In 1995, Sydney was just about the hottest gay destination on the planet. The sequins of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert still shone brightly in our eyes, same-sex activity was legal in all Australian states but one (Tasmania would catch up two years later), and Sydney’s Oxford Street was the envy of an emerging gay world.
Central to its fame was the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Originally a 1978 protest march, the event soon evolved into a full-blown cultural festival. Loud, brash and controversial — the giant model of a well-known Australian homophobe’s head on a silver platter will be forever seared into Sydney’s memory — the parade offered a full-colour scrapbook of what it meant to be queer in Australia. By 1993, it was the biggest outdoor night-time parade in the world, attracting more than 600,000 spectators. Today, Mardi Gras continues to be one of the world’s premier LGBT events and is a must-do for any LGBT traveller.
So where does an out-of-towner start?
If you’re going just for the parade and party, you’re going to miss a lot. Still, a number of tour and cruise companies offer inclusive packages to get you there for the main event. The parade and party are held the first Saturday in March, bringing Mardi Gras to a spectacular close. Expect Oxford Street to be packed all weekend, with cafés, bars and stores all recapturing just a little of the ’90s glam that made Sydney’s scene so famous.
The parade route typically follows Oxford Street up to Taylor Square, where the energy hits its peak before veering onto Flinders Street and ending in Moore Park. If a three-hour wait amid a jammed-in crowd doesn’t bother you, grab a spot on the western side, between Crown Street and Taylor Square. Those wanting a bit more space should grab a spot on the western side of Flinders. Be ready to get wet! Every year, Fred Nile (of silver platter fame) and his church crew pray for rain on the parade and frequently get their wish. Still, if you do catch a glimpse of these charitable souls, be sure to thank them for doing God’s work in giving marchers further reason to strip off.
After the parade, most of the clubs and bars on Oxford Street will charge extortionate door fees for the privilege of being squeezed in. Honestly? If you’re paying to get into a party, splash out on a ticket to the real thing, where all the parade’s energy is released in one blazing gay burst in Sydney’s Entertainment Quarter. Expect five or six different dancefloors, plenty of chill-out space, a sea of flesh ripped straight from a gay-cruise brochure and live performers in the league of George Michael, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George and Kylie Minogue. It’s big, showy and varied enough to offer an unforgettable night, even if dance parties aren’t usually your thing.
Here for a week or more? Fair Day is your best chance to catch daytime LGBT Sydney at play. Enjoy hot live acts and check in with local sports and community clubs for special Mardi Gras events. One outdoor event not to be missed is Harbour Party. Yes, it’s another dance party, but how many parties can boast sunset over the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge as their backdrop?
For the artsy, intellectual types, Queer Thinking takes over the Seymour Centre for a full day of stories, academia and controversy, while many of the city’s theatre spaces are devoted to queer content all through February. Longtime allies Darlinghurst Theatre and New Theatre present Falsettos and Privates on Parade in 2014, while Sydney Opera House, the Seymour Centre and many of the city’s cabaret venues host Australian and international entertainers as diverse as Pam Ann, Courtney Act, the always provocative La Soirée and Jinkx Monsoon in her Australian debut.
To get a free dose of Sydney queer history, take a sinfully spiritual walk through Kings Cross and Darlinghurst with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Visit the sites of Sydney’s first gay bars and explore the city’s deliciously seedy historical underbelly. The Sisters can also take you to meet other types of animals on their annual Taronga Zoo walk.
If you’re planning any of the popular day trips from Sydney, there’s probably a special Mardi Gras departure to get you there. Hunter Valley wine tasting? There’s a trip for that. Furry Australian natives (not the kind you’ll meet at the Oxford Hotel) at Featherdale Wildlife Park? Easily done. Or trek out to the Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves. This is an essential first-timer’s day trip at any time of year. But since it’s Mardi Gras, why not make some like-minded friends along the way? Most day trips depart from Cambridge Hotel in the heart of the Darlinghurst gaybourhood.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras runs Feb 13 to March 8, 2015. The parade is Saturday, March 7. Visit mardigras.org.au for more information.