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Five incredible, personal stories from 40 years of Sydney Mardi Gras

Five incredible, personal stories from 40 years of Sydney Mardi Gras

A new book, 'Telling Tales' is looking at 40 years of Sydney's Mardi Gras through a very personal lens | Photo: Richard Hedger

This year is the 40th anniversary of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

To mark this milestone, one photographer has drawn together significant memories of the festival from 40 LGBTI people. Richard Hedger was inspired to do so after taking photos at the event for many years.

When the event began back in 1978, it was a challenging time for the LGBTI community. And yet 40 years later, Hedger believes, ‘We find ourselves in an equally challenging time.’

The stories in Hedger’s ‘Telling Tales’ are a mixture of the familiar, famous and unsung heroes who attend the festival. Their personal accounts tell Mardi Gras’ 40-year history through a deeply personal lens.

Reading them gives you a sense of how much Mardi Gras has developed since its grassroots inception.

Like other pride festivals around the world, Mardi Gras has had to grow and change. For some that means embracing corporate sponsorship to ensure its survival. This has left some people craving for the community roots that drove the event’s early days.

That longing for pride to return to its political roots rings loudly in many of the stories in ‘Telling Tales.’

Hedger shared some of his photos of Mardi Gras, along with five portraits and excerpts from their stories with Gay Star News, to celebrate four decades of Sydney Mardi Gras.

Norrie – ‘Demimondaine’

Norries portait in Telling Tales | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com
Norries portrait in Telling Tales | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com

Norrie classes themself as a demi-monde someone considered to be of ‘doubtful social standing and morality.’ And with her portrait in this book above – its hard to argue with them.

Moving to Sydney in 1988, they found their first Mardi Gras in 1989 electrifying – ‘the glitter lay everywhere for weeks.’

Back then Mardi Gras was about their protesting the active discrimination of LGBTI people. And now, 40 years on they say:

‘We should be celebrating the (long fought for) achievement of marriage equality, whilst continuing to raise awareness of matters in relation to prejudice and socio-cultural injustice.’

Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger
Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger

And Norrie’s most significant moment is also a pivotal moment in Mardi Gras’s recent history. One they sees as a positive change for it:

‘In 2016 the police urged festival officials to sideline a young activist float. The officials agreed to do so and pulled the Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) float to the side at the starting line of the parade route.

‘It would seem that some of the young people in the float had expressed their political opinion to certain MPs with whom Mardi Gras officials aspired to ingratiate favor. In my view, extracting the float was a shameful act of civil suppression whereby Mardi Gras went from a conduit for a political protest to an arena for complicity with police and politicians.

‘In response, a large number of more community-minded people enrolled to vote in the Mardi Gras organization’s elections. At the next AGM, approximately half of the old Board were replaced by new voices more supportive of grassroots political engagement.’

Danling – Designer

Danling's portait in Telling Tales 40 Years of Mardi Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com
Danling’s portait in Telling Tales | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com

Danling first’s Mardi Gras was in 2008, two years after she moved to Sydney and met her first girlfriend:

‘We watched the parade with friends from Oxford Street. To secure a spot, we arrived three hours before the parade was due to begin with our milk crate, water and rainbow flags at the ready. We took turns to walk around looking at the marchers and the people who dressed up. As the parade ended at 11.30pm, we would have stood on the street for over seven hours. Yet none of us complained or noticed the passing of time.’

Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger
Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger

‘The most significant year for me was 2017 when I watched the parade from The Oxford hotel with my partner. Heaps Gay’s boombox float and aerobic dancers in their neon outfits reminded us of the positive impact Heaps Gay has on our community.

‘I attend Mardi Gras every year now and will continue to do so to be a part of this meaningful event. I always take photos of the floats and the crowds for my parents in China, to show them there is no shame in having a daughter who is in love with another woman. My parents always delight in the photos. Therefore, Ffrom that perspective, Mardi Gras has inspired my family. But I believe it has for many others as well. And allows them to rethink the meaning of acceptance, equality, and love.’

Tobin aka Vanessa Wagner – Educator and ‘Professional Show-off’

Toby aka Vanessa's portrait in Telling Tales 40 years of Sydney Mardis Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com
Tobin aka Vanessa’s portrait in Telling Tales 40 years of Sydney Mardis Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com

In 1986 Tobin went to the Sydney Gay Youth Group that met in Chippendale. It was a mixed-gender social group who hung out on Saturday afternoons.

‘It was a chance to meet people outside of the bars and we sometimes had elders talk to us about Queer history. But, we also went on the odd excursion. Safety in numbers was a good thing back then.

Although being gay was decriminalized in 1984, Tobin tells the book ‘the vestige of hate and violence was still close and at times pungent. The streets were dangerous, the media ugly and the dreaded ‘AIDS’ was fuelling a new level of hate. This is not the sort of climate to build self-esteem!

And that’s what inspired an act of solidarity, celebration, and courage that became his most significant memory.

‘The Sydney Gay Youth Group made a colorful and rudimentary structural creation on the back of a ute and I dressed up in a Bauhaus-inspired costume made of colorfully painted foam. I recall I made a strange piece of headgear too! The other young people dressed in all sorts of outfits and it was a true expression of youthful diversity.

‘It was so exciting getting the float ready and even more so on the afternoon of the parade. Once night fell and we trundled up Oxford Street we felt thrilled, validated and loved. The idea of shutting down the main street for a big show-off/party/protest is just gold!’

Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger
Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger

And in the 40th anniversary year he see’s how far the pride has grown as an achievement, but also a time for reflection:

‘Our corporatized and globalized uber-capitalistic world has changed the landscape irrevocably and Mardi Gras can’t escape that. With the current right-wing neo-liberal party politic state endorsed poofta bashing alive and kicking, I think Mardi Gras is more relevant than ever. Our human rights are central to us as a species, nation, and world.

‘I’m not fond of floats and marching people as product placement. Moreover, I believe that should be left to the ads and fences. We need more people to get on the streets and dress the fuck up again! Where are the cheeky floats taking the piss?

‘Where are the grand costumes and brilliant moving sculptures? Maybe people are too busy or poor or unable to dislocate themselves from a screen – but I miss the irreverent, vibrant, rebellious, political creative edge the parade once had.’

Ian Roberts – Actor

Ian's portrait in Telling Tales 40 years of Sydney Mardis Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com
Ian’s portrait in Telling Tales 40 years of Sydney Mardis Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com

By the time Ian turned 18, he had started to explore his sexuality. And with a good friend would frequent Sydney’s gaybourhood Oxford Street, on Fridays and Saturdays.

‘It was there that I met John Appleby and Andrew Hill, who became lifelong friends in a ménage à Trois relationship. Around 1984, the boys were going to be working at Mardi Gras doing the lighting and visual effects for the party. Leading up to the party I was a bit nervous and apprehensive. But they invited me along and I spent the night up on one of the scaffolding towers throwing fake snow. It was fabulous. The first time I’d been to the party and the first time I had explored my sexuality as well. It felt like a rebirth.’

But this wasn’t his most significant memory, which was actually a sad story of the hate that can surround a pride festival:

‘John and Andrew moved to America. Sadly, they both passed away from HIV/AIDS. They were a generation older than me and I often think if I’d been born earlier I might possibly not be here today. So the year after my first Mardi Gras where I was with John and Andrew, I still wasn’t out.

Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger
Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger

‘On parade night a friend and I walked behind the Exchange Hotel on Liverpool Street and we saw an older gay man being beaten up. There was a crowd standing around making fun of him. My friend and I just stood there, joining the mob. I remember seeing them take off the man’s leather jacket and boots in order to humiliate him, spitting on him and pushing him down.

‘Although the parade revelers were only a street away, there was a weird silence that seemed to go on and on. When the thugs left, the man sat in the gutter, shirt torn, clutching his jacket and tying his boots.

‘My friend offered to help him up, but was pushed away and told he should have done something to help earlier. In spite of his ordeal, the man was dignified. He straightened himself and quietly walked away. But as I think back I feel so ashamed that I didn’t react to defend a gay man in trouble because I was feeling awkward about my own sexuality. I often think of him and wish I had acted differently.

So now, while Ian finds Mardi Gras still relevant, he feels it needs to be more political.

‘Now young gay people can go to clubs where they are accepted for who they are. Hopefully, that will continue. I’m old school. I still bear the scars of resentment and feel a sense of shame. The younger generation shouldn’t have to suffer as we did. Specifically, they should never feel isolated or be discriminated against.’

Casey – ex NRL rugby player

Caset portait in Telling Tales 40 years of Sydney Mardis Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com
Casey’s portrait in Telling Tales 40 years of Sydney Mardis Gras | Photo: http://www.richardhedger.com

Casey was 19 at his first Mardi Gras in 2004.

‘I had been living in Sydney for about 18 months. But it took me a long time to build up the confidence to go to the Oxford Street bars and clubs. However, eventually, a handful of friends decided to wander into town for the parade. My mind was blown by the sheer number of people marching, cheering from the sidelines and having the time of their lives.

I paused a moment to look around and see how much joy it brought to people’s lives. I remember thinking that everyone has their own story to tell, their own journey behind and in front of them. Being there to celebrate this was powerful.

But like Norrie, Mardi Gras 2016 was his game-changer year – when he marched for the first time.

Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger
Mardi Gras Parade 2010 | Photo: Richard Hedger

‘I was lucky enough to march with the Northern Territory float, alongside the Sistagirls from the Tiwi Islands. Morover, having followed the Sistagirls’ efforts in just getting to the parade, I was proud to be a part of their story. Seeing their excited response to the crowds, I was transported back to a 19-year-old me. In awe of the color, music, laughter and the love that reverberates through the pre-parade gathering. Marching was a blur of excitement but I have occasional flashbacks that make me break out into a massive smile.

‘Mardi Gras will always be important to the LGBTI community. Equally, it holds the history of our struggle to take our rightful place in the wider society. It celebrates diversity like no other event and it sends a positive message, to young people most of all, that it is ok to be who you are and that you belong.

‘I’m convinced that the future will see the continuing evolution of Mardi Gras. The festival itself is growing and leaves no stone unturned. Significantly, massive crowds continue to turn up at the various celebratory events. The positive impact it has on the community is immeasurable.’

You can buy Telling Tales on Richard’s website for more stories of the 40 Years of Sydney’s Mardi Gras.

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