Mardi Gras has become a Sydney institution. On the weekend of the parade, central city accommodation is booked out and the crowds lining the streets are immense. The festival is fast developing into a week-long event. No other gay pride event has so captured the imagination of the general public and gay people everywhere. As the magazine Spartacus put it, "a visit to Mardi Gras is an absolute once-in-a-lifetime must for every gay travelling man." Indeed many fly across the world again and again to enjoy it.
So how did Mardi Gras reach this iconic status? The ironic thing is that the key reason for its success was the opposition it faced when it began. The first march took place in 1978 and it met with police violence. The Mardi Gras was Sydney’s contribution to the international Gay Solidarity Celebrations, an event that had grown up as a result of the Stonewall riots in New York. Two thousand people followed a truck with a small PA system down Oxford Street to Hyde Park and then dispersed up to Kings Cross. After harassing the marchers for much of the route the police swooped and violently arrested 53 people. 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 1979 the Mardi Gras was already developing into something of a festival. Up to 3,000 people marched in an incident-free parade. 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 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. By 1994 the event had certainly moved to the mainstream. In a controversial move the ABC television channel 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.
After a couple of turbulent years in the early years of this century 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. 2009 was the largest ever Parade with almost 10,000 colourful participants. We happened to be in Sydney at the time of the 2010 event so we went along for a look.
This year’s Parade down Oxford Street, which was held in February, had the theme Mardi Gras’ History of the World and it took the crowd on a sexy and bawdy rollercoaster ride through the ages, looking at gay history and shining a pink spotlight on some of mankind’s great figures and events. Crowds were the biggest yet and many people, like us, could not find a vantage point from which to view the parade. It was covered live on Australian TV. A major downside, however, is the violence that still occurs after the parade. Sydney police say that it is their worst weekend of the year. We will not be returning.