The second floor of ACON’s Surry Hills offices was a colourful workshop this week.

Oversized hearts and stars lined the corridors, blue and silver signs were piled here and there, and even the carpet had taken on a fine layer of glitter.

A perfectly standard state of affairs, perhaps, with Mardi Gras around the corner, but this year ACON has particular cause for celebration.

The organisation marks its 20th Mardi Gras Parade entry on Saturday, and plans to do so in style.

ACON has a long history of involvement in our night of nights, from its early AIDS awareness parade entries to its life-saving involvement when Mardi Gras suffered financial collapse in 2002.

This year’s entry will be led by the Asian Marching Boys, who meet and rehearse through ACON’s Asian Project.

They will be joined on the ACON float by about 300 people, leading the Passion section of this year’s parade.

For the first time, all ACON marchers -“ from project workers to volunteers and international visitors -“ will walk together, in a multicoloured float that showcases the organisation’s diverse work.

Because it’s our 20th anniversary, we thought we’d do it as one, ACON events officer and float maker, John Byrne, told Sydney Star Observer as he added the final touches to red and gold parade props.

The decorations and signs are all continuous to give it one feel, Byrne said. Everyone will have their own identity but we’ll all feel like one big group.

It has not always been this way.

In contrast to this year’s extravaganza, only a handful of marchers made up ACON’s first Mardi Gras float in 1986.

Unlike this year’s feeling of celebration, the atmosphere was darker back then.

HIV was a new threat and gay sex had become a political issue.

Executive director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Don Baxter, was on the original ACON float in 1986.

In those days everyone was quite frightened and uncertain of the future, Baxter told Sydney Star Observer.

It was only just becoming clear how many people may have been infected [with HIV], and we were doing something pretty new.

And so ACON, which had superseded the AIDS and Related Conditions Council of NSW, chose to adorn its first float with about five same-sex warriors vigorously attacking HIV, as other marchers walked alongside.

The gesture was a show of strength in the face of a crisis, Baxter said.

We selected safe-sex warriors because we wanted to get across a message of strength, that the gay community had the strength to resist this epidemic.

And while AIDS has remained on the agenda ever since, the gay community’s health needs -“ and so ACON’s work -“ have broadened since the 1980s.

It is that evolution, set against the ongoing struggle with AIDS, that ACON hopes to underline on Saturday night.

In one sense it’s a bad thing that we’re still here 20 years on, because we would have hoped for a cure or a vaccine [for HIV/AIDS] long before now, ACON chief executive, Stevie Clayton, told the Star.

But in the absence of that, it’s a good thing that we’ve survived so long and had the opportunity, I guess, to be able to start looking at the broader health themes of our community.

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