How Sydney Mardi Gras Became a Pinpoint in Australian LGBT+ History

Taking place on June 24, 1978 the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras saw hundreds of queer identities gathered to march up the city’s Oxford Street as trucks played celebratory music. Inspired by similar movements of protest, solidarity and action in the USA and UK, the evening was a commemoration of everything the Stonewall Riots had achieved in ten years.

The Australian get-together called for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing, an end to police harassment and the repeal of all anti-homosexual laws. The 70s in Australia were as cruel to LGBT+ people, with reports only coming out in recent years of police officers working with gangs to hunt and murder gay men for sport.

The night of the protest swelled from a few hundred to over 2,000 as bars and clubs responded to the call “out of the bars and into the streets!”. Though organisers of the original parade had permission, it was quickly revoked as numbers grew and broken up by police, with 53 gay men arrested.

The Sydney Morning Herald published the names of those arrested in full the following day, outing them to their families, friends and places of employment. Many of those arrested lost their jobs as homosexuality was still a crime in New South Wales until 1984.

Now in its 39th year, crowds of LGBT+ party go-ers and allies expect to reach over 300,000. Gay marriage is still not legal in Australia under the 2004 Marriage Amendment Act.

Sydney Mardi Gras is now a celebration of identity and how far the Australian LGBT+ community have come. Skimpy underwear meets tanned, toned bodies, and enough feathered headpieces and wings to put Rio de Janeiro carnival to shame. Imagine drag queens, Kylie Minogue, sequins, glitter and a resilience against the rife anti-LGBT laws still in place across the country.

Only last year on 4th March 2016, the New South Wales Police apologised to the marchers who were arrested and bashed by officers during Sydney’s first Mardi Gras. Photographer William Yang, who recorded the Mardi Gras’ on camera, says the festival is now about “flying a flag for diversity and inclusiveness”.

“I think it’s now more a celebration of fun than solidarity, and it’s not even that gay any more. Young people don’t have that same rigorous identification of being gay that we had in the 70s.”