So how did Mardi Gras reach this iconic status? The ironic thing is that one of the key reasons for its success was the huge opposition it faced when it began. The first march took place on Saturday 24th June 1978 at 10pm and it was met with unexpected police violence.  What begun as a political demonstration for gay rights, and a desire for greater visibility in the community, has become through a huge effort from the Sydney Homosexual community, a tourist festival and queer culture celebration.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969

While many people are aware of the first march on the 24th of June in 1978, few people realise that this date was the 9th anniversary of  the Stonewall riots in America.  The Stonewall Riot took place in New York, on the 28th June 1969 when New York City police officers launched a ‘routine’ raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village Gay Bar.  The bar’s customers took a stand and fought back, clashing with police and causing a riot. The Stonewall riot came to represent a new movement of open defiance of the heteronormative society.

At this time, in Sydney, homosexuals experienced cultural invisibility and legal discrimination.  It is hard to believe at the time that, in Australia, consenting sexual relations were criminalised and policed.  This first march in Sydney, 9 years later, was not only a means of the homosexual community remembering and commemorative the Stone wall riots, it was a time to stand up for against harassment in Sydney and Australia.

The March on 24th of June 1978

Several hundred gays, lesbians and straight supporters – some in fancy dress and some simply rugged up against the cold – gathered at Taylor Square and followed a truck with a small music and sound system down Oxford Street to Hyde Park.  A massive crowd, estimated to have been between 1,500 and 2,000 revellers, peacefully paraded down Oxford Street from Taylor Square to Hyde Park, singing, dancing and chanting; at a the time when male homosexual acts were illegal in New South Wales.

As revellers joined in along Oxford St, the police harrassed the lead float along the route and when the march stopped in Hyde Park, police confiscated the lead float truck and arrested the driver Lance Gowland. Angered by this, the revellers diverted up William St to Darlinghurst Road, where the police had closed the road. At this point the police swooped and arrested 53 men and women, many of whom were beaten in cells. Over the months that followed more protests and arrests took place and the actions of the police came to be seen as heavy handed.

By April in 1979 the parliament of New South Wales repealed the NSW Summary Offences Act legislation that had allowed the arrests to be made and created a new Public Assemblies Act which meant that Sydneysiders no longer had to apply for a permit to have a demonstration. They simply needed to inform the police. As such that first Mardi Gras march was a major civil rights milestone beyond the gay community.

Up to 3,000 people marched in an incident-free parade in 1979. In 1980 a key new element was introduced – the post-parade party. In 1981 the decision was taken to move the event forward to summer to enjoy better weather.  The face of the modern Mardi Gras we know today was taking shape.

The event began to enjoy extensive media coverage from the mid-80s onwards and the crowds continued to swell, from 200,000 in 1989 to over 500,000 in 1993. Large numbers of interstate and international travellers had started flying in for the event as well, generating an estimated $38 million for the NSW economy.

The Mardi Gras is aired on the ABC

By 1994 the event had certainly moved to the mainstream. In a controversial move the ABC screened a 50-minute programme of edited highlights at 8.30pm. Despite the criticism the show gave the ABC its best ever Sunday night ratings. In 1997 the event moved over to Channel Ten, the first commercial broadcaster to cover the event.

Throughout the late Nineties and early part of this century the event continued to grow, both in terms of tourist and spectator numbers, the quality of the events and the scope of the festival. By 2002 the organisation had grown to encompass a large full-time staff, including its own travel organisation.

A group of community organisations intervened at this point to fund a new organisation, New Mardi Gras, to ensure the continuity of the event and to buy the intellectual property from the creditors. Since 2002, New Mardi Gras has effectively run the key elements of the Mardi Gras season – a festival of approximately 100 different arts events, a 70,000-person daytime picnic called Fair Day, the Parade Post-Parade Party.

Month Long Celebrations

After a couple of turbulent years Mardi Gras is back to its old form. In 2006 Conde Nast named it as one of the world’s top ten costume parades in the world. Meanwhile Planetout named it as the best gay event in the world.

The Mardi Gras is now defined as almost a month of queer culture events, community markets, art exhibitions and for 22 years has boasted it’s own queer film festival.

 

Supporting locally made films.  Shot in and around Sydney’s Newtown district, Skin Deep will be making its Australian premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival. Troubled university student Caitlin and straight-laced Leah are two lost souls who discover that sometimes a stranger is the best person to open up to.

Today the Mardi Gras has been transformed into one of the biggest celebrations of gay and lesbian culture in the world, yet it is still representative of a fight against the heteronormative society.  A viable gay and lesbian community has thrived over the thirty-two years of the Mardi Gas festival. The public spectacle of the Mardi Gras opens up a space for discourse about sexuality, identity and sexual practice.

Written by History Cooperative

The History Cooperative is a collective of history buffs, interested authors, and dedicated technical staff who share a love for history.

If you would love to help share this love, you can start by filling out a contribution form here.