“We gather too often for inequality. This is an opportunity to focus on the celebration of their lives and achievements.”
Stephen A. Russell

18 Feb 2017 - 12:16 PM  UPDATED 18 Feb 2017 - 12:16 PM

Celebrations following the June 24, 1978 protest march organised by the Sydney Gay Solidarity Group were brutally confronted by police violence, marking the birth of what we now know as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Aboriginal women Chris Burke and Annie Pratten were among that number, and are celebrated in today’s march as the ‘78ers.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been a part of the evolving nature of Mardi Gras from the very beginning. In 1988 - with the march now moved to summer - the first official First Nations float was led by Malcolm Cole who, in a satirical swipe at Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations that same year, dressed as Captain Cook. Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cole said, “It is enough trouble being black, let alone gay. That is why I am determined to put this float in the Mardi Gras.”

The float picked up the Special Parade Award. It’s one of many golden moments archived in an always-evolving digital timeline of LGBTIQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in Mardi Gras, curated by Tim Bishop. A treasure trove of incredible stories, photographs and rare archival footage, some of its highlights - including a sparkly lamé flag created by Aboriginal women - will be displayed during this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in a celebration of First People’s culture dubbed Koori Gras.

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Hosted at Redfern’s 107 Projects from February 21-26, Koori Gras has been curated by Bishop, alongside Mish Sparks and Liza-Mare Syron. It also features the Black Point communal table meeting point, and a Black Nulla drag cabaret show followed by a DJ set.

Bishop was inspired to record this rich history following the death of his partner Matthew Cook. “Matthew was a really smart man, a very strong communicator and community-minded, who advocated a lot for HIV-positive Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people during the late 80s early 90s,” Bishop says. “We were both very active in the community, so I’m basically continuing with what we were doing.”

Noting that time was of the essence, Bishop says: “Many of the people who held that history are deceased, and the job of recording it becomes harder and harder, so 12 months ago I realised we had to get started on the timeline.”

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Predominantly featuring joyous moments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ people’s participation, Bishop says that was a key focus of the project. “We gather too often for inequality. This is an opportunity to focus on the celebration of their lives and achievements.”

Wilo Muwadda - a research assistant at the University of Sydney - first moved to Sydney as a 19-year-old in 1980. As a young man from the Bwgcolman Palm Island Aboriginal community in North Queensland, he says that while he’d met non-Indigenous gay guys before, he had a very different way of identifying within his own community. Mardi Gras gave him license to explore new ways of understanding his identity and meet fellow LGBTIQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“I wanted to be flamboyant,” he says. “I wanted to be out there. I made a lot of friends and some of those friends I made, I still have today. They took me along to the parade.”

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The first march, Muwadda wore a green and gold leotard with a wig and roller blades. “It opened up a way I could come to my own understanding of who I was and my place in Australian society," he says, calling Mardi Gras "the perfect avenue for that expression".

He notes: "When I got home, I fell back into the culture again and there were two worlds, and I liked both of them.”

The onset of the HIV/AIDs crisis was a difficult time for Muwadda and his friends, particularly as it coincided with the Bicentenary, but he also saw the community rally together.

“The Captain Cook float made a real statement about who we were and put us into the gay community in a strong position," he says. "Mardi Gras is a focal point that brings us all together across race, age, diversity of sexuality and gender.”

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The First Nations float’s place at the head of the parade - taking place on March 4 this year - is hugely important, Muwadda says. “We have that visible solidarity. It’s really important for us and we have elders around us as well, which speaks to the world.”

Koori Gras co-curator Sparks also produced this year’s First Nations float. Proudly supported by the Aboriginal Project at ACON, NSW’s leading HIV prevention, support and LGBTI health organisation, it’s dubbed Creating Equality: Step By Step, inspired by the Whitney Houston song and the overarching theme of this year’s Mardi Gras.

“Some years the theme is kind of nebulous, but this year it really hit the nail on the head for us because creating equality is really important for us across all areas of inclusion and opportunity in the broader community,” Sparks says. “It celebrates our special identity as the First Nations of this continent and also draws attention to human rights issues in general, not just LGTBIQ-specific.”

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Working with choreographer Raymond Blanco and his students from the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College, he suggested the song, which Sparks embraced readily. “It’s not just a great song to dance to, if you listen to the lyrics, they really tell a story about overcoming adversity, perseverance, resilience, strength and not giving up until and that’s a really good theme song for us. We build on our wins, we keep working towards where we need to be in terms of education, health, work opportunities and all the other areas where there should be equality.”

Sparks agrees that the presence of elders on the First Nations floats vital.  “We’re going out to a worldwide audience through this platform, and we want to share our message and our culture and celebrate the diversity of our community. We always make sure we have elders as part of our float, including those who aren’t sexuality and gender diverse. That sends a message to isolated community members and let’s them know that there are elders out there who will embrace and support them.”

The Koori Gras exhibition runs from Tuesday 21 February - Sunday 26 February at Redfern's 107 Projects. For more information, you can check out the Mardi Gras site here.

SBS will be streaming the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade live on Saturday, March 4 on SBS On Demand, and will then air our Mardi Gras special event - with commentary from our hosts, behind-the-scenes action and exclusive interviews - on Sunday March 5. In the meantime, you can keep up with all our Mardi Gras content here.