It started as a street party on a cold winter night, Saturday 24th June, 1978. At 10 pm, a little over 1,000 people gathered on Sydney’s Oxford Street, some in colourful fancy dress, others just rugged up against the chill. They had one truck and a modest sound system, and planned to march towards Hyde Park as part of the international Gay Solidarity Celebrations.
Homosexuality was illegal then – and the police were not thrilled to see such a vibrant display of pride. By the time the marchers reached the park, the celebration was shut down. The truck was confiscated, and 53 people were arrested.
This response was unsettling, but it sparked a renewed urgency for action. Over the next few months, there were more protests, followed by more arrests. But the movement for equality was unstoppable.
The street parade was held again in 1979, and with each following year it grew bigger and bigger, drawing in larger crowds of supporters and building more pressure for law reform. By 1984, the event had moved to summer to take advantage of cheerier weather, a post-parade party had been added, and there were 50,000 people joining in the festivities. By 1993, the glittery crowd had swelled to 500,000.
Today, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s most loved and iconic events – a fun, irreverent month-long showcase of LGBTQI communities and culture. Bringing hundreds of thousands of people together, it’s a confetti-filled space for pride, acceptance and freedom of self-expression.
Along with the colourful costumes, parties, music and dancing, there are over 100 different arts events, including films, exhibitions, talks and forums, encouraging critical thought, inspiring creativity and continuing the activist cause. When the rainbow flag flies above Sydney’s Town Hall, you can be who you are, or whoever you want to be.
This year, there’s a feeling of victory sizzling in the air. The struggle for social change has been long, and it’s definitely not over yet – after all, it wasn’t until 1997 that all Australian states decriminalised homosexuality. There’s no sugar-coating the very real discrimination, prejudice and even violence that LGBTQI people still face, or the devastating impact this can have on mental health and wellbeing.
"Today, Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s most loved and iconic events – a fun, irreverent month-long showcase of LGBTQI communities and culture. Bringing hundreds of thousands of people together, it’s a confetti-filled space for pride, acceptance and freedom of self-expression."
And yet, the passing of the marriage equality bill is a huge milestone – and it’s time to celebrate. Australia is now the 25th country to recognise same-sex marriage, marking a significant step forward in becoming a more inclusive, loving and compassionate place for everyone.
“After such a long campaign which ended up involving every Australian in the quest for equality, we're ready to celebrate, and we had an incredible number of parade applications from all corners of our LGBTQI communities,” says Terese Casu, Mardi Gras CEO.
“Many of them are celebrating hard-won marriage equality, but the parade also draws attention to many other issues involving our communities. The march for equality moves forward, and there's much more work to be done.”
Four decades after the 1978 street party-turned-protest, Mardi Gras is celebrating with the theme of 40 Years of Evolution. “The theme salutes our history of pride, protest, diversity and activism and how they've changed over our four extraordinary decades. We have come so far,” Terese says.
“With the spotlight firmly on our communities and our rights in recent months, this Mardi Gras is also our chance to share 'war stories' and be inspired about what's possible in the future. We're saying, 'Your story is our story, your evolution is our evolution'.”
Terese shares some more reflections on 40 years of love, pride and activism.