The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 35 years on

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Sydney Gay Mardi Gras 1993, designed by Kendal Baker, Australia, 1993. 95/339/6-2 .Collection>Powerhouse Museum.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 1993 poster, designed by Kendal Baker, Australia, 1993. 95/339/6-2 Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

As Sydney throw itself into another round of Mardi Gras celebrations, it is 35 years since the initial march. Attitudes have shifted since 1978 when the first march, which was more of a political protest, attracted the wrath of the police and condemnation from certain parts of society and the media.

On 24 June 1978 at 10 pm a night-time celebration followed a morning protest march and commemoration of the Stonewall Riots organised by the Gay Solidarity Group. More than 500 people gathered on Oxford Street, calling for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing, an end to police harassment and the repeal of all anti-homosexual laws.
Mardi Gras has been important political tool for the gay and lesbian communities and used in part for raising awareness and fighting for rights. Particularly in HIV and AIDS awareness during the devastating period of the 1980s and 90s.

The magnitude of HIV and AIDS as public health issues forced mainstream Australian society to confront its fear and prejudice of homosexuality.

Despite calls for its cancellation, the march or Mardi Gras parade as its also known, has became a driving force for gay rights, community cohesion and strength. It was also a vehicle to promote messages of safe sex and to fight the stigma directed at the gay community. The Safe Sex Ball was one of many safe sex awareness events and fund raisers.

The Museum has been developing its Mardi Gras collection for over 25 years. Design and Society curator, Anne-Marie Van de Ven celebrated Mardi Gras 2012 by highlighting some of the collection.
Important designers have been part of the development and emergence of Mardi Gras, like Peter Tully, David Mc Diarmid, Ron Muncaster and Brenton Heath- Kerr and some of their work is reflected in the Museum’s collection.

The Museum displayed a dynamic and vibrant exhibition Absolutely Mardi Gras in 1996 which featured a selection of their works. As fashion curator Glynis Jones commented:

For spectators the popular attraction of the parade is the costumes, while some may be simple, others dazzle with their extravagance or delight with their sharp wit and playful humou.

Like the costume below, Gingham Woman which was designed and worn in 1991 by Brenton Heath-Kerr, who was HIV postive and died of AIDS in 1995, he was 33.

96/76/1 Photograph, `Brenton in "Gingham" ', cibachrome print, Brenton Heath-Kerr/ Brendon Williamson/Peter Elfes, Sydney, Australia, 1992-199

96/76/1 Photograph, `Brenton in “Gingham” ‘, cibachrome print, Brenton Heath-Kerr/ Brendon Williamson/Peter Elfes, Sydney, Australia, 1992-199

Now the parade and associated arts festival are a much anticipated and accepted part of Sydney’s annual festival line up, attracting thousands of international and national tourists.
Anni Turnbull, Curator