Mardi Gras Parade: A Brief History
A protest, a political demonstration, a gay pride celebration, a tourist attraction – 34 years on and the Mardi Gras Parade continues to evolve. Here, historian Garry Wotherspoon charts some of the events most memorable moments.
What do Fred Nile, the Chinese Women’s Olympic Swimming Team, Pauline Hanson, Imelda Marcos and John Howard have in common? They have all been the subjects of satirical attention in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.
This annual event – with those bare-breasted Valkyries, the Dykes on Bikes, as a brassy prelude – has been a feature of the city for 34 years. Its origins lie in what began as a peaceful protest in June 1978 against the state’s anti-gay laws that turned into a brutal confrontation with police, fought out in the streets of Kings Cross, and resulting in 52 arrests. When those arrested appeared at the city’s Central Court a few days later, entry for the public was blocked by the police, despite the magistrate’s order to open the court. This civil rights outrage led to further clashes, with another seven people arrested, and massive publicity across Australia.
From such an iconic moment, a global event was born. In 1981, the parade was shifted to summer, in late February. The event began to enjoy extensive media coverage from the mid-1980s, and the crowds continued to swell, from 200,000 in 1989 to over 500,000 in 1993. And when, in a controversial move in 1994, the ABC screened a 50-minute program of edited highlights at 8.30pm, the show gave the ABC its best-ever Sunday night ratings. Still watched on the streets by tens of thousands of onlookers, and seen by millions on TV or via the internet, the Mardi Gras Parade has a worldwide reputation. Large numbers of interstate and international travellers fly in for the event, injecting around $38 million each year into the state’s economy.
One of the best features of the parade has been its willingness to comment sharply on important social and cultural issues of the time. In the bicentennial year, 1988, an Aboriginal entry featured gay Aboriginal actor Malcolm Cole dressed as Captain Cook, with two ‘black’ men beside him in a boat being pulled along by a group of white men; it had a prominent part in the parade. In 1991 AIDS activists were located at the head of the parade, protesting at delays in making AIDS drugs and treatments readily available.
There have of course been controversies about some floats, as in 1995, when it was suggested that the seven-foot-high ‘Cuntmobile’ should be renamed ‘Venus Parked/Have Fun’, to avoid any police action over ‘obscenity’. But as the French journalist Christine Ockrent pointed out to Margaret Thatcher during an interview on TV, ‘one person’s pornography is simply another person’s erotica’.
There have been many memorable moments. In 1982, the Link float, with its leather men and slings and one barely-clad man spread-eagled across a giant spider web of ropes, made its way into George Street to the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, past the gobsmacked crowds outside the cinema complex, while queens on roller skates escorted the floats up to Oxford Street and the climb to Taylor Square. And there have been the regulars: one was the drag queen who used to walk in the parade just by herself, dressed in a sensible frock with a demure hat and gloves, holding a sign saying ‘Miss New Zealand’. She used to get massive applause. Another crowd pleaser was one guy by himself carrying a sign saying ‘I’ve got something to tell you, Mum”.
Other entries that have drawn cheers over the years have been the float of our communities’ once-avowed enemy, the state’s police; the Sydney’s Sex Workers Collective; the Asian Marching Boys; PFLAG, and an eternal favourite and long-time supporter of our communities, Sydney Lord Mayor and local Member of Parliament Clover Moore. In recent years, there have been more multiracial floats, with Muslim and Jewish groups walking together. And as one would expect, ‘gay marriage’ contingents have grown in recent years.
And despite Fred Niles’ annual ‘Prayer for Rain’ to stop the parade, it has only rained three or four times, never enough to dampen spirits or answer Fred’s prayers.
And I could go on.
Mardi Gras has recently rebranded itself as the Sydney Mardi Gras, nominally as an ‘inclusive’ move to bring in all the BTIQ youth who never felt part of the ‘Gay’ and ‘Lesbian’ name. It is far more likely a marketing exercise designed to bring in more dollars from a wider overseas market; we wouldn’t want the names ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ to scare off potential money-spending tourists, would we?
Today, the parade is a pale imitation of its past glories. Over the years, several new entrants have been welcomed – symbolic of the changed perception of homosexuals in our society. Only a decade ago, recent entrants such as banks and other commercial enterprises wouldn’t have been seen associating with anything that smacked of homosexuality. Now however, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer communities have become a marketing target, and Mardi Gras provides a highly visible opportunity to showcase these companies' caring personalities. And the needs of television transmission – nothing to shock the children or offend the bigoted – have ensured it is now an anodyne ghost of its former self. But for the tourists, it is still a most memorable evening.
This is an edited extract of Garry Wotherspoon’s article on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for the Dictionary of Sydney. Go to www.dictionaryofsydney.org.