Mardi Gras wasn’t always a sequin-studded shimmy up Oxford St — it began life in 1978 as a gay rights protest that was met with brutal resistance from the New South Wales Police Force. On June 24, 1978, a group of 1,500 people gathered in Taylor Square to speak out against discrimination, joining a wave of gay rights protests around the world.
Despite being legal, the march was broken up by police and 53 people were arrested, and many were beaten in their cells. The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper published the names, occupations and addresses of those arrested, which caused great anguish at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in NSW (it was only decriminalised in 1984). The paper and police eventually apologised for their actions in 2016.
The following year, attendance grew to 3,000. In 1981, Mardi Gras shifted to summer and attracted 5,000 people. The event expanded enormously throughout the 1980s amid fear and intolerance surrounding AIDS, and by 1987, crowds topped the 100,000 mark. Three decades on, Mardi Gras has cemented its status as one of the highlights of Sydney’s cultural calendar and although the focus over the years has shifted from the campaigning to the costumes, Mardi Gras has retained a political edge, speaking up for social issues like marriage equality and discrimination.
The 2018 Mardi Gras promises to be the biggest ever for three reasons. One, it’s the 40th anniversary of that inaugural march in 1978 — and organisers will be celebrating the big four-oh in style. Two, Australia is still basking in the warm and fuzzy afterglow of the successful marriage equality campaign, which finally legalised same-sex marriage in December. And three, Cher is coming to town!
The gay icon par excellence is headlining the legendary post-parade after-party in Moore Park, and as soon as the public got wind of her appearance, the 12,000 tickets were snapped up quicker than you could slip into a pair of Cher-inspired fishnet stockings. By all reports, the 71-year-old entertainment legend is strong enough to turn back time — and come one, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to get excited about that.
The diamante jewel in Mardi Gras’ glittering crown is undoubtedly the parade, but there are 16 days of LGBTQI events that surround the big night. Festivities kick off when the rainbow flag is hoisted above Sydney Town Hall two weeks before the parade — this year, on Friday, February 16 — followed by the Mardi Gras Fair Day on Sunday, February 18 at Victoria Park in Camperdown, where hundreds of stalls and thousands of supporters gather for a family-friendly day in the park.
Other highlights include the Indigenous-led Koori Gras, a family fun day at Luna Park, Queer Screen’s 25th Mardi Gras Film Festival, and the recovery party at the Beresford Hotel the day after the big night.
And then there’s the parade itself, which this year takes place on Saturday, March 3. More than 300,000 revellers are expected to pack Oxford St and its surrounds for the explosion of body glitter and spectacularly sequinned outfits, when 12,000 participants across 200 floats strut their way up the street. The floats represent all walks of LGBTQI life, from the Australian Defence Force and NSW Fire Brigade to Dykes on Bikes and the Sydney Convicts rugby union team, as well as that legendary group of 78ers retracing their steps from 40 years ago.