• Scenes of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Celebration on March 2, 2013 in Sydney Australia. (James D. Morgan)
Cool fact: In French, 'Mardi Gras' means 'Fat Tuesdays'.
Chloe Sargeant

26 Feb 2018 - 10:22 AM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2020 - 10:10 AM

Why, you may wonder, did the 78ers decide upon a term that means 'Fat Tuesday' to describe the inaugural LGBTQIA+ event? It's a long story, but would a Mardi Gras by any other name smell as sweet? Let's find out.

It may surprise you to learn that Mardi Gras is a Catholic term, created to describe the festivities that lead up to Lent. The Carnival begins on the day of the Christian feasts of the Epiphany, and finishes on the day before Ash Wednesday - commonly known as Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday. 

The Carnival is a festival of gluttony - essentially, people celebrating as hard as they could to 'fatten up' before the season of Lent, which is 40 days of fasting and sacrifice.

The festival can be traced back to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice to the French House of the Bourbons.

We asked the 78ers for their best advice for the next 40 years
"We were just people who had a rough time, stayed and kept fighting. I’m chuffed that people can reap those benefits. You’ll find that if you carry on then in 40 years people can reap the benefits of your hard work."
Never forget: The 78ers and the origins of Mardi Gras
'The First Mardi Gras: Was The Pain worth the Gain? An Afternoon with the 78ers' will be held at the East Sydney Community and Arts Centre on February 17.

How Mardi Gras hit New Orleans

In the late 17th century, King Louis XIV sent Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to defend France's claim on the territory of 'Louisiane' - modern day Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. On this mission, they entered the mouth of the Mississippi River and made their way upstream, setting up camp at a location known today as New Orleans. The date was March 3, 1699, so the group named the spot Point du Mardi Gras in honour of the Catholic holiday.

The first organised Mardi Gras in New Orleans happened only 4 years later, in 1703, but the first Mardi Gras parade didn't take place until 1837. After that, it soon became such an established tradition in New Orleans that it became synonymous with the city rather than a religious event, eventually growing into the enormous city-wide event that we know now. 

This rainbow cake is a Mardi Gras king
In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, one cake reigns supreme - king cake.

1978 in Australia

In 1978, a group of young queer Australians decided to march in order to protest the criminalisation of homosexuality in Australia and denial of equal rights to the LGBTQI+ community. The event was also intended to be Sydney's contribution to the Gay Solidarity Celebrations, an international show of support for New York's Stonewall riots in 1969. 

However, due to many international Gay Rights protests ending in violence and arrests, the group wanted a positive celebration instead.

Ron Austin — affectionately known as the 'godfather of Mardi Gras' — is the one who suggested the march be more of a big, moving street party to celebrate the community.

In the 2015 documentary about the making of The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Between a Frock and a Hard Place, Austin cheerfully explains that in the United States, "they were having these big parades, gay parades". He refers to San Francisco's Gay Pride parades — so he suggested that they do the same, to avoid violence and arrests (which obviously did not happen).

"So I thought, 'why don't we have a party, a street party?!'"

In an interview with the ABC, he further explained how his suggestion of a street party turned from a Pride parade into a Mardi Gras, somewhat accidentally:

"I said to Margaret [McMann], 'Let's have a street party'," Mr Austin said.

"She said, 'Oh, you mean a Mardi Gras?'

"I didn't mean a Mardi Gras. I didn't have much idea what a Mardi Gras was."

So - here we are. We may not be celebrating the French-Catholic origins of the Mardi Gras, but we love our big queer Fat Tuesday parade all the same. 

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone!

The Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras 2020: Live Stream will be available to watch here from Saturday, 29th February 2020 at 07:35 PM.

The Mardi Gras play exploring the relationship between queerness and disability
"It lifts the experience and makes it so much more safe and open when you're working with a queer team."
The revolutionary First Nations float leading Mardi Gras in 2018
The 30th anniversary First Nations float in this year's Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will reboot the theme of one of the original floats - 'Revolution'.
Mardi Gras launches the Museum of Love and Protest
Feast your eyes on a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of costumes, photographs, iconic posters, storytelling, and rarely-seen film and video footage.
The history of Sydney's Mardi Gras Parade
From protest to party, it’s always been a celebration of pride.