• Captain Cook float, 1988 Parade. Pictured (L-R): Jimmy Gagi (dec), Colin Sailor (dec), Rodney Junga-Williams (dec). Photographer: Elaine Pelot Syron. (detail) ((Koori Gras))Source: (Koori Gras)
OPINION | Academic, Dr Sandy O'Sullivan first attended the Mardi Gras parade 33 years ago, she reflects on some of the growth and change she has seen in this time.
Dr Sandy O'Sullivan

27 Feb 2017 - 12:59 PM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2018 - 4:07 PM

For the next few weeks across Sydney there will be a mainstream festival that celebrates LGBTIQ* identities, with life-affirming events, socio-political moments, and a parade that proudly shows off the diversity of our lives.


Mardi Gras 40 years ago

It’s significant that Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was born out of a place of protest, with the first parade held in 1978 providing an Australian response to an international voice demanding the decriminalisation of homosexuality and equal rights. In this protest many of the ‘78ers’ - as they have come to be known - were arrested and subjected to police brutality. Following the subsequent publication of their names in the Sydney Morning Herald – an act that the SMH apologised for in 2016 – many of those who attended the protest lost their jobs and in some cases their families. 

"For LGBTIQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, there is an added complexity because being queer and being an Indigenous person are often treated as separate elements by communities, government, support agencies, and even sometimes by our own mob."

This year, the Mardi Gras turns 40, and while many across the LGBTIQ community only now can celebrate marriage equality, the passage of time and the persistent protest of the Mardi Gras brought with it fundamental human rights. 

Indigenous people and the LGBTQI community, a shared experience

Sound familiar? As First Nations’ peoples, we know a great deal about persistent protest, arrest and naming. Through more than 200 years of colonial rule and frontier wars, and with ongoing negotiation and treaties by our people to the governments to be treated fairly, the struggle continues and while there is still work to do. However, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we also have moments to celebrate. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, an event that determined a government position on Indigenous peoples in Australia. While myths abound regarding its scope, the success of the referendum marked significant changes in government policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

"Do you know how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are LGBTIQ? Nor do I."

These parallel, public experiences share some common ground, both come from a place of challenge, protest and resistance. There are also significant differences between these communities and the results that have been delivered, except – of course - for those of us who belong to both. For LGBTIQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, there is an added complexity because being queer and being an Indigenous person are often treated as separate elements by communities, government, support agencies, and even sometimes by our own mob.


LGBTIQ and Indigenous? Yes, we exist 

Do you know how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are LGBTIQ? Nor do I. There are no clear statistics on who we are, where we live, what work we do, our relationship to our families, nor on the layer of richness and complexity we add to the cultural fabric of our intersecting communities.

We know that two of the three factors that represent the highest risk for suicide in Australia are gender/sexual identity and Indigeneity, with a further third factor of remote and regional location. Intersected queer mob who are located in poorly serviced locations could represent some of the highest at risk of suicide. I say ‘could’, because the government hasn’t yet done the work to locate our numbers.  

However, over the last few years there have been significant inroads to building a better picture of our unique challenges and opportunities – including the ones around suicide, and it is no coincidence that these reports, stories, research and performances are authored from within the community.

Dameyon Bonson, the founder of Black Rainbow, an advocacy group for LGBTIQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, recently delivered an extensive report: Voices from the Black Rainbow: The inclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI, Sistergirls and Brotherboys in health, wellbeing and suicide prevention strategies. Dameyon has advocated for many years on the importance of an Indigenous voice in speaking our truths and telling the stories of our lives and he frequently laments the lack of accurate statistics, while doing as much as he can to remedy this. Through this report and his ongoing advocacy, Dameyon warns of the vulnerabilities and dire outcomes for LGBTIQ people within our communities, where explicit support, understanding and advocacy are absent. The statistics, while under-serviced, show a substantially higher rate of suicide and suicidal ideation for LGBTIQ First Nations’ peoples, and the report provides insights into how this could be addressed, while holding government and mainstream LGBTIQ advocacy groups and programs partly responsible for failing to support our communities. Unbelievably, Dameyon and Black Rainbow have had to crowd source to raise funds for the basic production of this report, and Dameyon continues to work mostly unfunded by mainstream research or government organisations.  

"... the horrific effects of colonisation and church doctrine have led some in our communities to deny the abundant complexity of our lives."    

2015 saw the release of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Identities: Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia. The first of its kind, it held stories and research from 22 people detailing their diverse experiences that ranged from remote to regional to urban, from young to older, detailing the vast experience of what it is to be queer and Indigenous in Australia. Many of the essays used a commonly held homophobic and transphobic argument, that homosexuality and transsexuality were unheard of prior to invasion and were therefore an effect of colonisation. This is challenged across many of the essays, with evidence and ideas that help to describe a rich tapestry of inclusion of queer people and identity across communities, while detailing the decimation of families where hatred and phobia can result in queer members being hurt or shunned by their mob. It’s poignant that while maintaining, reviving and celebrating our diverse and shared cultural practices that the horrific effects of colonisation and church doctrine have led some in our communities to deny the abundant complexity of our lives.    

2015 also saw the release of BOLD: Stories from older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, which told the stories of 70 LGBTIQ people. Each person told their own story, what it is to be older and ‘out’, what it means to have lived through changes to their rights, to have lost or gained family, to have enacted protest, and providing a model for how to be older and queer. Of the 70 stories, six are by Indigenous people, including the book’s writer and editor, Dr David Hardy. Through explicitly including these stories in a mainstream book, albeit one authored by an Aboriginal man, the individual experiences of being queer, Indigenous – and in this case, older - become central and heard within the mainstream discussion.  

This year, over the course of the Mardi Gras, there will be many participants who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. They’ll come from remote, urban, regional locations in NSW and across Australia. There will be parallel events in cities across the country, with our mob participating, and there will be many of our mob watching what’s happening from afar. Mardi Gras, like every protest engagement, isn’t simple. It hasn’t always been as inclusive as it might have been, it hasn’t always promoted diversity in ways that heard the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but as it grows, we participate more, we engage more, and it more accurately reflects our diverse experiences.


Mardi Gras become more inclusive

Over the 33 years since I first attended the Mardi Gras Parade, I’ve seen our inclusion grow in numbers, and retreat when there have been management decisions that haven’t served us, and grow yet again to both promote identities within our owned floats, within our diverse communities and locations and for us to be recognised as a significant group within the space of protest.

Beyond the parade, there are a number of events by, and with, mob, most prominent being Koori Gras, a fabulously camp and wonderful black event. Although I wish there were more; we should always wish for more.

Author's notes: 

*The collective term queer is used here to describe LGBTIQ people.

L – Lesbian

G – Gay

B – Bisexual

T – Transgendered

I – Intersex

Q – Queer/sometimes Questioning


Dr Sandy O’Sullivan is a Wiradjuri woman, has been an academic, researcher and artist-performer for 25 years, and was until recently the Director of the Centre for Collaborative First Nations’ Research. She is currently completing the write-up of a major study of 470 museums that represent and engage the diverse voice of First Nations’ peoples.  She’s also a lesbian in case you can’t tell from the picture. 


Watch Black Divaz on NITV (Ch. 34) on Thursday 1 March at 8.30pm. Catch up available On Demand. Join the conversation #BlackDivaz 

SBS will have an encore telecast of Black Divaz following its broadcast of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras’s 40th anniversary on Sunday 4 March at 11pm.

Black Divaz will also be screening at Queer Screen’s 25th Mardi Gras Film Festival on Wednesday 28 February.