The annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is a massive cultural event that celebrates and platforms LGBTQI+ folks across Australia. Iconic for its three glitter-filled weeks of parties, pride and parades, hundreds of thousands of people anticipate the intoxicating atmosphere that fills the Sydney streets during March.
But for an event that is now almost synonymous with celebration and joy, Mardi Gras has dark and defiant origins. So today I want to run you through the history of the very first Mardi Gras that took place in 1978, so you can help honor it’s legacy as you celebrate this year.
Now, before we start, I want to let you know that if you don’t know the history of Mardi Gras, it’s okay! Like many young LGBT kids, I was raised in an environment where queer people were not talked about positively (I’m talking vote-against-marriage-equality, picket-a-parade, pray-the-gay-away level “Straight Agenda” behaviour). As such, the chances of being given an unbiased education on queer history was never on the cards for me, and I know that’s the case for a lot of folks reading this too.
You could be a young queer person who doesn’t have the resources; a person who has come out later in life and doesn’t have community; someone who was raised in an environment where LGBT issues were misrepresented; or any number of things.
If you know that Mardi Gras is important but aren’t sure why, then buckle up as I take you through an edu-gay-tional journey back in time!
What’s The Difference Between The Original Mardi Gras And The Sydney Gay Lesbian Mardi Gras
That confused me when I first moved to Australia! Mardi Gras (derived from the French ‘Mardi’ meaning Tuesday and ‘gras’ meaning ‘fat’) is a Carnival celebration held on the Tuesday before Lent, where people will indulge in fatty foods prior to their fasting period.
It’s celebrated throughout many countries and involves festivities and dressing up in masks and costumes, and is not synonymous with Gay Pride as it is in Australia. While the Sydney Mardi Gras festival pays homage to the theatrical origins of its name-sake festival, the attitude of celebration and indulgence, and the elements of Carnival, it is not a religious holiday but rather a way to promote LGBT culture and start political discourse around the discrimination the community faced.
When Did Mardi Gras, As We Know It, Begin?
Throughout the 1970s, Australian LGBT activists began staging protests, lobbying the government, circulating newsletters, campaigning and more to garner attention for gay rights, after the Gay Freedom Day Committee (GFDC) in San Francisco reached out to call for international acts of solidarity from the global queer community.
The GFDC was asking for help to protest a bill that would allow schools to dismiss teachers for their sexuality, as well as to commemorate the anniversary of the violent Stonewall Riots that took place in 1969. The Stonewall Riots are considered to be the instigating event for the Gay Rights movement that quickly took off across the world, and brought queer lives into mainstream consciousness for the very first time. Throughout the 1970s, Australian activists received heavy backlash from conservative Christian groups and media.
How Did Mardi Gras Actually Start?
On June 24, 1978, a group of LGBT activists banded together in Sydney to mark “International Gay Solidarity Day”. Calling themselves the Gay Solidarity Group, the activists organised to take part in a solidarity march in the morning, followed by a street parade in the evening. The group made sure to acquire all necessary permits to hold the parade. Nobody knew it at the time, but this would become the first Mardi Gras.
And How Did The First Mardi Gras Go?
To put it lightly… not well.
Starting at 10pm, an initial crowd of around five hundred protesters took to Oxford Street after a successful march earlier in the day. They began calling others out of the bars to come join them as they moved towards the city, until 2000 people heeded their cries. Despite prior permission, the protester’s permits were revoked as the crowd grew bigger.
As the parade headed towards Hyde Park, they were met by police blocking their path who began diverting themselves towards Kings Cross instead. This is where it all went south. The police moved in violently and arrested 53 people, many of whom were badly beaten while in police custody. The Sydney Morning Herald responded to the brutality by publishing the names and workplaces of the people who had been arrested. Several more were arrested in the following days as public backlash called for justice for those who were wrongfully handled, however that drew even more criticism from the general population and by the end of 1979 all charges against the protesters were finally dropped.
Amendments to the permit process were also made to better protect those who sought permission to gather/protest. As a result, Sydney’s first Mardi Gras ended up being a crucial milestone for civil rights in Australia, beyond its impact on the LGBT community. .
So, What Do We Need To Remember This Mardi Gras?
At the heart of this festival you will find a history of radical action and rebellion against the capitalist infrastructures that worked to disenfranchise LGBT people for centuries. The first parade was not a party. It was a protest. And it turned into a bloodbath.
But because it unfolded this way, the next year (1979) activists decided to hold another parade in defiance of the police who brutalised them. Over 3000 people attended. Each year after that the numbers grew and grew, until we arrived where we are today where we see nationwide events and hundreds of thousands of people participating. But it’s important to remember while we engage in the festivities, that we are only able to so freely be ourselves today because of the radical efforts of those early few.
How Can You Celebrate While Still Respecting The Past This Mardi Gras?
When you are able to learn how and where you fit into the conversation, you can become a more active member of your own community. Honouring the past looks like:
- Making space for queer elders and listening to their korero
- Opening your mind to the ideas of the younger generations
- Showing respect for all members of the LGBTQI+ community
- Knowing your history and correcting people who misrepresent it
- Asking questions
- Providing answers
- Protecting others
- Reducing harm
- Having a multitude of pride options for all ages (pride isn’t just for adults!)
- Speaking up and out about prejudice
No matter who you are, your presence at any pride event is a political statement. You’re showing up to let Australia, the government and the world know that you stand for equality, justice and freedom for the queer community. And to have a bloody good time.
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Image credit: NIM