From a night of police brutality when homosexuality was illegal, to tonight when two men legally married on the glittering Oxford Street strip — Mardi Gras has changed a lot in 40 years.
It is the night of nights for the Australian LGBT community but this year is particularly fabulous as it marks four decades since the original 1978 march-turned-protest.
And after Australia said ‘Yes’, what better way to mark how far society has come than with the parade’s first wedding?
Floats of note:
- A special Sydney Opera House float with a 10-metre replica of the famous sails
- A first nations float featuring an Indigenous man dressed as Captain Cook
- An ‘evolutionary dinner party’ float where an enormous poster is converted into a massive table, with surprises served up on plates
- The 78ers bus, blazoned with giant posters of the parade 40 years ago
James Brechney and his partner Stuart Henshall tied the knot in the most fabulous way they could think of — standing on a giant wedding cake.
They timed their ‘I Dos’ right as their float crossed Taylor Square, where the original Sydney Rainbow Crossing was.
“I always wanted a huge wedding so 200,000 people is just enough,” Mr Henshall said.
“Stuart and I understand the shoulders we stand on to be able to get married at this year’s Mardi Gras,” Mr Brechney said.
What happened that night 40 years ago
On Saturday, June 24, 1978 at 10pm, the first Mardi Gras was met with unexpected police violence.
Police swooped in and violently arrested 53 men and women, many of whom were beaten in cells.
The 78ers, who reunited from across Australia to march tonight, have since been praised as a valiant group of people who showed incredible bravery on that cold, terrifying night.
Thanks to those men and women, by April 1979, the Parliament of New South Wales repealed legislation that had allowed the arrests to be made and created a new Public Assemblies Act which meant Sydneysiders no longer had to apply for a permit to have a demonstration.
The first Mardi Gras was hence a major civil rights milestone as well as the beginning of an iconic celebration of self-expression.
Diane Minnis, a 78er, was joined by 100 fellow marchers from that night atop a bus at the front of the parade this evening.
“It will be a good night … then the bus will take us home to Central so we can get home at a reasonable hour,” she said.
“Not many of us are into partying these days.”
Another 78er, Ron Austin said Mardi Gras should always be a celebration of gay and lesbian people, “not a demonstration of gay rights”.
“It’s a celebration of gay people because we spent so long being second-class citizens and there’s still people around who still treat us with contempt — it’s stupid,” he said.
NSW Police have since issued an official apology.
“I think it is important that we recognise when we get things wrong. The NSW Police got it wrong in 1978,” NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Tony Crandell said.
Takeshi Okada and Koichi Ogihara are technically having a Mardi Gras honeymoon, having tied the knot just yesterday here in Sydney.
“It’s wonderful,” Mr Okada said.
“I was nervous … but we had waited a very long (time) for equal marriage.”
Being the first Mardi Gras since the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the couple felt it was “the perfect time” for their wedding.
A ‘huge hug’ for same-sex couples
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy marched through the parade route before it kicked off, with the PM telling the crowd that Mardi Gras’ milestone coincided with one of his own.
“Mardi Gras is 40 years old and 40 years ago, Lucy and I had our first date,” he said.
He said this edition of the parade carried extra gravity in the wake of last year’s same-sex marriage vote.
“This is a huge affirmation of respect and love. It is so worth it. The vote gave same-sex couples a huge hug,” he said.
Celebrating Priscilla Queen of the Desert
For the first time, the Broken Heel Festival, which celebrates Priscilla Queen of the Desert at her spiritual home in Broken Hill, has a Mardi Gras float this year.
Philmah Bocks said the giant stiletto that sits atop the float was transported all the way from Broken Hill on a truck, stopping through many small towns on the way.
“No glitter was lost and no road kill was left though,” Ms Bocks said.
Ms Bocks said this year’s Mardi Gras was “epic” and there was so much to celebrate.
After months of looking forward to this day, she said she feels “very ready to give birth to this baby”.
‘For one day, it feels like you are free’
Rowena and Nicole, who have been together for 16 years, said this day made all the discrimination they have faced worth it.
The couple said since same-sex marriage passed there had been an explosion of happiness, but there had also been some backlash from ‘no’ voters in the community.
“Shit still happens, but it’s OK, we’re OK, we’re here,” Nicole said.
But the freedom of expression that is at the heart of tonight made all the hurt dull into the background, the pair said.
“For one day, it feels like you are free,” Rowena said.
“It bypasses everything.”
More to be done
Those marching with LIVID Sydney chose a punk aesthetic as a nod to the popularity of the punk scene at the time of the first Mardi Gras.
Attendee Bruno Panucci, along with fellow marchers, painted “Still Angry” on their bodies to send a message: there is still more to be done.
“There is still transmisogyny, transphobia, bi-discrimination,” Mr Panucci said.
“The best thing we can do is be more inclusive.
“So everyone can feel safe in this community because it’s the safest f*****g community I know.”
Stephen Carter expressed his distaste for Senator Cory Bernardi for not aligning with his electorate during the same-sex marriage vote.
“You’re there because people voted you there and they said yes but then you vote no!?”
Awning collapse injures woman
Hopes that Cher would perform at the parade were granted when the popstar performed her hits including Believe and Strong Enough.
However, as Cher fever swept through revellers, the awning of Oxford Street pizza shop Hello Pizza partially collapsed on passers-by, injuring one woman who was taken to hospital with minor injuries.