Drag queens, dancers, parents, straights, singers, swimmers, comedians and community leaders -“ seemingly everyone claimed their 15 minutes of fame at last Friday’s launch of the 2002 Mardi Gras season.

Although the threat of rain may have deterred some members of the community from attending the event in the Opera House forecourt, Mardi Gras have claimed that a 20,000-strong crowd attended the annual season kick-off.

A late afternoon storm had threatened the event after hail collapsed part of the roof of the main stage, damaging merchandise and flooding the speaker system.

It was amazing to have it all work out in the end, Mardi Gras CEO Kelly Gardiner told Sydney Star Observer. We were actually trying to get a new sound system installed at the last minute but couldn’t find anything in town. We just crossed our fingers and plugged in the existing system. It still worked, so we were all very relieved that we could go ahead.

Hosted by local drag identity Vanessa Wagner and comedian Izzy, the launch featured keynote speeches from Olympic gold-medallist Mark Tewksbury and PFLAG activist Nan McGregor.

The event was also highlighted by appearances from drag legend Carlotta, Drumdrag’s Gareth Farr, flautist Jane Rutter, singer Angela Toohey, and Johnnie Cass from Big Brother. Mitzi Mac-intosh was joined by members of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence and the Gay and Lesbian Choir for a spectacular finale which featured a Sound of Music remix climaxing in Climb Every Mountain.

In a rousing opening to the night’s proceedings, Mardi Gras president Julie Regan targeted vilification and oppression from political, legal and religious institutions as ongoing concerns for Australian gay men and lesbians.

We know that the fight for our rights is part of the broader struggle for justice against our own axis of evil: bigotry, intolerance and persecution, Regan announced to the crowd.

Our political and religious leaders use the language of hate for political gain. They take what they think is the easy road: retreating to the politics of division.

Proclaiming a slogan of give to our community because we are our community, Regan called on gay men and lesbians to increase their support and involvement with community organisations such as the Anti-Violence Project, the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service and the Rights Lobby.

Introduced by TV presenter and columnist Gretel Killeen, openly gay Olympic swimming gold-medallist Mark Tewksbury made an emotional speech, discussing how the experience of being gay as a child had shaped his adult life and inspired his success in the swimming pool.

I think that when you grow up sometimes surrounded by people that are intolerant, that intolerance can unfortunately permeate you. When I [was labelled gay at school] the hate that I had inside for not fitting in, for being different, exploded, Tewksbury said.

Sport saved my life -¦ It gave me a positive outlet. While at school I was the fag and the gay boy and the nelly, at swimming I was good so people didn’t discriminate against me.

Tewksbury also credited his experiences as a gay man for giving him an edge over his competitors in his 1992 Olympic win.

I thought to myself, what makes me different from [my competitors]? It was the fact that I was gay and I thought to myself, you know, these fuckers have no idea the kind of inner strength that I have to get through the kind of shit I had to get through in my life, he said. I went out there and swam my little head off and won the race.

PFLAG activist Nan McGregor’s speech addressed the need for increased acceptance of same-sex relationships and the importance of education campaigns in schools aimed at making school grounds safer for gay and lesbian children.

In an emotional display, McGregor was joined on stage by family members, including her husband, her son Kieren and his partner Tim.

Friday’s launch heralded a successful opening weekend for the Mardi Gras festival, with a majority of festival events attracting solid crowds.

While Mardi Gras shied away from declaring Sat-urday’s Pool Party a sell-out, organisers claim a capacity crowd attended the event.

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