It was a warm Saturday evening in late February 1983. Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me had just slipped from number one in the Australian charts – a song that sung ‘give me time to realise my crime, let me love and steal’ was entirely appropriate for the events unfolding on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, Sydney. As many as 15,000 people were taking part in the Gay Mardi Gras parade including Mark, a local young gay man. They were defying the illegality of being gay by claiming the bohemian neighbourhood of Darlinghurst as their own despite those who sought to oppress them. This was in the spirit of the 1978 event which was a protest to commemorate the Stonewall Riots which ended in the arrest of 53 out of about 2,000 revellers. The participants celebrated with gay abandon riding upon floats that sparkled and glittered, floats that showed the many facets to being gay, lesbian and of any non-conforming gender or sexuality. There was no fencing, the parade was free for all to participate in. The alleyways of the city were free for all to use and celebrate in. The atmosphere was one of celebration, of defiance, creativity and safety. The freedom to express yourself however and wherever you wanted to.
Move forward to 2015 – it was a cold Saturday evening on the 7th of March. Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do, from the sexually progressive movie Fifty Shades of Grey, was the number one hit on the Australian charts. Over 80,000 people from all over Australia and the world converged in Sydney for the 37th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and what is now the Australian GLBTIQ event of the year. Another 10,000 people took part in the parade. The numbers may be similar, but things have changed. In the 1980’s Mardi Gras was only just finding its feet and establishing itself as an event. It was extremely popular among the locals, particularly those living in Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Potts Point. At the time this part of Sydney was home to the fringes of society – the gay, the artistic, the bohemian, the socially progressive. You can see how an event such as Mardi Gras could have only come out of such a mix of people who struggled to feel safe and free to express themselves even if their neighbourhood was mostly filled with alike people. Now Mark and the rest of his neighbourhood are joined by thousands of people from all around Australia and the world. Mardi Gras had created a safe place for individual expression so each year it has attracted more and more people who dreamt of the same. It is gay Christmas and Easter all in one.
By 1994 the event had as many as 600,000 people in attendance but it was the late 1990’s when Mardi Gras really hit its prime. Mark recalls people from all walks of life and all different sexualities and genders were coming to Sydney dreaming of and participating in this vibrant, creative celebration where everyone could be themselves and for the chance to meet like-minded people. It was an event that managed to bring together disparate sexual and gender identities who would normally stick to their own social groups. Unfortunately the more popular the event became the more regulation was needed to keep the event safe, and the more regulations needed, the event became costlier for both organisers and participants. Each year was more expensive than the last to take part. Corporate sponsorship became more important and with sponsorship comes competition – so the floats and parties become more and more glitzier. Due to these higher costs, and perhaps some mismanagement the Mardi Gras organisation collapsed in 2001 and a new one formed in its place. For Mark these changes brought a hope that the new Mardi Gras would return to its simpler grassroots approach in the early 1980’s but the event was now too popular for that to be possible.
Mardi Gras may be the gay Christmas, but just like Christmas what it means has changed over time as more and more people celebrate it. Many, like Mark, wish Mardi Gras was as it was in the 1980’s when it began, whereas others of today’s Generation Y would probably not be sure how to handle the freedom of the 1980’s Mardi Gras. We, Generation Y, are used to regulation. We are used to doing things within set confines made for us. Imagine the over 10,000 people that participated in the 2015 Mardi Gras parade but with no, or very little, police present. Imagine no fencing, no boundaries, no limits. Mardi Gras has had to evolve to suit the fact that it has grown from a local event to an international event. It has had to create a sense of safety through the presence of police, using fencing and other such measures. We don’t like being told what to do, or how to celebrate, but it is the sacrifice Mardi Gras has had to make. Popularity has changed what Mardi Gras is, but it hasn’t changed the reasons why it is the gay Christmas – we still have a desire to celebrate without the constraints a conservative society, we still love to come together and meet others like us and we all love the freedom Mardi Gras grants us – to express ourselves however damn way we want to. That’s Mardi Gras.