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A civil rights milestone

1978: First gay Mardi Gras march, Sydney

Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0
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Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Why do you think costumes – like the Ron Muncaster costume – are so important to the annual Mardi Gras event?

2. Have attitudes toward Australia’s LGBTQIA+ community continued to change in recent years? Explain your answer.

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Jacques Straetmans wearing the ‘Lucille Balls’ costume, designed by Ron Muncaster, 1994</p>
Photo: Michelle Mika, courtesy Ron Muncaster

In a snapshot

On 24 June 1978 a small group of gay and lesbian people, called the Gay Solidarity Group, organised a day of events in Sydney. They wanted to promote gay and lesbian culture and protest against the discrimination they experienced in their daily lives. Even though the daytime march and night-time street parade were peaceful, police responded with violence and arrests. This brought national attention and helped to make the parade an annual Sydney event.

Jacques Straetmans wearing the ‘Lucille Balls’ costume, designed by Ron Muncaster, 1994

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. When was the first Australian gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade held?

2. What happened during the first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade?

3. How many people now attend the Sydney Mardi Gras parade each year?

When did the gay rights movement begin?

The worldwide gay rights movement began in the late 1960s after the Stonewall riots. The riots were sparked in June of 1969 in New York City when police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. 

After the Stonewall riots Australian gay and lesbian activists began to organise demonstrations and marches, and produce newsletters to promote gay rights. Throughout the 1970s they were opposed by conservative social and church groups. 

<p>Lead float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, 1992</p>

Photo: C Moore Hardy, City of Sydney Archives

<p>Lead float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, 1992</p>

What happened at the first gay Australian Mardi Gras?

In June 1978 the 9th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the newly-formed Gay Solidarity Group organised a daytime march and an evening parade in Sydney. This was the first Australian gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade. The parade moved down Oxford Street, but at Hyde Park police blocked their path and confiscated a truck and loudspeaker. When the parade began moving towards Kings Cross, police arrested 53 participants. 

Soon after supporters of those who had been arrested began ‘drop the charges’ campaigns (urging authorities to drop criminal charges against participants). In response the police made more arrests. But public opinion was beginning to change and, by the end of 1979, all charges against the people arrested were dropped. At the same time laws that allowed for street marches and parades were made less strict.

The first Mardi Gras parade was an important civil rights milestone for gay and lesbian people in Australia.

Research task


Take a look at the photograph of the prize-winning 1994 Mardi Gras costume created by Ron Muncaster. The costume is named after an American actress, Lucille Ball. Find out about Lucille Ball’s background and her connection to the gay and lesbian community.

‘I’d gone along expecting a Mardi Gras and finished up in a humdinger of a riot in Kings Cross.’

Peter Tully, Designer and Artistic Director

How did Mardi Gras become an annual event?

The second Mardi Gras parade, held in 1979, was attended by 3000 people and no arrests were made. After this success the gay community decided to hold an annual parade and use the event to campaign for better protection against discrimination in Australian society. Over time Australians began to accept gay people as customers and employees, and businesses that catered to gay and lesbian people became more open.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 2012.

Mardi Gras faced its next challenge with the spread of the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) virus. In 1985 the organisers of the Mardi Gras parade came under pressure to cancel the event because of an increasing fear of AIDS. Despite these fears the parade went ahead. Mardi Gras helped the gay and lesbian community build a sense of determination and resilience. 

Today the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras and is one of the major events on Sydney’s calendar. It a festival lasting several weeks. But the parade is still the main event, attracting more than 200,000 people each year. The survival and success of Mardi Gras represents a remarkable and defining change in public attitudes.

‘Many of us know people who just wanted to live to see one more Mardi Gras, it was so important in their lives. And they did, and still do.’

Bill Whittaker, AIDS activist

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. When was the first Australian gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade held?

2. What happened during the first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade?

3. How many people now attend the annual Sydney Mardi Gras parade each year?