Since its origin, Mardi Gras has created change – ANU expert Wayne Morgan hopes it will continue to do so as it marches into the future.

The year is 1978. Homosexually is illegal and queer rights are non-existent, but on a cold winter’s day in New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s first documented Mardi Gras is heating up the streets of Darlinghurst.

It was sparked by an international commemoration of the Stonewall Riots that happened in New York in June 1969 in which the LGBTQ+ community bravely stood up against a violent police raid of a gay bar – an uprising lasting for six days.

But what began in Syndey as a celebration of love, pride and queer identity would quickly end in violence

Despite police permission, protestors at the 1978 march would face arrests and discrimination that would later echo into media headlines and public discourse, impacting the jobs and lives of those involved.

40 years later, Mardi Gras has evolved into a rainbow-hued, Kylie Minogue-infused festival celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Australians yearly. But Wayne Morgan, Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Education) at The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law, says that feeling of duality first seen in 1978, can be felt today.

“The Stonewall riots highlighted a lot of police harassment of the queer community, particularly those who identify as gender diverse and trans,” Morgan says.

“The organisers of those commemorations in the US asked everyone around the world to use that as an opportunity to protest and raise the issue of gay and lesbian rights.

“In Australia, the organisers decided to make it a celebration and a party on the streets. That very quickly turned into a riot, and police were incredibly heavy-handed with the protestors that turned up.

“As we reflect on Mardi Gras today, there have always been those twin aspects of the parade. But that has been really important in both educating people and raising the profile of issues that the queer community face.”

While significant progress has been made for LGBTQI+ rights, Morgan says that the fabulous feathers, rhinestones, glitz and glam do not obscure the battle for equality that remains.

“In my lifetime, I have gone from a criminal to someone who can legally get married,” Morgan reflects.

@sydneymardigras

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“Just because the queer community might not have been getting prosecuted at that time doesn’t take away the fact that we were labelled criminals under the law of the land, and we were considered second-class citizens in Australia, which brought on all kinds of discrimination.

“But even today, there are those in the queer community that might still face discrimination and not have the resources to fight that, particularly those with lower socio-economic status, education or who are members of some ethnic communities.”

Much like its origin story, Mardi Gras continues to march forward as a powerful tool for rebellion, protest and change. Wayne says that can famously be seen in the successful campaign for marriage equality and the fight against the Religious Discrimination Bill.

“Marriage equality which of course was finally achieved in 2017, had a big focus in parades for a number of years; in fact, some years it was the theme of the entire parade.

“This goes to show how Mardi Gras has always highlighted equality issues that are important to the queer community locally and internationally.

“Another example, which thankfully didn’t become law due to the Coalition losing government, was the Religious Discrimination Bill. Groups in the parade featured Christian queers and queers of other religious faiths, demonstrating that many people of faith didn’t support the Bill which would have given religious organisations the ability to openly discriminate against the queer community.

“That’s an example in very recent times that made its way into the Mardi Gras and helped to mobilise and educate the community,” Morgan says.

@sydneymardigras

Some of our favourite photos from #MardiGrasParade 🫶🏼 📷 Rocket K Photography & Jeffrey Feng

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Outside of the law, Mardi Gras continues to pave the way for representation and amplifying the voices of those who remain unheard — including people from First Nations and refugee communities.

Morgan says that’s all thanks to the efforts of the queer community at large.

“There has been a lot of progress, and Mardi Gras has been fundamental in making that happen.

“More recently, we have seen a lot more groups based around ethnicity, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — as seen last year with the Rainbow Serpent, which featured prominently in the parade, bringing those added elements of diversity.

“Reflecting back on the origin of Mardi Gras, it’s those grassroots organisations that continue to fight and make it something that is more inclusive.”

But much like in the 1970s, the police presence at the parade remains a point of contention. Morgan reflects that he witnessed these two worlds colliding when he attended Mardi Gras in the 1980s.

“I remember my very first Mardi Gras parade, which was in the mid 1980s and even then, all of those aspects, celebration, protests and calls for equality were there.

“Back then, there was a call to bring police violence to the fore from organisations working with those living with HIV/AIDS, and Anti-Violence organisations.

“And while that parade had a very celebratory aspect to it, it still highlighted those questions surrounding violence and police presence.”

Since then, Morgan has consistently been part of the change seen on Oxford Street, although he won’t be attending this year – not in person, at least.

That’s not to say he won’t be filled with pride as he watches on from the comfort of his couch at home.

Hitting play on the colour and dancing despite the conflict – Morgan hopes the parade continues to be both a celebration of the queer community and a protest for equality.

“I really hope that these twin aspects of the parade continue long into the future – not just the celebratory aspect, but its community roots and continued efforts to highlight issues of equality and diversity.

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