“ABOUT 14 years ago I was married to Teresa, and when I, when we worked out that I was gay, I seriously considered suicide as a better option,” Michael Gardiner said.

Michael was living in Brisbane at the time, and in the midst of that trauma the actions of his wife Teresa Leggett saved his life.

“I was absolutely devastated, because there was a real chance I was going to lose my best friend to suicide. So I dragged him to Mardi Gras Parade,” Teresa said.

For Michael, seeing what it could mean to be gay gave him hope.

“She showed me that being gay was actually pretty wonderful,” he said.

Still close friends over a decade later, the two speak lovingly of that first year, though their versions of events are slightly different — speaking to Teresa it turns out she was the only one of the couple who marched after their pilgrimage to Sydney.

Michael, Teresa and a friend all got dressed up as “fluffy bunnies” to march in the long-running Camp-berra float, but when it poured down rain and soaked through their costumes, Michael got cold feet and pulled out.

“So there was me and (friend) Adrian Tilby, and dressed as fluffy bunnies we did the Mardi Gras Parade,” Teresa said.

“We’ve done it every year since.”

The year after Teresa dragged her husband to Sydney to learn how to be proud, the two of them found out they could enter their own float. In 2005 they led a group of 15 down Oxford St dressed as “naughty nurses”, and the now-legendary Free, Gay and Happy float was born.

L-R: Adrian Tilby, Teresa Leggett and Michael Gardiner dressed as “fluffy bunnies” for their first Mardi Gras in 2004.

L-R: Adrian Tilby, Teresa Leggett and Michael Gardiner dressed as “fluffy bunnies” for their first Mardi Gras in 2004.

Out of that first, desperate act of love eventually grew an entire community of people, a diverse and sprawling support network, who come together in Sydney every Mardi Gras to be in the parade. Over the years the float has grown to number in the hundreds — they’ve been lifesavers (“Gaywatch”), superheroes (“We’ve Got your Ass Covered”), sailors (“All Aboard for Equality”) and more.

“Friends of ours joined in, and then friends of friends, and then friends of friends of friends, and then it grew exponentially every year,” Michael said.

Despite its growth, the float’s organisers still see Free, Gay and Happy as a group of friends — Teresa said it has retained a low-fi feel.

“I’d like to say we dance, but we’re not very co-ordinated,” she said, laughing.

“Even though we have a fantastic choreographer, I feel heartbroken for her every year as we all struggle to clap and point in the same direction at the same time.”

The group now has around 500 members — based primarily in NSW, but with many from around Australia and even overseas. Coordinated largely through a Facebook page, Free, Gay and Happy has become much more than just the float. The group’s members hold social events and book clubs, and proceeds from an entry fee on the float even allow Free, Gay and Happy to donate to LGBTI charities.

Michael sees the group as being an important place of safety for people who don’t feel like they fit in, who have struggled to find a place in the gay community.

Adrian and Tilby marching in the 2004 Parade. Michael got cold feet and pulled out. Nonetheless, he marched in 2005 and Free Gay and Happy was born.

Adrian and Teresa marching in the 2004 Parade. Michael got cold feet and pulled out. Nonetheless, he marched in 2005 and Free Gay & Happy was born.

“If we know that a member is struggling, whether it be from depression or drugs or anything along those lines, or whenever they put their hands up and say, ‘look, I’m having trouble,’ what we then do is muster some close FG and Happy people to form a support group around them,” Michael explained.

Teresa — the organisational mastermind behind the float — has taken a step back this year, in part because she’s just had a baby. Having grown far beyond its original purpose, the float will make its way along the parade route regardless. Its theme this year is “Come Out, Come Out, My Pretty”, in support of people who make the choice to come out, or to help open the door of the closet for those yet to come out. It’s also a nod to The Wizard of Oz, with many marchers expected to adapt elements of the film in their costumes.

Teresa acknowledges that even though the Mardi Gras Parade isn’t all of what the gay community is, it means something important.

“It isn’t really a true reflection of the community, but what it does do is it shows that there’s so many different sides to the community, so much colour, so much joy, so much acceptance,” she said.

“People seem to be attracted to Sydney. So when people then move to Sydney, they already have a group of friends that they can connect with, so it doesn’t seem like such a big city — a lot of people say that Sydney can be quite hard.”

And if Teresa hadn’t taken him to Mardi Gras back in 2004, Michael thinks he probably wouldn’t be alive.

“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before in my entire life,” he said.

“A couple of hundred thousand people are lining the streets and cheering and clapping you on, and it gives you that sense of acceptance, that sense that this is actually quite an amazing, incredible thing that’s happening here.”

Help is available by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14 or QLife on 1800 184 527, or by visiting www.lifeline.org.au or qlife.org.au.

**This article was first published in the March edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.

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