Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 1978-2022 Timeline

By Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

From 1978 to today, this is our Mardi Gras story.

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 over four decades of Mardi Gras passion, protests and pride - with each year’s heroic moments creating Australia's unique life-affirming kaleidoscope of LGBTQIA+ self-expression.

24 June 1978 Protest (1978-06-24) by Campaign magazine, courtesy Australian Lesbian & Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

1978 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1978) by Chris JonesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 remembering Sydney's First Mardi Gras (2016-09-07) by William BroughamSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

Dennis Scott and Eddie Hackenberg in gay rights march (1978-07-15) by Geoff Friend, courtesy Geoff Friend and Australian Lesbian & Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

1979 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1979) by Sydney University Fine Arts WorkshopSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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."

Gay Solidarity March (1979-06-20) by Robert FrenchSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

On the morning of 20 June 1979, the Gay Solidarity March set off from the Town Hall on George Street, marking the 10th anniversary of New York's Stonewall riots.

Mardi Gras march with pink triangle banner (1979-06-30) by Robert FrenchSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1979's Mardi Gras organisers were prepared for another possible police confrontation. Planning included an emergency bail fund for anyone arrested for the still-illegal act of male homosexuality.

3,000 people attended on the night, and despite a large police presence, no one was arrested.

1980 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1980) by Prue BorthwickSydney Gay and Lesbian 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.

Village People float (1980-06-28) by Robert FrenchSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1981) by Sheona White, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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!

Mardi Gras Parade (1981-03-21) by William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

Peter Tully (1981-03-21) by William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Peter Tully at Mardi Gras 1981. Tully was to become a huge influence in the early Mardi Gras with his creative flair building and shaping the visual spectacle of the Parade.

1982 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1982) by Andrew ShortSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Route of Parade Map (1982) by Sydney Star's Mardi Gras Guide, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Among 1982's Parade participants was Narrandera man Roger McKay, who marched alone with the Aboriginal flag. This is acknowledged as the first time the flag representing Australia's First People appeared in the Parade.

Guidelines if Police action occurs (1982) by Sydney Gay Mardi Gras, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 First Sleaze Ball Poster (1982-09-18) by Bill MorleySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1983) by Allan Booth, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Albury Hotel Parade Float (1983-02-26) by William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The 1983 Parade included some of the biggest and best floats to date, including giant puppets of ET and Yoda, plus the controversial AngGays float depicting Jesus' mother Mary as a lesbian. Here's the extravagant Albury Hotel float.

Mardi Gras Party ticket (1983-02-19) by Bill Morley, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Sleaze Poster (1983-10-15) by Bill MorleySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The Sleaze Ball of 1983 was the first big one to be held at the Showgrounds.

Sleaze Ball dancefloor (1983-10-15) by William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1984) by Allan BoothSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Cold Chisel - Saturday Night (1984-02-25) by Cold ChiselSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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."

Colourful Mardi Gras (1984-02-25) by William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

"Colour, movement and abstraction from the early Mardi Gras, circa 1984," says photographer William Yang. "The workshop in Boundary Street greatly contributed to the creativity of Mardi Gras in the 80s."

Ron Muncaster Costume (1984-02-23) by Jenny TemplinSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Michael O'Halloran in a colourful Ron Muncaster creation made out of glowsticks, which was the winner of the 1984 Best Costume competition.

Sleaze Ball Poster 1984 (1984-10-06) by Ian BarbourSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

With its two major fundraising events the Mardi Gras Party and Sleaze Ball a raging success, Mardi Gras delivered a record $42,000 surplus in 1984.

1985 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1985) by Peter Tully and William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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'.

Peter Tully's Rosella Float Design (1985-02) by Peter Tully, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Parade Creative Director Peter Tully's design sketch for the Rosella Float in 1985.

Rosella Float at Parade (1985-02-23) by William Yang, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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."

Gay Mardi Gras Party Poster 1985 (1985-02-23) by Allan Booth, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Sleaze Ball Poster 1985 (1985-10-12) by David McDiarmidSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1985's Sleaze Ball was conducted in truly decadent style, transforming the Hordern Pavilion into a brilliant fantasyland complete with a Mayan, a Roman and a pagan temple. Revellers were invited to choose their preferred place of worship!

1986 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1986) by David McDiarmidSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Peter, Philip, Ron and Jeff in the Mardi Gras Workshop (1985-02) by Campaign image by John Jenner, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Peter Tully, Philip Mills (Doris Fish), Ron Smith and Jeff Hardy at the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Workshop in February 1986.

ACON's First Mardi Gras Float (1986-02-22) by Star ObserverSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The AIDS Council of New South Wales' first-ever Mardi Gras Parade float was in 1986, encouraging gay men the 'Get Bold About Safer Sex'. ACON's participation in the Parade has continued every year for over three decades.

1987 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1987) by Michael FenaughtySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


"Ten years on and there's still nothing like it," said the Mardi Gras crew in the official 1987 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 biggest 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.

Gay Mardi Gras Turns Ten (1987-02-20) by Sydney Morning HeraldSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Bigger, better and even more inclusive, the 10th Mardi Gras continued the festival's massive growth, culminating in an estimated 100,000 people attending the parade - doubling the previous year's crowd.

Sleaze Ball Graffiti (1987-09-05) by Leonardo Da Vinci and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi GrasSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The poster for 1987's Sleaze Ball featured a simple reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, cheekily supplied with black textas so people could graffiti on the image.

Star Observer Tax Headline (1987-05-01) by Sydney's Star ObserverSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The Star Observer's splash headline in 1987 spelled out a serious threat to Mardi Gras financial stability. The Australian Tax Office later decided to grant the organisation tax exempt status.

1988 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1988) by David McDiarmidSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


On the Monday after the big Mardi Gras Parade and Party, Channel 10 in Sydney ran a telephone poll asking ‘Should the Mardi Gras be banned?’ 47,980 calls were received – with 57 percent saying "NO"!

The First Dykes on Bikes at Parade (1988-02-27) by Dykes on BikesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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’.

Malcolm Cole as Captain Cook (1988-02-27) by Kendall Lovett, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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."

Jayar Leather Float at Parade (1988-02-27) by Bob Buckley, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

"The Only Brand For Your Hide" said the cheeky Jayar Leather Float at the 1988 Parade.

Diana Ross Chain Reaction Show (1988-02-27) by Unidentified photographer, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The most memorable show at 1988's Mardi Gras Party featured ten drag queen Diana Ross's to mark Mardi Gras' tenth anniversary. They shimmied their way across two stages to the song 'Chain Reaction'.

Sydney Gay Mardi Gras at San Francisco Pride (1988-06-26) by Papers of David Wilkins, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Fanny Farquar (Ron Handley), Dot Dingle (David Wilkins), Greg Williams and Doris Fish (Phillip Mills) advertised the 1989 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras at San Francisco Pride 1988.

1989 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1989) by Phillip McGrathSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Fred Nile Head on Platter (1989-02-18) by William YangSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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'.

I Am What I Am Show at Mardi Gras Party (1989-02-18) by Sydney Mardi GrasSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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."

Fred Nile anti-gay march on Oxford Street (1989-10-02) by National 9 NewsSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1990) by David McDiarmidSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


"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.

Sydney Star Observer Rain on Parade (1990-02-23) by Sydney Star ObserverSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

It bucketed down rain on 1990’s Mardi Gras Parade, but still 115,000 people showed up to cheer on the thoroughly drenched procession, led by a sequin-clad bunch of Rio dancers, and a really Big Wig!

Mardi Gras Party Government Pavilion Dancefloor (1990-02-17) by Rob DavisSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

Sleaze Ball Poster 1990 (1990-10-20) by Steven VellaSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1990's Sleaze Ball had an ‘Angels and Devils’ theme and was bigger than ever before, with 12,000 tickets sold.

1991 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1991) by Geoffrey GiffordSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Fast Forward - Straight Mardi Gras (1991) by Fast ForwardSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Gina Riley and Jane Turner bring news from Melbourne's 'Straight Mardi Gras' in a memorable 1991 episode of TV comedy show Fast Forward.

Gingham Woman (2002-02) by Peter ElfesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Pictured at the 1991 Sleaze Ball, Brenton Heath-Kerr as the Gingham Woman was featured in a poster for the 2002 season designed by Norman Edwards.

1992 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1992) by Phillipa PlayfordSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Party ad in Sydney Star Observer (1992-02-07) by Sydney Star ObserverSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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."

Julian Clary and Mark Tewskbery (1992-02-29) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Visiting UK comedian Julian Clary sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir at the 1992 Mardi Gras Party for the 10am closing show.

Sleaze Ball Poster 1992 (1992-10-03) by Mark ForrestSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1992's jungle-themed Sleaze Ball was attended by a crowd of 14,000, and featured a dedicated 'lesbian friendly' space plus three lesbian DJs.

1993 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1993) by Kendal BakerSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

The Albury Hotel Mardi Gras Decoration (1993-02) by Jamie JamesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation's ‘Shop Yourself Stupid’ promotion activated on Oxford Street during Mardi Gras 1993. Here's how the Albury Hotel looked during the festival!

Koori Celebration (1993-02-21) by Gays and Lesbians Against Racisim and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Among 1993's Mardi Gras festival events was a Koori Celebration in support of the United Nations International Year of World Indigenous Peoples.

It Takes Balls To Be A Queen (1993-02-27) by Jamie JamesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

On a hot evening in 1993, the Mardi Gras Parade attracted a record crowd of 500,000, who witnessed 118 float entries in an elaborate 2-hour, 2.5km spectacle.

Starting the Parade (1993-02-27) by Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi GrasSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1994 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1994) by Glenn A MoffatSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

We Are Family Float (1994-03-05) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1994's Parade theme 'We Are Family' was a nod to the International Year of the Family.

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.

Lesbian Brides on Parade (1994-03-05) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

"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 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1995) by Pierre et GillesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Mardi Gras Fundraiser (1995-02) by Jamie JamesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

A Mardi Gras fundraiser for the 1995 season at Sydney Town Hall.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Costumes at Parade (1995-03-04) by Jamie JamesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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'.

'Sleaze Parade' newspaper letter (1995-03-09) by Daily Telegraph MirrorSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1996) by Glenn A MoffatSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Bob Downe on Sydney Opera House Steps (1996-01) by Mazz ImageSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Bob Downe launched Mardi Gras 1996 on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, with tens of thousands of people cheering “HAPPY MARDI GRAS!"

The Sparkling Aboriginal Flag (1996-03-02) by Jamie JamesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

Sleaze Ball Poster 1996 (1996-10-05) by Richard HughesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

October 1996's 'Voodoo Circus' themed Sleaze Ball featured Pete Burns on a cartoon skull-adorned stage with his band Dead Or Alive performing You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) and Sex Drive.

1997 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1997) by Suzanne BoccalatteSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Mardi Gras Attacks (1997-02) by Jeff AllanSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras Parade Video Ad (1997-02) by Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi GrasSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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!

Lea DeLaria at the Mardi Gras Festival (1997-03-01) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

American Comedian Lea DeLaria, now best recognised for her role as 'Big Boo' on 'Orange is the New Black', shows off her t-shirt protesting John Howard's government during her stand-up show at the 1997 Mardi Gras festival.

The Lemonheads on Parade (1997-03-01) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The Lemonheads were Mardi Gras' memorable all-female choreographed and costumed Parade float entry in 1997, and was later recreated in 2013.

Sleaze Ball Poster 1997 (1997-10-04) by Ricahrd HughesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Tina Arena was the star performer at 1997's 'Atlantis' Sleaze Ball, singing her hit Burn at 2am in the RHI.

1998 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1998) by David Corbet, Andrew Medhurst and Bryce Tuckwell, Design NationSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


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.

Pam Ann at Fair Day (1998-02-08) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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."

Workshop in Erskineville (1998-02) by C.Moore HardySydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Inside the Mardi Gras Workshop on Erskineville Road as preparations continue for the 1998 Parade.

Queers for Reconciliation Float (1998-02-27) by Jamie JamesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

78ers at 20th Anniversary Parade by Bob Downe & Julie McCrossinSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

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.

Kylie's Devils Backstage at Party (1998-02-28) by Markham LaneSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras Party attendance peaked in 1998 with a whopping 27,000 tickets sold. It was the Minogue effect – sisters Kylie and Dannii were both on stage. Here's Kylie's back-up dancer 'Devils' backstage at the Royal Hall of Industries.