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Sunday, 2 March 2008

30th Sydney Mardi Gras? I must be old

It was the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras on Saturday night. For those who've never heard of it (must be a few), around 700,000 watch the parade for a mile and a bit up one of Sydney's main drags, ending at the Showgrounds where the party's held. Several thousand participate and there are over 100 floats and marching groups.

The parade assembles in the city centre then turns into the main drag, Oxford Street — 'Dykes on bikes' lead, doing teaser runs up and down, warming people up— that moment when you hit the drag is like hitting a wall of ecstasy. The next two hours is a continuous rush.

Lots and lots of straight people both participate and watch — it's truly an event for all Sydney. The party had to introduce 'prove you're gay' measures one year because the party was so popular.

I was in a dozen parades, so have a few memories :]

There was the 'indigenous' year, when local Aboriginal elders led the parade in a very fancy old sports car. We made thousands of 'healing hands' and the reception was astonishing. Some of the national Aboriginal leaders participated, very butch blokes, but they had a wail of a time alongside Aboriginal drag queens. People always do. Politicians often come and I suspect it's for the good time rather than the votes. Seeing how they dress for the occasion is often fun. Even the evangelicals who pitch up with their banners have smiles on their faces.

There was the year we did a 'live' broadcast, which amounted to using phone boxes along the way (this was pre-mobiles!). At the party, where we took the DJ feed, around 4am I had a break and one nutty volunteer came on and ranted about the organisation - a Sydney tradition. I didn't find out until a pugnacious Board member complained :[

There was the year I pushed a very heavy robot all the way (not recommended). One year I watched from a prime spot and that year it poured down. Rain doesn't stop it because it's so warm and the spirit so high.

There was the year Julian Clary MC'd and spoilt things by being a bitch (maybe he was jetlagged). Rural groups always participate and they weren't quite as polished: doesn't matter, Clary totally missed the spirit of the thing. You rarely see these mobs in the pictures which go around the world, but they're the heart of it in many ways. It's wonderful to see 'community' in action: Muscle Marys alongside fat old queens alongside elder lesbians alongside asian drag queens: all encouraging each other.

What else? Imelda Marcos' shoes was a classic which everyone who saw it remembers. One hundred shoes on poles chased by a giant papier-mâché head of Imelda. That was the genius of David McDiamid and Peter Tully, gay artists lost to AIDS. David was inspired by the Mexican 'day of the dead' and did a very edgy but successful entry in the height of the crisis with "Dance of Death" puppets.

Then there was their giant Fred's Head on a giant platter — this was the local evangelical state senator, with a perchant for leather from his biker days, who protested every year. David and Peter's genius inspired a later float which spiked Pauline Hanson's monoculturalism. 'Fred's Head' actually survived and was brought out for the 20th Parade.

Individuals could make just as much of an impact. 'Miss New Zealand' achieved this with a floral print dress, flowery hat and a 'New Zealand' sign. Very Antipodean 1950s. My friend Brenton Heath-Kerr did this at the party with the most astonishing, inventive costumes I have ever seen such as his famous Tom Of Finland, the classic butch cartoon fantasy figure. He 'wore' the cartoon and was completely covered. He looked exactly like a cartoon. He also did Imelda. And Liza. And 'Wood Woman', a bizarre woodland creature, completely ... wood.

The party's is 20,000 or so past dawn. The Showgrounds ("where the country comes to town") is now sound stages for film but in the 80s you could wander into the pig stalls and the rest. Much shenanigans (or so I've heard ;] ) The party goes on until Monday. There's a tradition of the morning after gathering behind a pub which I don't know still goes on but the 'after parties' are legendary.

After 2000 there was a year when it was thought under threat. A giant Arts Festival had grown up around February, with massive corporate sponsorship. This ended up collapsing and possibly taking the parade with it. Mass 'no! ways!' stopped that. The show will go on.

I did a London Pride parade when I came back in 2000. Depressing. Very little music, the fun stuff was spotty and subdued. I did a version of Fred's head on a platter with friends. We made a papier-mache Tony Blair and posters of Blair as Pinocchio - this was before he'd got around to gay law reform. But it was all a bit sad after Sydney.

  • Postscript: The 2008 party featured Olivia Newton-John finally taking to the Mardi Gras stage to perform Xanadu. Cyndi Lauper closed the party with Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Other legends tickling my memories were Kings Cross drag queen Carlotta and DJing from Paul Goodyear. Out of 700,000 parade watchers there were 25 arrests made. One arrest was for a man who attempted to set fire to the tail of a police horse. Parade hits included the marching together of Jewish and Arab groups who were met with a huge cheer, as were the 100 Reverends, a group of church members apologising for the past treatment of gay and lesbian Christians. A school also organised a parade entry.

  • Surviving webpage about the 1998 Aboriginal float and parade entry


  1. do you hv any idea what song the "dykes on bikes" were playing as they were dancing in their truck for the first bit of the mardi gras parade?

    i rmb there being a chorus with lotsa "yeah"s in it..