Sydney’s Mardi Gras: 40 years of pride and protest – in pictures

Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives curator and archivist Nick Henderson opens the vault to take us through four decades of Sydney’s great festival

Sydney’s first Mardi Gras was the last in a series of events produced as part of the Day of International Gay Solidarity, on 24 June 1978, by the Gay Solidarity Group, following a morning protest march and a public meeting. At 10pm that night, people began to assemble at Taylor Square, with the crowd surrounding a flatbed truck with a sound system playing Meg Christian’s Ode to a Gym Teacher and Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay as they set off down Oxford Street to Hyde Park.

Even though the street festival had a permit to “assemble and march”, the police kept forcing the truck to speed up. By the time they got to College Street, the police confiscated the truck and tried to arrest the driver and key organiser, Lance Gowland, in the first confrontation of the evening. The hyped-up crowd decided to head to Kings Cross, but soon after their arrival the police swooped in without warning, blocking exits, arresting 53 and bashing many back at Darlinghurst police station.

One of the most audacious Mardi Gras floats was produced for leather and fetish store The Link by owner David Beschi, featuring an actual tank. Hired from the Tuggerah Lakes military museum, the tank arrived on the back of a large flatbed truck. Beschi notes that when they got it off the back of the truck and started it up “it tore-up 10 yards of bitumen and the noise was thunderous, so we had to put it back on the flatbed truck and drive it and us in the parade. Later I got a bill from the council for $7,000 for road repairs to Crown Street.”

The Mardi Gras Workshop was the creative heart of the parade, providing space to envision the ever-expanding creative puppets, costumes and floats that became key features of the parade during the 1980s. The workshop was established by Peter Tully (1947–1992), jeweller, costume designer, activist and founding Mardi Gras artistic director in 1982.

As the inaugural artistic director (1982–86), Tully fostered a blend of witty and ironic floats, puppets and costumes, a mix which continued under later artistic directors such as David McDiarmid and Ron Smith.

One of the earliest transgender floats in the Mardi Gras Parade, the S.S. Tiresias, was produced by Tiresias House (now the Gender Centre), which was established in 1983 as a refuge for transsexuals. The float featured a large boat, which had been assembled at Haberfield House, with a crew dressed to evoke 1930s glamour, crowned by Ricca in a white Erte-style dress with models of wolf hounds. The float was also one of the earliest powered floats that turned a truck into another.

One of the iconic drag shows performing at the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras parties, Chain Reaction featured 10 drag queens dressed as Diana Ross on two giant cake stages, with five giant candles on opposite ends of the dancefloor. The surprise of the double performance wowed the crowd, who didn’t know which way to look. It was choreographed by Ross Coleman, designed by Anthony Babici, costumed by Bernina Bod, and starring ten prominent Sydney drag queens: Ginger Benson, Jenna Stevens, Jay Jay Bailey, Ayesha, Penny Clifford, Skye Brooks, Robyn Lee, Ashley Swift, Tallulah Bright and Miss 3D.

Recovery parties were a key part of Sydney club life, and while many were in venues, they were often informal street parties, such as the one in Hill Street, nicknamed “Flinders Lane” as it was out the back of the Flinders Hotel. This informal recovery party is now a key event for Mardi Gras, called Laneway, and is produced in association with the Beresford and Flinders Hotels.

In 1992, a marching group of Koorie Wirguls (women from everywhere) entered a float in the parade. The float profiled Aboriginal lesbian identity, and protested racism and bigotry. First Nations women’s involvement and leadership in Mardi Gras extends to its origins, with Dharug woman Chris Burke (deceased) marching in the front line of the morning protest march of 1978.

This involvement continued through to the first Indigenous float in 1988, which featured Malcolm Cole as Captain Cook; key figures such as Wiradjuri woman and MG Board member Wendy Brady, who gave what is likely to be the first acknowledgement of country at a Mardi Gras festival launch in 1998; and Opera diva Deborah Cheetham who was the first Aboriginal person given the honour of chief of parade in 2006.

Robert Tait was a key figure in a friendship group who entered floats in successive Mardi Gras parades from the mid-1980s through to the mid-2000s. One of their most successful and popular floats was the satirical The Helens, after Helen Demidenko. Demidenko was the pen name of Helen Darville, whose debut novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, was the subject of a major Australian literary controversy in the preceding year, in which Darville falsely claimed Ukrainian ancestry as part of the basis of the book and her pseudonym. The group was a hit in the parade, throwing potatoes out into the crowd, and they featured heavily in press and broadcast coverage of the event.

Ron Muncaster (1936-2017) was the most awarded costume designer in Mardi Gras history. From his success at the first awards in 1984 he went on to create ever-more elaborate costumes for himself and his partners, including Michael O’Halloran, Jacques Straetmans, John English and Craig Craig.

One of the most memorable and moving moments during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, was the the HIV/AIDS Remembrance Float during the 1999 Parade, which involved more than 1,000 people from community health groups and organisations carrying a giant red ribbon with the message ‘Remember, It’s Not Over’.

The participants in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade are not all from Sydney. Many groups travel from other states to take part, including the Melbourne Marching Girls, one of a number of synchronised marching groups who have taken part over the years.

In October 1982, the Gay Business Association (NSW), now Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association (SGLBA), held its first Fair Day at Shannon Reserve, Surry Hills, to “promote the products and services of gays and lesbians, businessmen and women”. While the fair was not a financial success it proved very popular, leading to expanded fairs in 1983 and 1984. In 1985 the fair shifted dates and locations, becoming the opening event of the Mardi Gras festival at Green Park on Sunday 17 February. By 1988 the GBA fair had grown so much that it was decided that it should be taken over by Mardi Gras, which has run the highly successful event ever since. The fair now draws over 80,000 to an event featuring hundreds of community and business stalls, performances, and of course the dog show.

It wasn’t until 1997 that a small group of people who had participated in the first Mardi Gras in 1978 and subsequent protests came together to plan their involvement in the 20th anniversary parade in 1998. This group became known as the 78ers, and they have led the parade since 1998. In recent years the 78ers have used their platform to engage with current activist issues from marriage equality to the detention of asylum seekers.

Source – The Guardian