• Participants take part in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade in Sydney on March 7, 2015. Around 10,000 people took part in the 37th Mardi Gras Parade. (AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS )Source: AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS
From protest to party, it’s always been a celebration of pride.
Shane Cubis

2 Mar 2017 - 1:17 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2017 - 9:32 AM

It has been nearly 40 years since the inaugural Mardi Gras Parade made its way down Oxford Street in Sydney. As we glitter up for the next installment on March 4, here’s a look back at the moments that shaped the Australia's most festive celebration of sexuality in all its glorious forms.

Before Mardi Gras

Back in the mid-to late ‘70s, the legal status of Australian LGBT+ people was in flux. Male homosexual acts had been decriminalised in South Australia, but Victorian police were still arresting people with the use of entrapment techniques. Things weren’t much better in NSW, where homosexuality remained illegal. Nevertheless, there was a growing political movement aimed at changing things, made up of smaller groups from across the nation. “It was exhilarating and scary,” 78er Steve Warren told The Courier in 2013. “There were all these bars and venues where you could be yourselves. But as soon as you came home and you left Oxford Street, you went back into a world that was hostile and depressing.”

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It was 10pm on Saturday, June 24, 1978 when the first parade began. Originally designed to be Australia’s contribution to International Gay Solidarity Day—itself a reaction to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York—the Sydney event was rapidly derailed by police. The lead float was harrassed all the way down Oxford St, and when the marchers reached Hyde Park, things got serious. The lead float truck was seized, the driver escaped, while the marchers detoured towards Kings Cross. Violence ensued, leading to the arrest of 53 people and the assault of many more. In the aftermath, the Sydney Morning Herald published the full names of those arrested, which had dire implications as they were outed to friends, family and bosses. “The first Mardi Gras is often described as a riot but I didn’t see it that way,” Mark Gillespie wrote in The Conversation. “It was a very defiant act of resistance that proved a turning point. We were willing to stand up, to resist. We were people too; our sexualities may have been diverse and different but that did not make us any less human than others.”

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The excesses of the ‘80s

Determined to maintain the momentum, organisers planned a repeat event for 1979, drawing in 3000 people to march (this time the theme was “Power in the Darkness”). Police turned up again, but since Neville Wran had repealed the Summary Offences Act that had been used as a pretext the year before, there were no arrests. Third time was the charm in 1980, after which the decision was made to move the whole event to summer – a much more festive season. By now there were roughly 5000 people watching the parade, a number which would increase to 50,000 by 1984. The next year, in 1985, the parade was themed “Fighting for our Lives” as the devastating AIDS epidemic united the gay community in solidarity.

Comment: On how the AIDS crisis of the 80s united the queer community
A look at how far we've come, and how far we have to go.

Strengthening the rainbow coalition

Closer to the end of the decade came a now-iconic part of Mardi Gras—the Dykes on Bikes made their first appearance in 1988 (when the event was renamed “Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras”), and by 1991 the 200-strong organisation had taken pride of place at the front of the parade. 1988 also saw the debut of the First Nations float, helmed by Malcolm Cole – who dressed as Captain Cook. At the time, he told the Sydney Morning Herald, “It is enough trouble being black, let alone gay. That is why I am determined to put this float in the Mardi Gras.” According to the same story, at the previous year’s event an onlooker was heard to shout, “Oh, there’s an Aboriginal! I didn't know there were gay Aboriginals.”

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The revolution will be televised

In 1994, for the first time, people could watch the Mardi Gras parade – themed “We are Family” – without leaving their homes. The ABC broadcast a 50-minute selection of edited highlights, scoring record Sunday night ratings. Of course, there was some backlash on Backchat, but by 1997 a commercial channel (Ten) was covering the Mardi Gras, too. 1998 saw another milestone, as organisers celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first march by inviting 220 of the 78ers to lead the parade past a 700,000-strong crowd. “It was the first time I really felt honoured for what we did,” a choked-up Peter Murphy, one of the victims of police violence, told the ABC.

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Trouble in paradise

Despite growing bigger and better every year, the event ran into financial trouble in the 2002, running at a $400,000 loss due to reduced tourist numbers post 9/11 and higher insurance premiums. The following year saw a complete rethink of the event triggered by complaints it had become too commercial, attempting to return it to grassroots. Since 2008, the Mardi Gras has received funding from the NSW state government. 2011 saw another controversial manoeuvre from the organisers - albeit one with good intentions - when the event was renamed to Sydney Mardi Gras. This was meant to reflect inclusiveness for all participants of diverse sexuality and gender identities, but some felt the loss of the words “Gay and Lesbian” was a backward, whitewashing step.

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How it looks today

If you wander through Sydney in the lead-up to the event these days, the contrast with 1978 couldn’t be more powerful. You only have to take a look at the glammed-up GAYTMs people are withdrawing money from to see the community and corporate support for Mardi Gras. Politicians from all sides have been involved, from Governor Marie Bashir opening the festival in 2005 to Lord Mayor Clover Moore marching proudly with a group of her doppelgangers. Last year saw a sitting Prime Minister in attendance for the first time, and although there was much debate about whether Malcolm Turnbull would be invited back this year, he has declined the invitation, stating that he has "other things to do on Mardi Gras day" this year.

Comment: Don’t ban Malcolm Turnbull from Mardi Gras. Invite him to the party and let him face the music.
"If politicians want to drape themselves in the rainbow flag, they must be prepared to have their record on equality held up to scrutiny," writes Jill Stark.

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.