped in Hyde Park, police confiscated the lead float truck and arrested the driver Lance Gowland.
Angered by this, 1,500 revellers diverted up William Street to Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, where the police swooped and violently arrested 53 men and women, many of whom were beaten in cells at Darlinghurst Police Station.
Peter Murphy was 25 when the first Sydney Mardi Gras parade took place on 24 June 1978. He recalls the events of that night and how he was one of 53 people arrested.
Later that week, the Sydney Morning Herald printed the names, occupations and home addresses of those arrested, outing them and leading some to lose their jobs.
But the authorities' attempts to keep Sydney's gay and lesbian citizens in line backfired hugely. Mardi Gras had become a defining moment in the nation's gay rights history. Our people were out of the closets and into the streets.
Protests continued throughout 1978 and beyond, attracting greater numbers of participants and many more arrests.
This ABC news footage shows some of the 104 or so people arrested after the Fourth National Homosexual Conference in August 1978.
1979 | POWER IN THE DARKNESS
For its second year, Mardi Gras expanded from a one-night march to a full-week festival which included a Gay Alternative Fair Day in Hyde Park, a collection of film screenings and the beginning of a great tradition – the fundraising dance party.
The first Mardi Gras dance party filled Balmain Town Hall at the beginning of the week’s festivities, generating the cash needed to fund the licenses and permits for the parade.
At the time, membership of the Mardi Gras Task Group was open to "any gay man or lesbian who supports the idea of a gay festival in the streets of Sydney either for political reasons or because they think it could be a lot of fun."
1980 | OUTRAGEOUS GAY MARDI GRAS!
Mardi Gras expanded in 1980, introducing Parade marshals and revising the Parade route – gathering at Bathurst Street, going down George Street, left onto Liverpool Street, up past Hyde Park South and onto Oxford Street, finishing at Paddington Town Hall for the post-Parade Party.
It was a bitingly cold evening, so attendees were rugged up rather than glittered up. As a result it was decided the festival would move from winter to summer. Separating itself from the anniversary of Stonewall signalled a broader move away from the activism of the 1970s gay rights movement and towards a more community-based celebration.
Based on the Village People, this is one of the first-ever large dressed up Mardi Gras floats.
By 1980, disagreements among Parade marchers had emerged - some said the event had become too political, while others believed it was too frivolous.
"What is the goal of Mardi Gras?" the Mardi Gras Task Group asked itself. "Is it a political demonstration to demand Gay Rights, or is it a celebration of COMING OUT, with its only political goals being to demonstrate the size and variety of the gay community and to establish its right to be?"
1981 | WE ARE THE PEOPLE OUR PARENTS WARNED US AGAINST
Mardi Gras decided to move the Parade to summertime, but torrential rain on the original date of Saturday 21 February meant it was rescheduled to 21 March – the first and only time terrible weather has made Mardi Gras postpone its showcase event.
A group of marchers had been confused about the date and gathered in Moore Park a day early. The Sydney Star reported that they were forced to flee when fired upon by a man with a rifle from a nearby balcony!
The crowd at 1981's Parade neared 5,000, a sizeable increase on the 2,000-3,000 of previous years.
"It started around the barracks in Paddington, wound down Surry Hills near Belmore Park, went up George Street and ended in Hyde Park," photographer William Yang remembers.
The move to a warmer month, along with the creation of an independent and elected organising body, and the efforts to enlist non-activist groups, were landmark changes that shaped the Mardi Gras Parade and Festival as we know it today.
1982 | ON OUR WAY TO FREEDOM
1982's Mardi Gras theme reflected the ongoing struggle for homosexual law reform. The Parade was a spirited challenge to the New South Wales’ government, after a Bill by Labor MP George Petersen to decriminalise homosexual acts was defeated.
An important victory was won later in the year however, when the Wran government passed an amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act, making it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Gay-owned businesses became more involved in Mardi Gras and organised the first Sydney Showgrounds based post-Parade Party.
Shown here, Mardi Gras handed out guidelines to 1982's Parade participants on what to do if they were arrested.
"I still hear people who criticise the Mardi Gras and gay rights organisations for being too vocal and too visible," said Gay Rights Lobby co-convenor and 78er Robert French, who launched the Parade from a truck in Whitlam Square.
"The argument goes that if we do nothing to draw attention to ourselves then straight society will leave as alone. If gays keep to the shadows that they will escape attention and persecution. I believe this argument is tragically wrong, and has proved wrong in the past. Hiding away has never solved anything. Oppression does not just go away. It has to be struggled against and defeated. Oppressors have the be faced up and overthrown.
"So tonight we should process and enjoy ourselves and stand up and tell this city that we are no longer going to be put down. That we are standing up proud to be gay."
The success of the Mardi Gras Party led to the establishment of the renowned Sleaze Ball fundraiser. Held at Paddington Town Hall, the event was inspired by the infamous Sleaze Balls held in New York and Berlin.
It was an immediate runaway success – over 500 potential partygoers were turned away at the door when tickets ran out. Sleaze Ball took its place as a major annual fundraising event for Mardi Gras.
1982 was the first year Mardi Gras made a profit: $4,000.
1983 | NEW GAY DAWNING
1983 was the first year the Sydney City Council placed Mardi Gras flag decorations along the Oxford Street Parade route.
The Parade was launched by out gay Californian politician Harry Britt, who'd been appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after the assassination of Harvey Milk.
The Australia Council supported the Parade with funding of $6,000, which was used by artist and committee member Peter Tully to establish the Mardi Gras Workshop.
Photographer William Yang recalls the 1983 Sleaze Ball: "It was a time when gay men were still being arrested; there were police raids on sex-on-premises venues like Club 80. Activists battled for gay law reform but the decriminalisation of homosexual acts was yet to happen.
"So against this backdrop, revellers at the Sleaze Ball let down their hair. One felt part of a subculture under threat and people were definitely having a good time. The Sleaze Ball was sleazier then - there were spaces where you could have sex. This picture was taken in the morning when the crowd had thinned out and the first shafts of light illuminated the dancers."
1984 | WE'LL DANCE IF WE WANT TO!
The Mardi Gras festival now had its own program guide - which included a brief history of Mardi Gras, a map of the Parade route, and a do-it-yourself guide to dressing up!
In May 1984, homosexuality was finally decriminalised in New South Wales. In the months up until that time, the NSW Police had made over 140 arrests for consensual gay sex - an offence which carried a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment.
But by then the dark shadow of AIDS had fallen over Sydney's gay community. 38-year-old Bobby Goldsmith was a popular figure in the local scene, and his decline and death from AIDS-related illnesses was sudden, sad and shocking. During Goldsmith's bedridden last weeks, the community rallied to buy him a television. The initial fundraiser held at the Midnight Shift was the dawn of what we know today as one of Australia's most significant support organisations for people living with HIV: The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation.
Footage from 1984's Parade famously appeared in the music video for the Cold Chisel song ‘Saturday Night’.
"At the time it wasn’t so accepted for straight guys to go there," remembers the video's director Richard Lowenstein.
"It was brave at the time to have the gay Mardi Gras in a video on Countdown. But Cold Chisel lapped it up."
1985 | FIGHTING FOR OUR LIVES
Now that homosexuality was finally legalised in New South Wales, Mardi Gras turned up the volume for its 1985 celebrations.
The number of festival events was a huge increase on previous years, with everything from theatre and poetry readings, to a film festival and the Gay Business Association Fair.
But 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'.
Jack Allen, Peter Tully and Carlos Bonicci with the Rosella float at the 1985 Parade.
"Some people think the Mardi Gras is something to watch - it's not," said Tully. "The pleasure you get from it is commensurate with what you put into it. Or, to put more bluntly - YOU ARE IT! Welcome to Mardi Gras."
1986 | MARDI GRAS INC.
An increasing number of social groups were getting involved in the festival, as well as entries from interstate and regional areas.
Homosexuality was still illegal in more than half Australia’s states. Mardi Gras was becoming a beacon of gay and lesbian visibility and pride across the nation.
The AngGays group Parade entry was particularly provocative – taking on the Anglican Church with a float shaped like a Monstrance (the phallic-shaped device used for displaying bread on the altar) and signs saying 'AngGays just adore the sacrament'. It was a clear protest against the decision made by the Anglican Church to refuse openly gay members of the church from holding positions of office.
1987 | AUSTRALIA'S LARGEST NIGHT-TIME PARADE
"Then years on and there's still nothing like it," said the Mardi Gras crew in the official 1978 Festival Guide. It featured 35 events, including car and motorcycle rallies, a bush dance, a chess tournament and a floral arrangement competition.
1987 cemented Mardi Gras' place as Australia's largest night-time parade. It was now also a tourist attraction – a large group of New Zealanders crossed the Tasman to march officially under a Kiwi banner for the first time.
1988's Parade was the first to include the Dykes on Bikes, led by Kimberly O'Sullivan and Deb Thompson, who had been inspired by seeing a contingent of lesbian motorbike riders at San Francisco's Pride Parade the previous year.
The increasing involvement of women at Mardi Gras in the late 1980s had by 1988 reached the point where lesbians represented 25 per cent of the membership. Following a Special General Meeting in December, the name of the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Association was officially changed to include the word ‘Lesbian’.
1988 was Australia’s Bicentenary year. The first-ever First Nations float featured Aboriginal dancer and activist Malcolm Cole dressed as Captain Cook, standing in a long boat drawn by white men.
"It is enough trouble being black, let alone gay," Cole explained to the Sydney Morning Herald. "That's why I am determined to put this float in the Mardi Gras."
1989 | THE BATTLE FOR OXFORD STREET
An estimated 200,000 people watched the Parade and a record 15,000 attended the Party. Mardi Gras was now a loud and proud all-encompassing celebration of sexual diversity.
Also in 1989, Mardi Gras got its first lesbian leader. Cath Phillips team won seven seats on the committee and she was elected President.
The Sleaze Ball expanded to fill the Royal Hall of Industries and the Hordern Pavilion, and was the first Mardi Gras party to sell out. 9,000 tickets were sold.
Christian fundamentalist MP Fred Nile was the most outspoken opponent of gays and lesbians. In one of the most memorable Parade entires ever, Fred's giant head was served on a platter of fruit carried by Parade officials - with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence surrounding him as his ‘handmaidens'.
A highlight of the 1989 Mardi Gras Party in the Government Pavilion at the RAS Showground was the 3am show.
"The hall looked like Rio after a hurricane," wrote Jim Jenkins. "There's movement on stage as the lights dim. A lone drag queen appears as that heart-tearing anthem 'I Am What I Am' begins. Seconds later she shares the stage with another hundred entertainers. Men and women in tulle, leather, feather sequins and heavy-duty cotton, stilettos and monkey boots.
"A tightly choreographed number unfolds and reaches its crescendo. The hall erupts. The cheers are deafening. Thousands of arms are in the air. Tears blind."
In October 1989, Fred Nile woke from hibernation to gather several hundred of his followers in a bizarre ‘Cleansing March of Witness for Jesus’ up Oxford Street.
The Reverend warned his flock: "The Mardi Gras sadly emphasises fallen sexuality, characterised by selfishness and promiscuity and the destruction of intimacy by exhibitionism."
Nile’s rally got a reception they’d never forget when they encountered several thousand LGBTQI community members counter-protesting on the streets. Organised by Mardi Gras, Fred Nile masks were handed out to the counter protestors. They chanted "2-4-6-8, are you sure your priest is straight?"
1990 | READY OR NOT, RAIN OR SHINE!
"The 1990 Festival offers the best of gay and lesbian cultural, sporting and community events – more than 60 of them – including world premieres, comedy, cabaret… the list goes on and on," said the Mardi Gras festival guide. "Celebrate with pride and have the time of your life."
The first Mardi Gras Fair Day held in Glebe’s Jubilee Park attracted 1,000 people and featured the first Dog Show plus touch football, mud wrestling and a meet-and-greet with the Dykes on Bikes.
15,000 tickets were snapped up for the sold-out 1990 Mardi Gras after-party.
"1990 was the first Mardi Gras party that I DJ’d at, and my first song 'Free Nelson Mandela' got a huge reaction from the crowd," recalls Rob Davis. Here's his photo of the sea of dancing people in the Government Pavilion.
The music suddenly had to stop at 3am when one reveller got too high - he climbed up a girder and the venue was briefly cleared out while he was deftly and safely rescued.
Marcia Hines performed the party’s closing song at 10am - and she later described the crowd ovation she received as her most pleasing audience reception ever.
1991 | 'WE CAN'T WAIT. AIDS DRUGS NOW!'
Mardi Gras was officially blessed by the newly-formed Gay & Lesbian Choir, who sang for the first time to welcome the festival.
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!”.
1991 was Tina Arena's first time performing at the official Mardi Gras Party, singing along to a dance mix of her hit, I Need Your Body.
46 licensed ‘Mardi Gras Rangers’ completed a training course to provide security for the festival and other major gay and lesbian community events through the year – including the ‘Bent Over’ party in August and Sleaze Ball in October.
Gina Riley and Jane Turner bring news from Melbourne's 'Straight Mardi Gras' in a memorable 1991 episode of TV comedy show Fast Forward.
1992 | MARDI GRAS BRINGS CULTURE, CROWDS AND CASH TO SYDNEY
Designed by Phillipa Playford, 1992’s Mardi Gras festival poster was the first to include a Rainbow Flag in its design.
The festival lasted for four weeks, making it the longest and largest gay and lesbian festival in the world at the time. An Economic Impact Study estimated the entire festival drove $38 million into the local economy.
Drawing over 8,000 people to Glebe’s Jubilee Park, Fair Day featured a fabulous Dog Show, Chocolate Wheel, various sporting events and the inaugural ‘Mardi Gras Decorative Umbrella Contest’ after it had been postposed due to rain.
Several NSW MPs marched in the Parade for the first time, a sign of how important Mardi Gras had become. The 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.
Also in 1992, the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the Australian Armed Forces was lifted.
The Mardi Gras Party was now extremely popular - and not just with gay people. Many voices in the queer community spoke up to question the number of heterosexuals attending, and were getting worried the Mardi Gras Party and Sleaze Ball were losing their identities as LGBTQI events: "Every ticket sold to a straight meant a gay man or dyke missed out. That makes us angry."
In response, the Mardi Gras Board decided to limit sales of Party tickets to members of the Mardi Gras organisation, and a full-page ad in the Star Observer described the Party as "17,000 sweaty, screaming poofters and dykes dancing till 10am... they're all coming to the greatest gay and lesbian party in the world."
1993 | LOVE IS IN THE AIR
In February 1993, Mardi Gras rejected a $33,000 condom sponsorship deal which would have tied Playboy Magazine’s bunny trademark to the LGBTQI festival!
The 1993 Mardi Gras Party, said by many to be one of the best ever, took place over five pavilions at the Showgrounds: the RHI, the Hordern, Dome and the Cabaret and Drag Bars.
1994 | WE ARE FAMILY
1994's Mardi Gras festival included a myriad of community events. Among them were ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the first gay and lesbian exhibition held at the Australian Museum; and ‘Looking Good’, the first Aboriginal gay and lesbian visual arts exhibition, held at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Co-op.
"This is one of the most entertaining, eclectic, risk-taking and successful community arts festivals in this country, and probably in the world," said Mardi Gras President Susan Harben.
The 1994 Mardi Gras Party was packed, with a whopping 19,000 tickets sold. The star attraction was Kylie Minogue, who sang her hit 'What Do I Have To Do' at 3am in the RHI.
In 1994 the Parade was broadcast on television for the first time, beaming the audacious event into millions of homes - and earning the ABC enormous ratings. The program was later released on VHS.
The broadcast stirred a national debate embroiling state and federal politicians, churches, business and media, antagonists and supporters alike. The Cadbury Schweppes company withdrew advertising from ‘Hey, Hey Its Saturday’ when it heard there would be a live cross to the Parade.
A petition signed by 90 Federal MPs in an effort to re-schedule the ABC telecast of the Parade failed – the historic telecast went ahead at 8:30pm Sunday night (the night after the Parade), easily winning its timeslot with 45% of the Sydney TV audience.
"There is nothing quite like being in Mardi Gras," wrote float producer Liz Bradshaw. "The Parade thrills and exhausts, and makes you brave and shy at the same time.
"Once you get a taste for it... the larger-than-life closeness of something so big, that can still offer you a smile and an anonymous 'Happy Mardi Gras' from someone gorgeous, and the unlikely but inevitable meeting with everyone you know."
1995 | FAIRY TALES & LESBIAN LEGENDS
Acclaimed French artists Pierre et Gillies were chosen to design the fabulously floral 1995 Mardi Gras festival poster.
A double-CD compilation of Mardi Gras party anthems was released, including dancefloor fillers like It’s Raining Men, Tainted Love, The Only Way Is Up, We Are Family, Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good) and RuPaul’s Supermodel. The tracks were selected by Stephen Allkins, who was the only other DJ besides Bill Morley to have been appointed to the SGLMG Hall of Fame for his influence on the music at Mardi Gras and Sleaze parties. 20,000 copies were sold and Mardi Gras' discs were number one in the compilation charts for five weeks.
Boy George was the headliner at the 1995 Mardi Gras Party, performing his hit Bow Down Mister and Love Hurts. The Pet Shop Boys were spotted in the crowd.
Rain marred the Parade, but over 150,000 people still turned out to watch 100 walking entries, more than 4,000 marchers and a record number of 90 floats.
The first float was a giant mirrorball, and other entries paid tribute to Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy Stone, Uma Thurman, singer Nana Mouskouri, Pope John Paul II with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the most memorably camp characters of 'Melrose Place'.
The ABC's coverage of the Parade attracted great ratings, but not everyone was a fan. The broadcaster set up a dedicated 'Mardi Gras Hotline' "to avoid switchboard overload" with so many people phoning in to compliment or complain about the program. 750 calls were received. The most controversial float was a phallus-shaped 'Thomas the Tank Engine' design.
The coverage was ably presented by Elle McFeast and Julian Clary, assisted by commentators Julie McCrossin. Angela Cattems and David Marr. Madonna filmed a special message dedicating the world premiere of her music video for Bedtime Stories to her friends in Sydney’s gay and lesbian community.
1996 | FREE, GAY AND HAPPY
Mardi Gras' 1996 Festival added 'The Great Debate' in front of a packed State Theate crowd - a cheeky discussion of whether it was better to be lesbian than gay!
The festival's first significant corporate partnership was with iconic Australian brand Telstra, which came on board as a major sponsor of the Parade. 1996 was also the first year the complete Mardi Gras festival event calendar was available online.
The Chief of the Australian Defence Force gave his approval for a support group for gays and lesbians in the ADF to have a float in the Parade for the first time.
Fred Nile threatened to sue participants of Parade float which depicted him as a caged animal complete with artificial genitalia.
The Party headliners were Sydney drag icon Trudi Valentine and Don’t Leave Me This Way singer Thelma Houston.
A new record crowd of 650,000 turned out to watch the 1996 Parade, which included a very special double-sided lamé Aboriginal flag.
It was a tribute to Matthew Cook, who had passed away the year before, and had wished his mob could carry a huge Aboriginal flag along the Mardi Gras route. His wish was granted. Here's the float organisers Louise Bell and Sue Pinkham with other float participants in Taylor Square.
1997 | CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC
The Mardi Gras Festival was again launched on the steps of the Opera House, this time with a crowd of 32,000. Speakers included first out gay NSW MP Paul O’Grady and a 17-year-old student named Gilbert, who both called for an equalised age of consent.
The Party guests were Chaka Khan who sang her hit I’m Every Woman, and the Village People who performed Can’t Stop the Music. 21,000 tickets were sold.
The Parade coverage moved from the ABC to Channel Ten. Christian MP Fred Nile called for a boycott of the channel and its advertisers, but the telecast went ahead anyway, watched by half a million viewers in Sydney alone, easily winning the timeslot.
Very popular at the Parade was the grand debut of a giant Pauline Hanson puppet head!
1998 | 20 YEARS OF (R)EVOLUTION
In an emotional moment to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Mardi Gras, 220 original 1978 marchers were invited to lead the Parade. 1998 was also the first year that Police marched at the event, forming up near the 78ers in a symbolic gesture of respect and support. The Police's banner read: "We're here because we care."
The entire 20th anniversary Mardi Gras festival was estimated to have contributed $99 million to Sydney’s economy.
Fair Day 1998 was a huge hit, attracting 40-45,000 people in its new home of Victoria Park, having outgrown Jubilee Park in Glebe.
"We don't only come out at night," said Mardi Gras. "Fair Day is fun, frolicsome and completely essential. See the breathtaking diversity of our community - and our community's pets - at our largest daytime gathering."
The Queers for Reconciliation float at 1998's Mardi Gras Parade featured a giant goanna which came down from Moree, a large group of dancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTQI people, and an outback Windmill with 'smell-o-rama' - pumping eucalyptus spray into the air!
"The sheer numbers of people who participated in Queers for Reconciliation on the night are testament to the fact that reconciliation and indigenous rights are important issues for queer communities," wrote the float's organiser Gina Laurie.
The glittering Parade was not only watched by an estimated 700,000 strong crowd, but also a huge TV audience and 20,000 internet users enjoying the first webcast of the event.
1999 | EQUALITY IN DIVERSITY - CELEBRATE THE FUTURE
By now over 4,000 volunteers were involved in making Mardi Gras happen – including 1,400 Parade marshals wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Gays and Lesbians Demand Equality’.
Dykes on Bikes, Bears of Australia and Queers for Recognition each had a major presence in the Parade, as did elder groups marking 1999 as the International Year of the Older Person.
Our Mardi Gras has many fans across the globe – inspired by our festival, our friends in the UK even changed London Pride’s name to ‘London Mardi Gras’ for 1999.
2000 | 2000GETHER
Mardi Gras 2000 was officially launched with the lighting of an Olympic-style ceremonial flame in front of a hushed crowd on the steps of the Opera House.
The festival celebrated the new millennium with a five-hour outdoor concert in Centennial Park, starring Deborah Conway, Bluehouse, the Topp Twins, Tiddas, Shauna Jensen and her daughter Bek, and a finale by Helen Reddy with a massed chorus of I am Woman.
A drag king 'Tom Jones' performed Sexbomb at the Mardi Gras Party, which featured separate women’s and men’s tents and cabaret numbers by Samantha Leith, Joyleen Hairmouth and Tina C.
The 2000 Parade featured almost 8,500 participants. There were multiple ways to watch - it was broadcast on Channel 10, pay per view channel Main Event, and online on Telstra.com.
2001 | OUT THERE, EVERYWHERE
The extravagant Mardi Gras Parade continued to emphasise contemporary political issues – the lead float ‘Beyond the Pink Picket Fence’ featured same-sex parent families with their children, and the ‘Sweeties for a Treaty’ float advocated for Aboriginal rights.
The co-operation between the Jewish float and the first-ever Lebanese float was an emotional highlight. In addition to marching together, the two groups created their floats together in the Mardi Gras workshop.
The Party featured spectacular aerial performances in the RHI, with singers Vanessa Amorosi, Sheena Easton, Christine Anu, Adeva and Shauna Jensen.
13,000 partygoers went to the ‘Beast’ themed Sleaze Ball in 2001. The RHI stage became a giant beast’s head with lasers beaming from its eyes and pouring smoke from its nostrils. Singer Chrissie Amphlett performed I Touch Myself on stage with 24 dancing lesbian vampires, and Pleasure and Pain with 24 demonic male beasts!
2002 | HAPPY MARDI GRAS!
In 2002 the Mardi Gras Parade became recognised by the city as a Hallmark Event, exempting it from paying police, ambulance and Roads and Traffic Authority fees in future years.
Over 19,000 people were at the Mardi Gras Party, involving 7 venues, 22 DJs, 5 live shows, jelly wrestling, state-of-the-art laser lighting, a 3m bucking penis, and shows by Deborah Cox, Bardot and Human Nature.
2002’s vibrant festival was a big success by many measures with a packed Fair Day, Parade and Party, but sharp increases in insurance premiums plus drops in sponsorship and tourism dollars meant the festival posted a dramatic $500,000 loss. In mid-2002, the community was shocked to learn Mardi Gras had to move into voluntary administration.
When George Pell became archbishop of Sydney and Australian cardinal, he was rumoured to have brought with him from Melbourne a number of young priests who were collectively referred to as the ‘Spice Boys'.
This inspired 2002 Parade’s lead float, titled ‘St Muscle Mary Cathedral’, which featured an ‘Archbishop’ surrounded by disco-dancing Spice Girls plus stilt-walking angels and devils.
Here's how it looked on the Star Observer's cover, illustrated by Richard Hughes.
2003 was to be Mardi Gras' 25th anniversary year, but with the organisation under administration, the community had to act urgently to save the festival. ACON, the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Pride and Queer Screen each stepped up, along with thousands of volunteers and generous funders.
"We had nothing. But we thought 'bugger it, we're going to do this,'" remembers New Mardi Gras Co-Chair Michael Woodhouse.
"We spent time on stage at the Imperial shaking donation buckets, asking for funds to put the events on. It was quite amazing to see so many people raise their hands to help create the festival. Every night there would be new people showing up to give jobs to and organise into teams which would make things happen.
"Through so many people's efforts and generosity, Mardi Gras rose again." The 'New Mardi Gras' was born.
2003 | NEW MARDI GRAS
The revived grassroots Mardi Gras festival enjoyed significant success, making a profit of almost $350,000.
"At the Party (Co-Chair) Stevie Clayton and I gave a short speech, which concluded with 'Together we created a new Mardi Gras' and the roar from the crowd was enormous," remembers Michael Woodhouse.
"We'd all seen this event we cared so deeply about dying, and coming back. It was a lovely Party. The 10am show's backdrop were the posters of the past 25 years. The Board, volunteers and everyone who'd made this happen came together for one last dance. Lots of them, including myself, were bawling their eyes out at the sense of relief and completion that it had all happened. It was a profound experience."
2003 was an election year in New South Wales, so Mardi Gras volunteers donned t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "We're Here, We're Queer, We Vote". Parade floats included the satirical anti-war ‘Madame Saddam and her Weapons of Mass Seduction’.
In a major win for gay rights, a bill in New South Wales parliament passed in May to reduce the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16, bringing it in line with the heterosexual and lesbian age of consent.
Chief of Parade in 2003 was Ian Roberts, who was the first high-profile Australian sportsperson and first rugby league player in the world to come out as gay.
As always though, the first thing Parade viewers saw were the Dykes on Bikes, with the roar of their engines revving up the crowd.
2004 | METAMORPHOSIS
Leading the 2004 Parade was former nun Monica Hingston, who’s the cousin of the then Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell. Highlights included the ‘marriage’ of George Bush and John Howard, plus a three-way ‘drag kiss’ between Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Fair Day attracted 75,000 people and included a family-friendly ‘Kidzone’ for the first time, plus no less than four stages around Victoria Park offering live entertainment.
All 17,000 Party tickets sold out. The RHI was themed with video screens as the ‘Cinemorphosis’, the Hordern Pavilion’s look took inspiration from Spartacus, there was an Austin Powers’ themed Retro room, and the Dome was a chill-out zone featuring scenic elements from the set of Barbarella.
2005 | OUR FREEDOM, YOUR FREEDOM
An estimated 450,000 people lined the path of the Parade, which was structured around four themes – Freedom, Family, Passion and Joy. An Aboriginal Float was leading the Parade for the first time, with a banner saying 'WELCOME TO COUNTRY'.
Also in the Parade were Vicki Harding and Jackie Braw with their daughter Brenna. The family had been featured on a ground-breaking episode of the ABC’s 'Play School'.
Another float acknowledged our LGBTQI families in over 80 nations where homosexuality remains illegal – and in many cases punishable by death.
Float entries included a giant green serpent with the face of John Howard, 146 Fran Dreschers dancing to the Nanny theme song, and a show-stopping finale production of Believe by Cher impersonator Candi Stratton. The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation’s new Glamstand took its place on Flinders Street, and three massive video screens along the Parade route – nicknamed Kylie, Britney and Madonna – projected all the action to the crowds.
Nicki French, Darren Hayes, Tina Arena and Courtney Act were on the massive multi-level stage at the Party. An air bridge and podium brought the performers down into the cheering crowd!
2006 | DANCE · LOVE · RADIATE
A $1.5m sponsorship deal with Gaydar meant the entire 2006 festival season was officially titled ‘Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras presented in partnership with Gaydar.com.au’!
15,800 attended the Party at Moore Park, with shows from Jimmy Somerville performing the Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Therese singing with the StoneBridge mix of Put ‘Em High, and Mary Kiani’s song I Imagine. Buses then took partygoers direct to Luna Park for the Toybox Party where dancing continued all through Sunday.
2007 | OBJECTS OF LOVE
2007's festival included a Red Carpet Showcase of cabaret at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and a particularly memorable cheeky chat with visiting guest Chief of Parade Rupert Everett, who was quizzed by Bob Downe and Mitzi Macintosh on his most salacious Hollywood gossip.
Mardi Gras’ lead float in the Parade was ‘WE LOVE MOTHER EARTH’. A huge globe was divided into halves, with the first hemisphere reflecting how destructive the lack of equality is, and the second reflecting where we want to be – in a beautiful planet of love, diversity and respect. The Parade also featured the largest and most complex float Mardi Gras has ever produced – an internally lit-up 4-metre high Trojan horse, with Greek Gods dancing in formation around it.
The Party featured a strong DJ line-up led by Boy George and including The Freemasons and Paul Goodyear. On stage were Dannii Minogue and the Young Divas doing It’s Raining Men and Searchin’.
2008 | BRAVE NEW WORLDS
The 30th anniversary Parade was the largest yet, featuring 9,500 participants and 134 floats, led by those who had started the struggle for LGBTQI equality with the first-ever Mardi Gras.
Visiting comedian Margaret Cho was the Chief of Parade. Among the marchers were two men who had been brutally assaulted in a homophobic attack, and 100 Reverends who were apologising for Christianity’s past and present treatment of gay people. Nearby was Fred Nile’s giant head on a platter once again!
The NSW Government had drawn the ire of Sydneysiders when it spent $142 million on World Youth Day, which was roughly the size of Mardi Gras. In the aftermath, the Government decided to fund Mardi Gras for the first time, with a cash injection of $400,000. Our LGBTQI festival was also added to the state’s Master Events calendar.
Star power at 2008's Party included Olivia Newton-John performing Xanadu, Cyndi Lauper singing Same Ol’ Story and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, plus an I Am What I Am show with Carlotta and David Campbell, and Shauna Jensen’s rendition of Free Gay and Happy.
2009 | NATIONS UNITED
Mardi Gras 2009 was full of colour, variety and humour. Festival guests included comedian Joan Rivers, cabaret star Alan Cumming and singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer.
The ‘Nations United’ theme drew attention to the plight of LGBTQI people across the globe. For example, that year’s Moscow Pride Parade was labelled "satanic" by its mayor and banned. It was hoped Mardi Gras could act as a life-affirming beacon of pride and solidarity for our queer family around the world.
15,200 tickets were sold to the Party, which had 26 DJs, 23 live performances and 4 live bands. The RHI stage was made to resemble classic Disneyland ride ‘It’s a Small World’ and the midnight show set the crowd wild with thousands singing along to Alison Jiear’s signature track I Just Wanna Fucking Dance. Natalie Bassingwaighte was the last performer of the night, singing Heart of Glass and her #1 hit Supersensual.
The Parade returned to TV in 2009, with Charlotte Dawson, Julie McCrossin, Ruby Rose, Joan Rivers, Mitzi Macintosh, Alex Perry and Pam Ann all popping up in Foxtel’s coverage.
2010 | HISTORY OF THE WORLD
For the first time in Mardi Gras’ history the Parade and Party were on different Saturday nights – the Party had been accidently booked for the wrong weekend!
The festival featured the first Queer Thinking day of talks at the Seymour Centre, an evening with Tipping the Velvet author Sarah Waters, dinner at Taronga Zoo, and Drag Races on Bondi Beach with Vanessa Wagner.
Chief of Parade was New York transgender fashion icon Amanda Lepore. 10,000 Parade participants and Mardi Gras members partook in a special outdoor carnival event in Moore Park after the procession. George Michael, Kelly Rowland and Adam Lambert were the star headliners at the 2010 Party. George loved Sydney so much he stayed for several weeks after Mardi Gras season ended.
2010's 'Decadance' Sleaze Ball in October attracted almost 5,000 people and was the last one staged to date. It had become ‘the fundraiser that didn’t raise funds'. The final Sleaze filled the Forum and the Dome at Fox Studios, with shows by Zoe Badwi and Mary Kiani.
2011 | SAY SOMETHING
2011's season theme was simple: Say Something! The festival provided a platform for diverse voices to draw focus on their culture, creativity and causes.
Mardi Gras members voted unanimously to formally include intersex into the organisation and adopt the LGBTQI acronym. The festival crew also sought to change the festival’s name to simply ‘Sydney Mardi Gras’ to make it more inclusive, but many of the organisation’s members argued the words ‘Gay and Lesbian’ were vital to retain.
Here's drag queen Destiny Haz Arrived with her First Nations rainbow flag. In 2011 there were eight Chiefs of Parade instead of just one. Among them were Hannah Williams and Savannah Supski - who had recently protested against the ban on same-sex couples at Hannah's Melbourne school formal.
Also leading the Parade were actress Lily Tomlin, LGBTQI rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations director Don Baxter, Bobby Goldsmith Foundation CEO Bev Lange, and Campaign Against Moral Prosecution's first Co-Presidents Lex Watson and Sue Wills.
2012 | INFINITE LOVE
Mardi Gras’ new logo was revealed with a photo opportunity on Bondi Beach. Two heart shapes created a message of 'Infinite Love' and hope for the world.
The Laneway Party premiered as the closing event of the season, taking over the Beresford Hotel, the Flinders and the connecting Hill Street Laneway, filling them with star moments, drop-in DJs and pop-up performances. It was Mardi Gras' recreation of an unofficial event that had grown naturally there after the official Parties in the 1980s and flourished in the 1990s.
Chief of Parade was ‘Supermum’ Shelley Argent, who’s the national spokesperson for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and 2011’s Queensland Senior of the Year. She’s the proud mum of two sons – one gay, one straight – and believes they both should be treated equally in society and under the law.
2012's Mardi Gras Parade and Party honoured Kylie Minogue’s 25 years of music and her unfaltering support for the LGBTQI communities. Kylie was honoured with a huge show in the Parade featuring 140 dancers, and she performed a full-on 20-minute montage of her greatest hits at the ‘MARDIGRASLAND’ Party.
Also performing at the Party were Sneaky Sound System, Sam Sparro, Shauna Jensen and RuPaul – who wished the crowd ‘Happy Pride’ as she sashayed away!
2013 | GENERATIONS OF LOVE
Events at the 35th anniversary festival included the first-ever Parade Big Ideas Day, a Shop Local weekend highlighting Oxford Street businesses, and a cabaret night with 'Will & Grace' star Megan Mullally.
Mardi Gras also hosted the official after-party for the Scissor Sisters at the end of their Australian tour, where the band treated the crowd to a surprise performance of Let's Have a Kiki.
Performing at the after-party were Eurovision winner Loreen, Delta Goodrem, Heather Small, The Presets and Jake Shears.
A video showing the forceful arrest of a teenager at the Parade went viral and outraged the community, eventually leading to the NSW Police and Mardi Gras signing an accord, pledging to work closer together to ensure a safe and welcoming experience for all participants and spectators at Mardi Gras events.
2013 was the year of the Rainbow Crossing. This colourful walkway across Oxford Street in Taylor Square was created by City of Sydney as part of Mardi Gras’ 35th anniversary celebrations. Tourists loved it, inspiring many cities around the world to paint similar crossings.
When it was removed a few weeks after Mardi Gras season, the resulting DIY Rainbow protest campaign went viral around Australia and the globe.
For its 35th anniversary, Mardi Gras showed off its fabulous history with a pop-up museum on Oxford Street. Undertaken with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, it drew upon a diverse array of archival material including posters, photographs, videos, and some truely amazing costumes - including this glowstick-adorned showpiece by Ron Muncaster.
2014 | KALEIDOSCOPE
"More than just a rainbow, this Mardi Gras season was a kaleidoscopic multiverse of constantly moving colours, shapes and surprises."
Tina Arena was back for the 2014 Party, which also included performances by Courtney Act, Samantha Jade, Marcia Hines, Nathan Mahon and Adam George.
Sydney's controversial lock-out laws began on Mardi Gras weekend, so revellers needed to be in their favourite bars and clubs by 1.30am, and drinks were served until 3am - and then after 5am. Later in the year, the New South Wales government began expunging the historical convictions of gay men convicted under sodomy laws.
2015 | PASSION
2015's special festival guests included Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio, comedian Sandra Bernhard and gender trailblazer Calpernia Addams. Former NSW governor Dame Marie Bashir and her husband Sir Nicholas Shehadie led the Parade.
Dannii Minogue returned for the Mardi Gras Party, which also starred Nick Jonas, Jessica Mauboy, Jake Shears, Betty Who, Rufus Wainwright and Courtney Act.
Darling Harbour came to life throughout 2015 season with ‘Darling!’, including Family Fun Day, the Little Black Dress Run, and ‘Are You Ready 4 Freddie?’, a special Video Production tribute to Freddie Mercury.
2016 | MOMENTUM
"Mardi Gras makes our city sparkle like no one else can. Glitter, hearts, rainbow colours, and thousands upon thousands of smiling faces."
2016's Mardi Gras Parade was one of the biggest ever with more than 170 vibrant floats and 12,500 participants. The Party was a sell-out with more than 12,000 people dancing through the night. Every ticket was snapped up quickly for the festival-ending Laneway Party too.
Queer Thinking had new ideas and energy for 2016. UNHCR supporter Kristen Davis spoke about her visits to Africa to help prevent sexual and gender based violence, while among the 18 other sessions were in-depth looks at finding love online, how to create a family, being out as LGBTQI in sport, and the true stories of Gayby Babies.
Other festival highlights included a night by the harbour with Tina Arena, the Day For Night art party, and Irish marriage equality activist Panti Bliss was ‘Rooting for Australia’ in a special edition of her hilarious and inspiring show.
The Party featured an astonishing line-up of international and homegrown music acts. Particularly glorious was the show on the RHI stage at 1:30am, starring dozens of Sydney’s favourite drag divas strutting their stuff, with Eurovision song contest winner Conchita Wurst and Mardi Gras Ambassador Courtney Act singing a duet.
The sun shone on our colourful Fair Day with more than 70,000 people soaking up the entertainment and community spirit. Hundreds of attendees held hands in a symbolic ‘Let Them Stay’ gesture for asylum seekers.
The Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) now march every year in the Mardi Gras Parade.
PFLAG provides support to parents and families of people who are LGBTIQ, education to the community to inform and raise awareness, and advocacy for the equal rights of their LGBTIQ friends and loved ones.
A new addition to the festival program, Koori Gras @ 107 was a week-long festival all of its own, and a chance to discover Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ long history of passionate involvement with Mardi Gras.
First Nations people also worked together with the original 1978 Mardi Gras marchers on a symbolic moment to begin 2017's Parade, which also featured floats calling attention to marriage equality, refugees, mental health and the recognition of transgender rights.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 1978-2018 Timeline
Written and complied by Matt Akersten
A History of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras by Graham Carbery
New Day Dawning: The Early Years of Sydney's Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras by the Pride History Group
Sydney Mardi Gras 2013 Museum Brochure by Nick Henderson and Lewis Oswald
+ Various Season Guides and Annual Reports.
With thanks to: Pride History Group, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Star Observer, William Yang, Kathy Pavlich, C.Moore Hardy, Markham Lane, Steph Sands, Jane Becker, Virginia Lovett, Katherine Wolfgramme, Nick Henderson, Robert French, Mazz Image, Jamie James, Lewis Oswald, Susan Charlton, Bruce Pollack, Gillian Minervini, Philippa Playford, Michael Woodhouse, Murry McLachlan, Ann-Marie Calilhanna, Mark Trevorrow, Ian Waters, Liz Carter, Tim Bishop, Rob Davis, Jeff Allan, Joel De Sá, Terese Casu and Greg Clarke.