With Mardi Gras’ 40th anniversary coming up, the Star Observer is taking a walk down memory lane and revisiting iconic moments in the festival’s history.

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In the early nineties AIDS activism was at an all-time high, fuelled in large part by the government’s inaction when it came to responding to the crisis.

In Sydney, ACT UP protesters occupied the Federal Health Department switchboard for an hour, refusing to connect callers and reading a prepared statement to them instead. They wore black “silence = death” t-shirts.

They also invaded the Redfern offices of the NSW anti-discrimination board as part of an ongoing campaign for an inquiry into AIDS-related discrimination.

And the AIDS Council of NSW called on the state government to establish an interdepartmental committee to coordinate a state response to the growing problem of homelessness for people living with HIV/AIDS as a matter of urgency.

It was all of this, and much more, that provided the political backdrop for the 1991 Mardi Gras parade, which was led by an ACT UP contingent.

The parade had far stronger political overtones than it had had in previous years, with activists demanding speedy action on HIV/AIDS drugs and treatment at the beginning of the parade.

An estimated 230,000 people turned out to watch it, an increase of 100,000 on the previous year’s crowd.

Crowds were heavy along all parts of the route, which stretched from the corner of Liverpool and Elizabeth Streets to the Anzac Parade bus lane, and there was a large gathering to greet the parade when it arrived at the showgrounds.

The then President of Mardi Gras, Colin Fawcett, commented at the time on the decision to base ACT UP front and centre.

“The parade is still a political statement,” he said.

“We have to remember the roots of the parade, and the fact that there are still things that we as a community are not happy with.”

He added that having ACT UP lead the parade was “a gesture of solidarity on our part”.

The party following the parade was sold out, with 16,000 people attending. Party-goers continued partying until it closed with a cameo performance by Marcia Hines at 10am.

The parade was not without incident, though. A drag queen fell of a float near Whitlam Square, however the Mardi Gras team were quick to act.

The queen was soon admitted to St Vincent’s hospital with a broken collarbone.

And four people were arrested inside the party, and three more in the Moore Park car park.

Five were charged with unlawful drug possession, and the remaining two for allegedly possessing forged tickets.

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