“Pride Is A Protest”: Australia’s Mardi Gras Movement Has A Long History Of Both Joy & Pain

Mardi Gras, the Australian LGBTQIA+ celebration of Pride, is one that most people today tend to associate with muscular men in sequinned undies dancing down Oxford Street in Sydney, surrounded by corporate logos as they smile and wave to the cameras. For people who don't know the history of the Pride movement, it might be something that seems to be unnecessary seven years after marriage equality became law.
But the history of Pride in Australia (as it is in other countries) is a bloody one, with each win building on the sacrifice of people who were brave enough to come out at a time when it could — and did — cost them everything. It also represents a fight that isn’t over yet across the queer community, which still faces widespread discrimination, and in some cases, like trans and gender-queer people, are still fighting for their right to exist.

What Is Pride?

Gay/queer pride as a civil rights movement came about as a response to the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, which was spearheaded by iconic figures like Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman. But queer rights movements and the fight against unjust laws that not only made gay sex illegal (and punishable by death, thanks to a 16th century English law that came over with the First Fleet) and barred queer people from many aspects of normal life, have been around for a long time.
There is a lot of power in looking at a system that criminalises your very existence and saying you’re proud of who you are in spite of the people who want you dead.
The Pride movement today is characterised by colourful parades, marches, picnics and carnival days. Pride is, undoubtedly still a protest, but more often than not, it’s been about a minority group who has been criminalised and brutalised finding and flaunting the joy in their identity.

History Of Mardi Gras & Pride In Sydney

On the 19th of September 1970, Christabel Poll and John Ware came out in an article in The Australian, making them the first two openly lesbian and gay people in Australia. Poll and Ware were the leaders of a new group called the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), which aimed to combat anti-gay misinformation. It was through this brave act and the creation of this group that queer activism started to have a more visible presence in Australia. After this, more groups and demonstrations sprung up, but it was CAMP that held what is claimed to be the first gay pride parade in Australia outside Liberal Party headquarters in 1970, though it did not become as infamous as the first Mardi Gras.
In 1973, twelve people were arrested in Sydney during a demonstration for the nationally coordinated Gay Pride Week, which had been proposed by Sydney Gay Liberation. The week had been marked with small protests and high levels of homophobia and intimidation from council officials and police.
In 1975, at the tail end of that gay liberation revolution, David Abello joined one such group on the campus of his university. In an interview with Refinery29 Australia, he said that his aim in joining wasn’t so much with a view of changing the world, but something far more personal. “Well, I was a teen, so I didn't have much of a clue about anything: Make friends, get a root every now and then. It was pretty basic,” Abello says.

There is a lot of power in looking at a system that criminalises your very existence and saying you’re proud of who you are in spite of the people who want you dead.

His motivation to advance the cause, however, gained momentum when he was excluded from his teaching course for being gay, a mere month before graduating. “I was pretty crushed. I don't know why, but I really wanted to be a teacher and thought that I'd be brilliant,” he says. “I thought if I was good enough, it wouldn't matter.”
The group Abello was a part of continued to organise small rallies. It was in 1978 that activists in Sydney got a call from the lesbian and gay community in San Francisco. The Americans were fighting against the Briggs Initiative — which sought to remove queer people and allies from the school system — and the group was encouraging people around the world to hold Gay Solidarity events.
The Sydney activists, including Abello, called themselves the Gay Solidarity Group and decided there would be a demonstration in the morning and then a parade in the afternoon. “A number of people claim to be responsible for the idea, of course. I think it was spontaneous and a number of people arrived at the same point,” Abello says. “There was an American film called Word Is Out which had been on at a gay film festival in 1978, and in it, was a Mardi Gras parade. But it was in the daytime, it wasn't at night.”
The thinking behind a nighttime Mardi Gras was that it would be more of a party atmosphere and that some people who weren’t willing to risk coming out during the day, might be willing to come out at night. Unfortunately, this didn't work out as planned. “Certainly, the idea of being discreet and doing something at night like that didn’t pay off," Abello says, sharing that people who were arrested ended up being outed, and seeing their names and addresses published in the Sydney Morning Herald, which was then a Fairfax publication. "There was a huge fallout for those people. Particularly people in sensitive jobs — school teachers and the like.”
The event on the 24th of June 1978 started off peacefully enough, with a few hundred people dancing down Oxford Street behind a truck playing music, including Meg Christian’s Ode to a Gym Teacher and Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay.

“It wasn't much of a parade. It didn't last long before it was a riot.”

Although the group had a permit to ‘assemble and march’, the police took issue with the event, claiming that the Mardi Gras had too many people for the permit, and hurrying them down the road. “When we got to the bottom of Oxford Street, that's when the trouble started," Abello recalls. "They tried to arrest the driver of the vehicle. A bunch of people were on the other side of the truck and they pulled him out the other door, and he went off into the crowd. Disappeared. Pretty much after that, they [the police] were determined to do what they did, which was to try and get us all somehow.”
“It wasn't much of a parade. It didn't last long before it was a riot.”
“It was intense, and it was incredibly loud. Everyone was screaming. It was very violent.”
“We were essentially cornered, and we'd been cut off from our escape routes. Their intention was to arrest everyone who was there and people put up quite a fight. The police would open the door of a paddy wagon to put someone in, and the people inside would all push out and run. Escape. People would be getting badly beaten for doing that,” explains Abello.
“After that was over, we went to Darlinghurst police station and stood out the front, chanting, calling people's names out, because people could hear us inside the police station. When Peter Murphy was being bashed [in his cell], we called out his name. ‘Who’s bashing Peter Murphy?’, that sort of thing.”
Listening to Abello describe the day and surrounding events, you can feel the weight of his words, and how aspects of his activism have left him with scars, both physical and emotional.
“There was this disastrous outcome and, of course, it committed us to a year of actions around that Drop The Charges campaign and there were four very large demonstrations in July and August.”
The first Mardi Gras ended up being a flashpoint for queer rights in Australia, setting off a chain reaction of law changes and eventually, creeping acceptance among the broader community. “If the things that happened in 1978 didn't happen, we wouldn't have a Mardi Gras now,” says Abello.
The next year, the group was back for the second Mardi Gras. This time, they weren’t arrested, but there were bystanders throwing rocks. From there, it became an annual event. Originally, it was very political, controlled by a left-leaning group of activists. But, over time, the gay business lobby took over — and it evolved into what it is today.
That corporate angle is something that Abello struggles with these days. “Being at the front of the parade with the 78ers, I walk up Oxford Street and I get moved by that very genuine love from the crowd. And then you remember you're in a giant ad.”
In 1984, homosexual sex between men was decriminalised, just as the HIV/AIDS crisis really started to take hold in Sydney and the rest of the country. In 1985, the now three-week Mardi Gras festival took on the theme ‘Fighting For Our Lives’. By the 10th Mardi Gras in 1987, it was the largest nighttime parade in Australia, as well as a tourist attraction.
In 1988, after years of declining women’s participation, the Dykes On Bikes were added to the parade and the word ‘lesbian’ was added to the title, making it the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Association.
1990 saw the introduction of the first Mardi Gras Fair Day, with a dog show, sporting events and community stalls. By 1993, the Mardi Gras was attracting more than 500,000 attendees and 118 float entries.

Progress is not linear, and key wins on queer rights are not as long ago as one might think.

In 1994, the ABC broadcast the parade for the first time. Showing the Mardi Gras on TV was a controversial move, with 90 Federal MPs signing a petition to reschedule the broadcast, and The Cadbury Schweppes company withdrawing advertising from Hey, Hey It’s Saturday because the show did a live cross to the parade. The petition failed to have its desired effect.
2016 was marked by apologies. The participants in the original Mardi Gras (known as the 78ers) received messages of regret from the NSW Government, Fairfax (then publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald) and the police, for the abuse they received back in 1978.
Fast forwarding to 2021, the parade had to be relocated to the SCG for contact tracing purposes due to the pandemic, marking the first time the parade had been relocated from Oxford Street. In 2022, Google Arts & Culture made a full timeline of the history of Mardi Gras, which can be viewed here.
In 2023, the parade was back on Oxford Street, this time as a part of Sydney WorldPride. For those who are unfamiliar, WorldPride is the Olympics of Pride (albeit with less sport), in that it’s held in a new city every two(ish) years, giving countries an opportunity to show off what’s best about their queer community. 2023 was the first time an Australian city has hosted WorldPride, with the next two events being held in Washington DC, USA (2025) and Amsterdam, Netherlands (2026). 
In 2024, the conversation about police presence at Mardi Gras has come to a head, with Jesse Baird and Luke Davies allegedly being killed by police officer Beau Lamarre-Condon. While police were initially uninvited by the Mardi Gras board, they will now be allowed to march, but not in uniform.

50 Years Of Pride In South Australia

Sydney was not the only state grappling with anti-gay laws in the ‘70s. In 1972, South Australian academic George Duncan was murdered by being thrown into the River Torrens. His death became a flashpoint for gay rights in SA, with The Advertiser coming out in favour of reform, which was in stark contrast to the prevalent attitude of the media in the 1970s.
Later that year, SA legislated that men could defend themselves against being charged with the crime of anal sex as long as it was done so in private, between two men over the age of 21. SA went on to be the first state to decriminalise male acts of homosexuality in 1975. As part of that National Gay Pride Week in 1973, South Australia held its first Gay Pride Parade, meaning that 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of this parade.

A Brief History Of Midsumma & Pride In Melbourne

Technically, Melbourne had the Daughters of Bilitis (a lesbian rights group) in January 1970, before Sydney had CAMP, but it had limited influence despite getting decent media coverage. Melbourne then got its own branch of CAMP, later renamed Society Five, which had success in bringing about law reform changes and providing counselling to those who needed it.
The Melbourne Gay Liberation Group, formed at Melbourne University, ran from 1972 to 1978, with some of the most notable Pride events being Gay Pride Week and the Gay Pride Picnic in 1973, not to mention the Gay Liberation Dances.
In the early 1980s, Melbourne had an event called GayDay, which was a community festival originally set up to celebrate the passing of homosexual law reform in Victoria. It was initially held in a “concrete bunker” under Olympic Park and was not as festive as the organisers had hoped.
To compete with Mardi Gras, there was some talk of the Victorian AIDS Council organising a street party in St Kilda to boost morale in the community as it was being hit hard by HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, this didn’t get off the ground because several gay business owners thought it would be bad for their image. However, in 1988, gay business owners had a change of heart, with the Gay Business Association helping create the Midsumma festival.
According to Midsumma CEO, Karen Bryant, what separates Midsumma (which is a 22-day annual festival that celebrates LGBTQIA+ arts and cultures) from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is that Midsumma isn’t primarily a Pride event.
“When it was started up 35 years ago, its original Constitution was to be an arts festival,” Bryant says. “And then, because it was mostly open access (which means it’s a bit like a Fringe Festival), it wasn't producing events itself… Then, fairly quickly, it started producing one event itself, which was the Midsumma Carnival, which was kind of like an open Fair Day celebration before all of the other open access events would be run.”
However, the problem with being open access is that the focus can drift. Without an organisation producing the kinds of works it wanted to showcase, it needed to work with what was available. And what was available made it start to look a bit like a Mardi Gras cousin, which was not what Midsumma was intended to be. So, the board went about hiring people who specialised in the arts, rather than relying solely on volunteers.
Bryant says this is an ongoing effort. “If we are going to be about actually shining the light and making a change, developing a queer arts culture, what does that mean? A lot of the images and a lot of the culture that we still see is imported from the [United] States or Europe in terms of Pride, and it's not necessarily that diverse… And so Midsumma, for about the last six years, has been very much about a year-round developmental organisation that invests in the future. Investing in the intersectional queer voices, communities, creativity, so that over time Midsumma can play a role in what is a unique contemporary perspective of queer culture that's not just Australian-based.”
Early on in the creation of Midsumma, it was decided that Victoria didn’t need a Pride parade, and that that could be left to Sydney and the Mardi Gras. Then, in 1996, the Melbourne Pride March was founded, separate from Midsumma. The first march attracted 11,000 attendees, and was held just 18 months after hundreds of patrons of gay nightclub Tasty had been detained by police in what has been described as “one of Australia’s most notorious instances of homophobic police brutality”.
While being involved in Mardi Gras requires registration and a fancy float, one of the hallmarks of the Melbourne Pride March is that anyone can show up and march — and any business or community organisation can register to be included. It’s also held during the day, and is free to participate in.
Pride March was originally just registered as part of Midsumma, like any other open-access event. But, eventually, Pride March Victoria (the volunteer-run board behind the march) folded due to rising insurance costs and the high workload for volunteers, and the event was officially taken over by Midsumma.
In addition to the Midsumma Carnival and Midsumma Pride March, there is also the Victorian Pride Street Party, which in 2023, featured musicians Jaguar Jonze, Casey Donovan and Keiynan Lonsdale.

The Future Of Pride

A question that is often asked is whether we still need Pride events today. In the opinion of this author, undoubtedly that answer is yes, particularly because of the ongoing attacks on the rights of transgender people to live authentically. But also because progress is not linear, and key wins on queer rights are not as long ago as one might think.
'Gay panic' is a term young people now largely associate with that frisson of anxiety you get when you encounter a hot person of the same sex and forget how to speak. But up until December 2020, it was a valid defence for a straight person to murder a queer person in South Australia (and earlier in other states) if they thought the gay person was hitting on them.
Even today, religious schools and hospitals in Australia are exempt from LGBTQIA+ anti-discrimination laws and they can (and do) still fire and expel queer people for simply being queer. Western Australia doesn’t legally recognise non-binary gender. We still don’t have a national ban on extremely harmful conversion therapies for queer people. The marriage equality plebiscite in 2017 showed that 38.4%+ of the Australian population doesn’t think queer people deserve equal rights. According to the Inclusive Australia: Social Inclusion Index, 36% of LGBTQIA+ people report experiencing everyday discrimination. The previous year’s report found that 1 in 5 Australians were “highly prejudiced” against LGBTQIA+ people.

Many queer activists would argue that the community still has a long way to go before equality has been achieved.

Queer people have come a long way from the days when police would come into their homes and beat them up, and yes, explicit laws criminalising queer people having sex no longer exist. But many queer activists would argue that the community still has a long way to go before equality has been achieved.
Karen Bryant agrees. “The way I often explain it is I think it's like being on a road trip and we've come a long way. But the road stretching out ahead is still so far that I can't even see the next bend, let alone the end.”
For Abello, the next frontier is supporting transgender people, as well as showing solidarity with the international queer community. “I think international solidarity is becoming very important," he says. "Trying to use international forums like the United Nations, fighting for or taking up the interests of people who are still being executed, brutalised, and tortured. There are still many places in the world where oppression is rife and there are many international development worker friends telling me that in every city or town, there is not only a gay community but also a queer one. And some people with very perilous lives not wanting to be found out.”
One thing Abello wishes the next generation of queer people knew is what got them to this point. “Know the cost. The price of freedom is very high. I think that if you don't learn from these things, you’re destined to relive them again.” To that end, he and the other 78ers have written a booklet telling their story, which is available here. You can also find more information about annual Pride events in Australia on the Australian Pride Network website.
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