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'Rainbows are everywhere but no one’s really around': Sydney's Mardi Gras in Covid times

Gary Nunn
·5-min read

“Happy la-di-da” was the singsong greeting heard on Sydney’s Oxford Street last March: rhyming slang commemorating Mardi Gras, the city’s final mass event before Covid-19 hit.

“Gay Christmas”, as it’s colloquially called, will look different this year – 35,000 ticket holders will watch the parade at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a more controllable environment than Oxford Street, traditionally lined with some 200,000 spectators.

For 78er Kate Rowe, who marched in Australia’s first major LGBTQI protest in 1978, leading to the birth of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, this year’s festive feeling is somewhat muted.

Related: Acid, blood and police raids: the pioneering drag chaos of Sylvia and the Synthetics

“Rainbows are everywhere but no one’s really around. It’s drained the vibe for me,” she tells Guardian Australia. Many elderly 78ers have been “sheltering”, fearful of the virus.

Rowe is, however, impressed at Mardi Gras’s “fantastic effort”.

78ers have double the spots of other groups, and golf buggies to circulate the stadium for those with limited mobility. “They’ve really taken care of us,” Rowe, 70, says.

Similar fears deterred Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays from entering a float.

“We were mindful of our mixed ages,” PFLAG volunteer Les Mico says. “Last year was my family’s 21st parade march; it’s very difficult to sit on the sideline.”

Covid made us even more creative

Teresa Leggett

In other quarters, however, excitement is building. Teresa Leggett, winner of last year’s Mardi Gras Lifetime Achievement Award, first marched in Mardi Gras with her then-husband, Michael, knowing he needed to come out. She has returned annually with the now 1,000-strong Free, Gay ’n Happy community: “It’s my love letter to Michael, for choosing to tell me rather than take his life,” she says.

“Naysayers have said ‘it won’t be the same’, ‘it’s all too hard’. It has been hard, but everyone – organisers, performers, ticket holders – made a collective decision: we were never going to let Mardi Gras 2021 not happen.”

They’ve pulled back, though, from their usually large dancing troupe. “This year is about the detail, the person, their story,” Leggett says. “Covid made us even more creative. Every entry you’ll see was a struggle; every person put in their heart, soul and shed many frustrating tears.”

Albert Kruger, the Mardi Gras CEO, has told the media to expect a “once-in-a-lifetime event” with 45km of cabling upgrading the SCG’s sound and lighting, and Rita Ora performing the finale. SBS will broadcast the event – the changed circumstances giving the crew days to set up instead of the single hour they usually get.

There are benefits, too, to those participating in the neurodiversity float. “It’ll be more controlled with fewer crowds – more sensory-friendly,” Renee Christie from Autism Spectrum Australia says. “We’ll miss our quiet Fair Day stall, though. Studies show those with autism are more likely to be LGBTQI, and they’d come to our stand saying they’d finally found their place.” They’ll be dancing on Saturday to Ladyhawke, an artist with Asperger’s.

Related: Sydney Mardi Gras members vote against banning police from 2021 parade

Meanwhile, the First Nations float, inspired by Beyonce’s Black Panther-themed performance at the Superbowl, will march to I Can’t Breathe by Aboriginal rappers Dobby and Barkaa, wearing all-black outfits. “We’ll showcase the deaths in custody and injustices Aboriginal people still face,” float coordinator Jane Strang from ACON says. “Beyonce could’ve done that performance in a sparkly dress but she sent a powerful Black Lives Matter message; we will too.”

Jaz Goode from Trans Pride Australia will be wearing pink, blue and white – the trans flag colours – but she’ll miss the cheering crowd interaction. “It may be less electrifying but it’ll be safe,” she says. “We’ll still hear their cheers 20m away!”

Goode also attended My Trans Story, one of a fortnight of queer events – all put online – leading up to parade day. “Visibility is so important to us, and even at its reduced capacity and socially distanced, that event was inspirational,” she says.

Former Mardi Gras CEO Terese Casu curated Skin Deep, looking at “how LGBTQI bodies are used as a canvas to tell stories through tattoos”, one of the few creative programs with budget and a venue (Darlinghurst’s National Art School) to go ahead this year.

“There’s a grieving when signature events get taken away,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the one time of the year regional and remote LGBTQI people hold out for.

“Mardi Gras is far more than a commercial party – it’s important the arts festival components don’t get taken off the budget.”

There will still, however, be a protest on Oxford Street, despite NSW police trying at the supreme court this week to suppress the march (NSW Health on Friday granted an exemption, allowing the protest to proceed). Pride in Protest aims to march the original route of the 78ers from Taylor Square to Hyde Park at 2pm on Saturday, protesting against the unfair treatment of sex workers, refugees, people of colour and drug users.

Related: Mardi Gras protest march to go ahead in Sydney after last-minute Covid exemption granted

“It’s about queer solidarity,” Mardi Gras Board member Charlie Murphy, 29, says. “We need a united front on social justice for all oppressed communities to achieve full liberation.”

Meanwhile, corporate sponsor ANZ is donating $100,000 to LGBTQI support service QLife to help it cope with a 22% increase in helpline calls from 2019 to 2020.

First time float entrant James Shields, co-founder of the new Emerald City Kickball league, says this year will be “a statement”.

“It’ll be a continual disruptive beacon to places worldwide that every individual has a voice, deserves respect and demands protection ... even if that means at a distance and with masks.”

Rowe says she expects Saturday will remind her of the 2002 Gay Games opening ceremony, also at the SCG. “If it’s anything like that, it’ll be electric,” she says. “The more I think about it, I think it could turn out to be something really special.”

• The 2021 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will be broadcast live on Saturday 6 March at 6pm AEDT on SBS On Demand with geo-block removed, or see the full parade at 7.30pm on SBS and NITV