Words by Eva Devore | Photography by Beccy Spice
Often referred to as “Gay Christmas,” Mardi Gras is a huge celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia. People come from all over Australia and the world to attend the parade and celebrations in Sydney, celebrating pride and diversity. This week we are taking a peek at the history behind Mardi Gras in Australia, and talking about LGBTQIA+ pride in our studio, and the community!
Of course, this article is just a very brief overview of the long, rich and colourful history of Mardi Gras. There are so many individual stories, defining moments and political developments throughout the last 40 years of the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, that to include them all would make this blog post an essay! We’ve included some helpful links at the bottom of this post if you would like to research more into the rich history of this special event.
The History of Mardi Gras
This wild night of parades, parties and celebration hasn’t always been the way it is today. Despite the popular view of Mardi Gras as a night of frivolity and partying, this event began, and continues to be a platform for political discourse. In fact, the first Mardi Gras was a protest street party, led by the newly-formed Gay Solidarity Group. The group was formed with the intent to raise local issues such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, mark the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York, protest the Australian visit of homophobic Festival of Light campaigner Mary Whitehouse, and promote the forthcoming 4th National Homosexual Conference. Despite initially obtaining permission for the event, this was revoked and the resulting police action, including violence and arrests, became a defining moment for both the LGBTQIA+ community and Australian culture. In the months following this traumatic evening, the actions of the authorities came to be seen as too heavy-handed, and by April the following year, the NSW parliament repealed the legislation that allowed the arrests to be made. The first Mardi Gras march was a major civil rights milestone that extended beyond the LGBTQIA+ community, and the in 1970s more than 3,000 people marched in a parade that was free from incidents. Some of those that marched in that very first protest in 1978 still march today, and are known as the 78ers after the year that the protest took place. You can visit the official website of the 78ers here to learn more about the first Mardi Gras.
As the parade began to grow in size and popularity in the 80s, the Mardi Gras after-party events began to become popular, and soon the event began to receive media coverage in the mid 1980s. This lead to a huge increase in both participants and people coming to watch the parade, from 200,000 in 1989 to over 500,000 in 1993. In addition, the event began to receive international attention, with attendees flying in to New South Wales for the event. Throughout the late ‘90s and early part of this century, Mardi Gras continued to grow in tourist and spectator numbers along with an increase in the quality of the events and the scope of the festival. Its themes each year represent the issues of the day and encourage marginalised groups to join a larger family of supporters.
Australia’s First Nations and Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras was also an important platform for the visibility of Australia’s First Nations and especially Indigenous people of colour. In the official Mardi Gras 40th Anniversary Magazine, Allen Clarke reports in Indigenous LGBTQIA+ piece 'Eora Proud';
"As that first march made its way into Kings Cross in 1978 and the crowd police batons, the Koori community joined the fight. "A lot of blackfellas lived around Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo, and when they saw this police brutality happening they jumped in," says [curator of Koori Gras, Tim] Bishop. "So support was coming from outside the gay and lesbian community"."
In the 1982 parade, Narrandera man Roger McKay marched alone in the parade with the Aboriginal flag. Aboriginal flag. This is acknowledged as the first time the flag representing Australia's First People appeared in the parade. In 1988, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the first float to represent First Nation Peoples would be joining the parade. The float would feature dancer Malcolm Cole dressed as Captain Cook, accompanied by Indigenous men dressed as sailors, on top of a long boat which would be pulled along the parade route by white men.
"It is enough trouble being black, let alone gay. That is why I am determined to put this float in the Mardi Gras," Cole told the Sydney Morning Herald. Last year in 2018, marking the 30th anniversary of the First Nations float and the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras, The First Nations float led the Mardi Gras parade and referenced the theme of the original float in 1988, “Revolution.”
For the past three years, including this year, Koori Gras has been held as a part of Mardi Gras, and creates space for Indigenous performers, artists, intellectuals and members of the Indigenous LGBTQIA+ community. This year’s Koori Gras featured performances by First Nations drag artists, as well as an open mike feed for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander guests, and a club night featuring Indigenous performers and DJs. Learn more about Koori Gras here!
Mardi Gras Today
In present times, the parade has grown to include representation from a wide range of LGBTQIA+ and marginalised groups, allowing a platform for celebration and a coming-together of the community. In addition to celebrating gay and lesbian culture, there is representation of all the aspects of the LGBTQIA+ community, including Bisexuals, Transgender people, Intersex people and Asexual people, and more! There are also representations of many groups like sex workers, deaf and hard-of hearing people, disabled and/or differently abled people, and people of colour from cultures all over the world. It’s such an exciting time for everyone to come together and celebrate diversity and increase visibility! The event is also shown on national television and streamed online, so that it is accessible to people all over Australia, and the world!
The celebration has also grown from a one-day event to a festival lasting multiple weeks, with numerous shows, events, educational lectures and celebrations that highlight LGBTQIA culture. The festival begins with Fair Day, a daytime event with stalls, live music and cultural displays, and ends with the huge parade along Oxford Street in the heart of Sydney. During this time, many LGBTQIA+ performers, theatrical troupes, playwrights, artists and musicians are also given a platform, with many shows and events taking place across Sydney. International artists often also come to Australia to be a part of the event, including high profile drag performers and even Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue and Cher!
The Rainbow Flag
Whether it’s hanging from your front porch or your shoulders, on a pin on your lapel or a patch on your jacket, the rainbow flag is a beautiful symbol to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community. But where did it come from?
The first rainbow flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Baker, an artist, designer, drag performer and Vietnam War veteran was commissioned bto create a rallying symbol ahead of San Francisco’s next pride parade in the USA. Up until this point, the symbol for the gay community was a pink triangle, which was actually used by the Nazis to identify homosexual individuals during World War II. Wanting to break away from the solemn past of this symbol, Baker was inspired by the stripes on the American flag as a source of pride to be displayed. The rainbow flag was all-inclusive, with the colours becoming a symbol of togetherness and community. As Baker explains:
"Our sexuality is of all colours. We are all the genders, races, and ages.” – Gilbert Baker
Baker’s original flag was made up of eight different colours, each colour having a different meaning. Hot pink at the top of the flag was for sex, red was a symbol for life, orange meant healing, yellow was a symbol for sunlight, green represented nature, turquoise represented art, indigo was for harmony and at the bottom, purple for spirit. Following the initial success of the flag, the only changes that were made was to replace the turquoise with blue, and to remove the hot pink. The popularity of the flag spread, and soon it became a world-wide symbol of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Supporting the lgbtqia+ Community
Pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them etc.) are often an important part of someone’s identity as it helps them to feel validated and comfortable. You may have noticed that during the first lesson of each class across every term, our instructors allow everyone to sit in a circle and introduce themselves, including their name, and pronouns. By asking for people’s pronouns, it normalises the idea of not ‘assuming’ someone’s gender and allows people to tell us how they would like to be referred, rather than the other way around.
If you’re unsure of someone else’s pronouns, try not to assume them. Instead, listen and see if you can hear how the person is referred to by someone close to them (but this is not fool proof, as someone might mis-gender them too!) If you must ask which pronoun the person uses, start with your own. For example, "Hi, I'm Eva and I use the pronouns she and her. What about you?"
If you feel to shy to ask, just don’t use a pronoun at all! You can always use the person’s name instead of a pronoun if you don’t know the correct one, ie, “I think Eva would like this” instead of “I think she would like this.”
You can read a more in-depth discussion of pronouns in our Personal About Pronouns blog post.
Using gender-neutral language is another great way to ensure you are being inclusive of all people, regardless of their preferred pronouns and gender identities. This is especially relevant when referring to groups of people, as sometimes you might not know the preferred pronouns of every person in the group!
Terms like “ladies,” “guys,” “girls,” and “boys” are really imposing a gender on a group of people without noticing their individual identities. Instead, you can use terms without any gender like “babes,” “team,” “lovelies,” or “everyone.”
For our classes, our instructors try to always use gender-inclusive language when talking to the class. We also use names for our dance moves that are gender neutral, for example, “Babe in the Moon” instead of “Lady in the Moon.”
We are so lucky to have such a diverse group of students and staff at Sky Sirens, and our red door is open to all genders, racial backgrounds, abilities and ages. No matter how someone chooses to express themselves, one of the best things you can do is support them, no matter what!
Supporting them doesn’t mean you have to be overly vocal about it, so it doesn’t matter if you are shy. But simply accepting that they are there and working alongside them without comment, as if nothing is different to what your used to, is a great start! Never, ever exclude someone simply because they look, sound or act differently than you do.
It’s always lovely to pay someone a heartfelt compliment too. If you love someone’s style, or hair, or tattoos, or how they dance, let them know! Sometimes a little compliment straight from the heart can really make somebody’s day!
A great way to show your support for the LGBTQI+ community is to support the artists, musicians, performers and makers out there! There are so many amazing, talented people who create some really incredible things, and by supporting and celebrating their art, you are helping to empower them to create more.
Purchasing art and products from LGBTQI+ creatives, whether that is clothing, accessories, artworks or music, means you are directly supporting those who rely on their creativity for income, and allow them to continue creating their art for others to celebrate and share. Buy their albums, or get tickets to go to their shows! Not only will you end up with some sweet new pieces for yourself, but you’ll also get to feel like you’re supporting small businesses.
If you’re not in the financial position to support LGBTQI+ artists financially, that’s okay too! Following and engaging with their social media, sharing and reposting links to their art or music, and recommending them to friends are all great ways to show you’re appreciation without breaking the bank.
There are so many events that are run by and feature LGBTQI+ performers, both during the Mardi Gras season, and year-round. Attending these shows helps to increase support and visibility for the LGBTQI+ community and arts, and as a bonus, you get a sweet night out!
While the Mardi Gras parade is the main attraction for many, there are plenty of awesome events from mid February to early March that you can attend. Some incredible shows that happened this year included Club Briefs and Bent Burlesque!
There are also a number of great events that happen year-round. The Oyster Club is run by Marlena Dali and our own Porcelain Alice, and you might have spotted Katia and Dahlia performing at many of the Unicorns events. Butch/Stud is a night run by Spanner Swallows which celebrates butch performance and art!
It’s the age-old saying; if you see something, say something! If you see anyone saying nasty, discriminatory or homophobic things, or actively making another person feel bad for who they are or how they present themselves, don’t just stand by and let it happen! The by-stander effect is a huge issue in our society, where people don’t want to step up to help or defend those around them because they don’t wish to be involved, and risk becoming a target themselves.
Standing up for someone or supporting them doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put yourself in harms way. Simply sitting with someone who is being targeted or excluded can make a huge difference! If you hear someone laughing at someone, or making rude comments, you can politely ask them to stop bothering that person. Even just offering the victim a safe place to sit, or asking them if they are okay and need anything, can be so helpful!