An Oral History Of Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, From 3 Generations Of Queer Folk

On the evening of June 24, 1978, a small group of gay and lesbian folks gathered in Sydney’s Taylor Square. After a demonstration that morning to mark ‘International Gay Solidarity Day’, people were marching down Oxford Street to protest against discrimination. Despite it being peaceful, police used violence and arrests to quash the parade.

Next year, it will be 45 years since that night and WorldPride is coming to Sydney to celebrate the milestone. It’s a momentous occasion for the city, and to honour the event we’re looking back at the history of Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras through the eyes of three generations of queer folks.

The Early Years: 80s & 90s

“My first Mardi Gras was in 1983,” says 78-year-old Sydneysider, Lee. “The president of the Mardi Gras committee was a colleague, so all of us went and marched from that small company — about six to eight people.”

“I think the Dykes on Bikes still led the parade then, but it was mostly Oxford Street bars that had floats with people dancing on them. It was quite small. [The police] had learnt to behave by then. It was far more peaceful. There were crowds but they weren’t the huge crowds that there are now,” says Lee.

“It was a political demonstration. When the AIDS issue was big, it was the central focus of early marches that I went on. I guess that’s what made it different is that there were so many people fearful of getting AIDS and dying. What made the ’80s so poignant is it was about saving lives.”

Sydney-based Will is part of generation X and went along to his first Mardi Gras back in 1989.

“I was a very young 20 or 21-year-old and in my first-ever relationship with another male. He was a few years older than me. He was living in Sydney, me, Newcastle. He was out to all his friends, I wasn’t… But his friends obviously knew I was gay. He had a Mardi Gras party at his house and then we all went to the party. I don’t recall any event highlights, just remember being absolutely thrilled about discovering this whole new world that I never knew existed. I was a little overwhelmed, but in a good way, and knew I was in safe hands.”

“I believe there was a stark growth in acceptance during the [1980s and 1990s]. It seemed to be less taboo, there was more public awareness and support,” says Will. “The straight community became more involved, not only as spectators, but participants. I witnessed more straight party-goers joining the celebrations year by year.”

The Recent Years: 2000s & 2010s

Lee’s knees can’t handle the hours on Oxford Street any more, but she still watches it every year.

“It’s huge. I like that it brings people to our wonderful city. I’m glad the cops are marching now rather than beating people up. I’m glad last year it was more of an Indigenous message. I’m glad that political parties are out there and there is always a message each year,” she says.

Similarly, Will doesn’t get as involved these days, preferring local house parties to the big crowds on Oxford Street. But the event still means a lot to him: “As a very close friend said to me once on the dance floor about 15 years ago, ‘It’s our Xmas and NYE all rolled into one!’. That has always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t until I thought of it that way, that I truly embraced the celebrations. Now I have a level of pride in our community, especially around the Mardi Gras festivities.”

For generation Z, the televised Mardi Gras parade is how they were introduced to it.

“Growing up I had a very strained relationship with Mardi Gras,” explains 24-year-old Michael. “Being in a homophobic household I wasn’t allowed to watch coverage on TV and definitely wasn’t allowed to attend. I just remember Mardi Gras being this parade that was very gay, I didn’t know why though. When I found out I myself was gay, it became something that almost frightened me because of how many years I had missed out on this huge community event.”

“My first Mardi Gras I went to in secret. I borrowed my friend’s mesh shirt and changed into a fabulous (but tacky) outfit at their house. It was at Imperial and Amanda Lepore was making an appearance. Important to mention this was my first time at Imperial and my second time ever going to a gay club. I just remember being overwhelmed by the sense of community. Everyone was queer, it was phenomenal,” says Michael.

For 21-year-old Ky, their earliest memories of Sydney Mardi Gras were from being told about it as a kid.

“I didn’t really know exactly what it was but there were some reservations and hesitancy about it, almost like it should be hidden. I remember someone in my family telling me that you should avoid the city during Mardi Gras because it was dangerous, lol. But still, when I saw pictures on TV there was a twang in me that I should be there, even though I was still a child at that time,” says Ky.

“My first experience at Sydney Mardi Gras was the week of my 18th birthday and the first year that I had moved out of home. I got all dressed up with my best-friend and felt so free. Before that, I wasn’t really able to express myself without fear or without judgement but at my first Mardi Gras, I felt like I was invincible. I saw so much queer love and light and everyone was just so loving to each other.”

The future

“I would like to see events that celebrate a diverse range of LGBTQIA+ voices,” says Michael. “Mardi Gras can be about celebrating how sexy you are, but it needs to be more than that. Quite a few events are accepting towards a whole range of people, but not enough are. I would like to see this evolve in the future.”

Ky says Sydney Mardi Gras is a place where they feel like they can belong: “It’s a place where no matter who I am, who I love, what I wear or what I look like, I fit in. It’s also a place where I can go and be with my people and celebrate all of what makes us unique and a community. It’s great to see more inclusion of diverse people across the queer community this year, especially trans and First Nations Peoples.”

When asked about how she’d like to see Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras evolve in the future, Lee says the young folks have it covered.

“There are some really, really bright young people out there. I know that those people who are young and energetic are going to shape the future Mardi Gras and I look forward to seeing it,” she explains.

Sydney WorldPride is around the corner now. The 17-day festival starts on February 17, 2023 and is set to make history for Sydney’s queer community.

Final tickets to major events are available now at If you’re Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, be sure to check out WorldPride’s MobTix program.