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We all know about the colourful and dizzying spectacle of its famed parade, but Mardi Gras is much more than that: a fortnight of parties, events and even festivals within festivals. Long time attendee JACK ARTHUR SMITH shines a light on the lesser-known parts of this vibrant LGBTQI celebration, which kicks off in Sydney off this weekend.
From the white sails of the Opera House to the golden beaches and blue waters of Bondi, Australia’s entertainment capital Sydney has long been synonymous with sun, sand and seriously good times. These days – after exponential growth from its humble roots of ’78 – another deserving Aussie icon to add to the rainbow of what makes our Emerald City shine like a diamond is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
A 10,000-strong man, woman and everything-in-between parade through Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Mardi Gras showcases what it can mean to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, questioning or intersex (LGBTQI) in an explosion of glitter, glamour and unapologetic gayness. It’s now one of the largest celebrations of queer culture and diversity in the world.
But just as there’s much more to Sydney than beaches, babes and Madama Butterfly, there’s a lot more to Mardi Gras than strutting – albeit fabulously – up Oxford Street. This year’s festival, running through February and early March, offers an array of educational, exciting and inspiring events, shows, parties and performances that far exceed the misconception that Mardi Gras is only about dressing up and getting down.
You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Mardi (Gras)
From Belgium’s Carnival of Binche to Germany’s Fastnacht, Italy’s Martedi Grosso to Colombia’s Carnaval de Barranquilla, Mardi Gras gets around. Originally catholic and literally translating from French as “fat Tuesday”, this religious holiday was a time to eat fatty foods, sing, dance and dabble in a little debauchery before the tortuous trial of Lent began, usually the very next day.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, while undeniably incorporating all the fun and frivolity of this colourful blowout (well, perhaps not the fatty foods), is a little different. This Mardi Gras began as more than just a celebration: it was a very real civil rights movement and one hell of a game-changer.
The first ever Mardi Gras Down Under took place on Saturday, June 24, 1978 at 10pm as Sydney’s contribution to the Gay Solidarity Celebrations: a worldwide event born from the now historic 1969 Stonewall Riots of New York. Several hundred men and women, some in costume, gathered at Taylor Square in Darlinghurst and marched down Oxford Street, accumulating revellers as they went, with a small sound system and the intention of reading telegrams of support at Hyde Park.
Met with unexpected police violence, 53 men and women, many of whom were reportedly later beaten in their cells, were arrested. Ironically it was this very opposition that fed the fires of success for Mardi Gras. Over the following months more protests and arrests took place and public opinion started to shift in favour of the gay and lesbian community.
Less than a year later in April 1979, New South Wales parliament repealed the NSW Summary Offences Act that allowed the arrests to take place ten months previous – and the 1979 incident-free parade attracted over 3000 people. In 1980 the now always packed-out after party was introduced, and in ’81 a decision was made to move the parade to March to capitalise on better weather (not that this is always the case, mind you).
It was from this point Mardi Gras began to grow. It doubled in size almost every year until 1984 (at that point attracting over 50,000 people and beginning to generate some fairly impressive profits), and by 1989 Mardi Gras was entertaining over 200,000 locals and people from around the globe. It ballooned to half a million in 1991, creating an estimated $38-million for the NSW economy.
Throughout the decade the organisation expanded, moving more and more into the mainstream including a somewhat controversial 50-minute screening of edited footage of the parade by the ABC (that also gave the station their highest Sunday night ratings ever). By 1997 Channel Ten took over as the first commercial broadcaster to cover any such event, and by 2002 the once small gathering of hopefuls eager to make a difference in the world had a fulltime staff and millions of supporters to its name.
Similar to the early days however, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In March 2002 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras went into receivership due to a combination of decreased tourism after the September 11 attacks and massive costs including a triple increase in insurance. But again the community banded together, and before long a new Mardi Gras (aptly named New Mardi Gras) came into being, creating a collaboration that by 2006 was producing what Conde Nast called one of the best costume parades in the world.
Here in 2015, apart from some noise over the festival’s name a couple years back (now officially renamed Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to maintain a connection to its past), as well as an unfortunate but small incident of police brutality in 2013, Mardi Gras is still very much alive thanks to a hugely dedicated team of volunteers and staff. And thank god for that.
Taste The Rainbow
Officially spanning 16 days from February 20 to March 8, the 37th annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – to put it flamboyantly – offers a kaleidoscopic menagerie of attractions. Whether you’re gay, straight or just like to surround yourself with interesting people with interesting ideas, Mardi Gras Festival Producer James Rongen-Hall says you’ll be hard pressed to find something that doesn’t tickle your fancy this year.
“Just looking at the festival program there are 70-plus events across visual arts, community and sport, performing arts, everything from talks to exhibitions to theatre shows, to cabaret to the whole spectrum,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity for artists and creators in our community to see each other’s work and connect with each other on a creative level and forge new relationships, but also to have their work seen by a broader audience.”
Sunday, February 22, 10am – Victoria Park
One particular event that should be on every Gras-goer’s radar is Fair Day which echoes this ethos of showcasing what individual communities and groups have to offer, all rolled up in a whole heap of fun for all ages. Kicking off each year on the first Sunday of the festival, almost 80,000 people descend on a transformed Victoria Park for a day of fun in the sun, sipping beers on the grass and exploring the hundreds of stalls set up by all types of folk.
You can sign up to play for the Bingham Cup-winning gay rugby team, Sydney Convicts; check out the boys at the Grindr tent; treat yourself to a gozleme; enter your pooch into the now famous DoggyWood Show; get a candle replica mould of your penis (no honestly, you can); take a spin on the dodgems or simply chill and listen to live music from the main stage. Keep your eyes peeled too for the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby’s Sea of Hearts (my personal favourite).
For a gold coin donation you’re given a cardboard pink heart attached to an icy pole stick with the words “All Love is Equal” printed on it, and a marker pen. Then you’re asked to write your own message of love – whatever you want – and plant it in the ground. By the end of the day a huge pink heart, made up of all the little hearts and all the individual messages, sits in the middle of the field for all to see.
Little Black Dress Run
Sunday, March 1, 10am – Darling Harbour
Another event not to be missed is the Little Black Dress Run, organised by Sydney running group Sydney Frontrunners. Yes, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: don an LBD, wig and high heels and take a two kilometre run, walk or totter around Darling Harbour with hundreds of fellow participants including drag hostess with the mostest, Joyce Maynge.
And no, it’s not just for dudes looking to dabble in a little women’s wear. It’s for everyone. It also raises much-needed funds for Camp Goodtime, a volunteer-run organisation created by the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation for children living with HIV. Last year the LBDR made over $45,000 that helped Camp Goodtime provide education, medical updates and psychological, social and peer support for those living with the illness. It also provides a recreational and therapeutic environment where Australian families can share valuable experiences with others in similar situations.
Like every year, there’ll be prizes too, so if you’re a competitive soul and crave a real challenge (the higher the heel the harder the road ahead, right?) then all you need to do is register your interest on their Facebook page. Otherwise simply turn up on the day and get ready to see a marathon like you’ve never seen it, sequins and all.
Mardi Gras Film Festival
February 19 to March 5 – Event Cinema George Street
Now in its 22nd year, the Mardi Gras Film Festival has arguably become a staple of any queer cinema-lover’s calendar across the country. It’s the perfect place to sip a few vinos alongside fellow veteran cinephiles and see what’s been cooked up by this year’s bunch of bona fide filmmakers. It’s literally a community in itself.
The event is presented by Queer Screen, a volunteer group of creatives and filmsters who originally rescued the festival from a commercialised future in 1993, bringing it back to the larger community. This collection of short and feature length work spans as many genres as colours in the gay rainbow.
“I think it’s really important not just for the LGBTQI community, but straight communities as well to see a variety of representations of what it means to be LGBTQI,” explains Film Director Paul Struthers. “And more importantly we do a lot of things for the young. I think when you’re young, LGBTQI stuff is a struggle, and you can see yourself represented on screen. When you come and see some of the films it gives you hope.”
This year sees a very special lineup including three films partially or fully filmed in Sydney – All About E, Drown and Skin Deep – as well as the Swiss entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, The Circle. Patrick Stewart will be showing his A-list face in Match while Gaby Hoffmann stars in Lyle, plus mums and dads can take their little ones along to a sing-a-long version of Frozen, and that’s just naming a few. Q&A sessions will also be running regularly for anyone wanting to know more about the industry or simply the films and makers themselves.
“I love having a guest here so we can ask them questions after the session and found out more about the film,” says Struthers. “I think that’s what makes a film festival a film festival.”
Saturday, February 21, 11am-7pm – Seymour Centre, Chippendale
An amalgamation of stimulating and provocative ideas, academia, art, culture and literature all bundled into one day, this year Queer Thinking aims to explore a wide range of topics and perspectives from transgender identity and issues affecting young LGBTQI people to challenges faced by those living in areas of more diverse cultural backgrounds.
“We focus on under-represented groups,” says James Rongen-Hall. “We’ve done a lot of work with the trans community in the last couple of years, and now we’re looking into culturally diverse areas such a western Sydney and regional NSW and how we can get outside the gay ghetto of Darlinghurst.”
This year’s speakers include music men Paul Mac and Jonny Seymour (two old mates who have worked with the likes of Kylie Minogue, George Michael, Sia and even fashion designer Carla Zampatti); and satirist Pauline Pantsdown, aka Simon Hunt, who famously parodied former member of federal parliament Pauline Hanson.
Where The Party At?
What’s Mardi Gras without letting your hair down, blow-drying it back up and spraying it solid with a $2 shop’s worth of hair glitter? Nothing, that’s what. But with party after party on offer throughout the season catering for all kinds of tastes from tom boys to bears, twinks, daddies and bull dykes, it can be a little hard to know which ones to shell out the cash for.
Saturday, February 21, 10am to 5pm – Jamberoo Action Park
Jamberoo Goes Gay is one supremely awesome daytime party. Organised by fun-loving LGBTQI group Gay 4 Play, it gives hundreds of gay men and lesbians full reign of Jamberoo Action Park for a day of water-splashing, DJs, barbies and a four-hour open bar. Attendees are picked up on Oxford Street at 8am, before being shuttled to the park, about an hour and 40 minutes from Sydney.
Saturday, February 28, 3pm-11pm – Mrs Macquarie’s Point
Weather (and music) depending, Harbour Party can be one of the best parties of the entire season. With world-class views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House from one of Sydney’s biggest tourists attractions, the Royal Botanic Gardens, this day-to-evening party attracts some of the hottest acts and topless torsos around. Canadian singer Kiesza, the UK’s Bimbo Jones and home-grown talent Samantha Jade, Kitty Glitter, Dan Murphy and Du Jour make up the tunes this year so all you’ve got to do is have a boogie and watch the sunset in loud and proud style.
Day for Night
Party: Friday, February 20, 7:30pm-12am – Carriageworks
Exhibition: February 21-22, 12pm-8pm – Carriageworks
Half art exhibition half dance party, Day for Night kicks off with a huge gathering of guys and girls cutting some shapes in the middle of Sydney’s beautiful Carriageworks, the largest and most significant multi-arts centre of its kind in Australia. Then the next day when the smoke clears, you’re invited back to check out the work of artists including White Drummer, Matthew Day and Emma Maye Gibson (Betty Grumble) in a whole new light. Sunlight.
James Rongen-Hall says the event “came out of an objective from Mardi Gras to create a platform for queer artists with less conventional performance styles”.
Monday, March 2, 2pm-11pm – Ivy
One of the best and worst things about the Mardi Gras Pool Party is that it’s always on a Monday. If you don’t have the day off work it can seriously suck to know that while you’re at your desk, the Ivy Pool Club is hosting a whole heap of gorgeous and glamorous boys and girls in their most revealing swimwear. But if you do, or you’re a visitor to the city, this can be one of the coolest little day parties you’ll go to all year. Expect to meet a lot of out of towners, all looking to find out just how sexy Sydneysiders really are.
Mardi Gras Party
Saturday, March 7, 10pm-8am – Playbill Venues and Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park
Without a doubt this is the biggest, sweatiest extravaganza of the whole festival. The Mardi Gras After Party is the largest gay and lesbian event in the southern hemisphere. Expect crowds of over 15,000 (and to be completely honest, while there are always girls at the party, this is hands-down male dominated), as well as headlining talent Nick Jonas, Aussie vocalist Jessica Mauboy, club queen Dannii Minogue, the Scissor Sister’s Jake Shears and drag superstar Courtney Act. If you’ve never been before you have to go at least once. And for the love of all the gay gods up there, if you’re going with a group make sure you have a meeting point. You will get lost.
Stride With Pride
The Mardi Gras parade itself is one to add to anyone’s bucket list – whether you identify as LGBTQI or not. As someone who’s danced in the parade four times, I can safely say it’s been one of the most memorable, exhilarating and inspirational experiences of my life. As your float takes the short journey up Oxford Street to the after party, with thousands of strangers screaming and cheering and filling your body and mind with electric energy, you feel indescribably proud to live in a city that accepts and celebrates you like the fabulous creature you know you are. Even if it’s only for 15 minutes or so. Not that you actually need to be in the parade to enjoy every second of it (although it does help to get a good vantage spot otherwise you will have to deal with a gargantuan crowd). The time and energy that goes into the floats is outstanding.
Qantas’ float this year, the Qantas Gay380, promises to be quite the spectacle, with key messages of diversity stemming from the many subcultures throughout its workforce. The float was designed by Qantas staff. Shaped like a plane with a rainbow tail and pulled by a multi-coloured tug, Australia’s national airline aims to re-enter the parade in style.
Other floats to look out for include brand new monthly dance party Heaps Gay who’ll be sporting ‘90s wear and freestyling behind local DJs and break dancers; the Bondi Lifesavers in their iconic red and yellow (they always have an amazing routine); the Beyonce G Spot memorial float in honour of late drag star and long-time Sydney favourite, Zaine Feirce; and, of course, the opening act worthy of so many wet dreams, Dykes on Bikes.
But at the end of the day, the parade itself is more than just a chance to see outrageous outfits and choreographed dancing to blood-pumping, heart-pounding dance remixes. It’s the perfect close to a festival that means so much to so many on all kinds of levels.
For me, Mardi Gras was once a means to convey a message that desperately needed to be shouted if not from the rooftops then from the streets. It’s now evolved into a multi-faceted entity committed to engaging, enabling and empowering all manner of people.
It’s why Mardi Gras as a whole, rather than one standalone event, ensures that generations to come will never forget what their predecessors had to say – and more importantly, will always have the courage to say again if they ever need to.
(Images courtesy of Mardi Gras)
Qantas Community are proud to be involved in the 2015 Mardi Gras festival with an ongoing commitment to strengthening the communities in which they operate. Find out more here. Check out flights to Sydney with Qantas here.