As the Mardi Gras season was officially launched last Friday night in Hyde Park, organisers took the opportunity to hit back at those who have criticised the festival for no longer being relevant.

Does it still matter? Is it still relevant? Yes, it is, New Mardi Gras co-chair Michael Woodhouse told the 10,000-strong crowd, which included people from all corners of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer communities, plus their friends and families.

Mardi Gras is a time to rise above the city and say, -˜We are queer, we are here and we are not going away,’ co-chair Steph Sands said, adding that Australia still has a long way to go when it comes to ending discrimination, particularly in terms of the legal recognition of same-sex couples and IVF treatment for lesbians.

And, Sands stated, one of the best things about Mardi Gras is that it still shows queer people all around the country that they are not alone.

Thank God for Mardi Gras, she said. It changes lives.

The guest speaker this year was journalist and AIDS activist David Menadue, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989 and is one of the longest surviving people in the country with the disease. In his moving speech he said that for people living with HIV/AIDS, When the going got tough, it wasn’t about attempting to live until their next birthday or Christmas. Their aim was to make it until the next Mardi Gras.

Menadue said that for himself and many others, Mardi Gras was a time to remember the friends we’ve lost and the pain the gay community has experienced over the past two decades. He also made reference to the recent increase of HIV infection in Australia, calling the disease our greatest enemy and threat to our community.

The evening was hosted by Bridget Haire and featured live entertainment from the cast of the musical Falsettos, Irish cabaret star Enda Markey, drag king Sexy Galexy, drag queen Aunty Mavis, and Belinda Lemon, who sang songs from her Bette Midler tribute show Outrageously Divine.

While the official ceremony finished at 9pm, around 1,500 punters partied on in the park to the tunes of DJ Paul Goodyear until 11pm.
In response to complaints from audience members about not being able to hear what was said on stage, Woodhouse acknowledged that getting sound all the way down the back of the park was a problem. It’s certainly something we’ll look at doing better next year, and we will be looking at other possible venues next year too.

Responding to critics who said they found the launch dull, Woodhouse said the performances were great and that most of the feedback had been incredibly positive. Of course we learn from the things that worked and the things that didn’t, and we will make changes in the future as a result.

The 2004 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival features 111 arts, sports and cultural events over 29 days, culminating in the parade and party on Saturday 6 March.

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