Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade marched down Oxford Street in late February last year. Today, it’s surreal to imagine those 200,000 spectators swarming around more than 12,000 participants on nearly 200 floats. And, given the new COVID normal, it’s surreal that Mardi Gras 2021 could happen at all.

Surreal, but not impossible.

After months of hard work, the team at SGLMG – which operates as a full-time staff of just six – along with contractors, promoters, partners and venues across the country, are proud to be presenting the 2021 festival line-up as well as a new-look parade at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Albert Kruger became CEO of SGLMG early last year and has had his work cut out for him since.

“We felt an onus on us, as Australia’s largest LGBTQI organisation, to ensure the festival took place this year. Especially after the difficult year many in our community and beyond have just endured.

“Not even the AIDS pandemic stopped Mardi Gras, so we weren’t about to accept defeat.”

Kruger said this year’s theme, RISE, has become more meaningful as the pandemic has worn on.

RISE was developed to represent our community rising to the occasion after COVID put this huge roadblock in our way. It goes beyond MG and calls for venues across the country to rise and host events for the community.

“It’s also the dawn rising on a new day, new growth, regeneration, recovery, reconnection.”

Kruger and his team set a standard that perfectly reflects that theme.

“It took an immense amount of effort from our small team. We had to lobby all of our partners, the agencies, local governments, coming to them with this new plan before we could present it to New South Wales Health.”

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 Safety has been their primary concern,

“It’s a tribute to our hard work and the rigorous safety planning that NSW Health granted us a preliminary exemption to get us across that hurdle. They’ve been incredibly supportive and together we’ve created a very sophisticated and intricate plan for us to be able to deliver something safe in the current environment.”

The parade’s one-off relocation to the SCG has drawn much criticism, largely due to the maximum capacity of 10,000 patrons and the distance from Oxford Street. However, there are obvious advantages to this year’s venue, aside from access to food, drinks and bathrooms.

CEO at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Kerrie Mather, told Star Observer this year’s parade will be a spectator’s delight.

“One of the reasons the SCG was attractive from a health perspective was because people can actually be seated in our fabulous coliseum seating.”

Mather said the venue’s recent $20m technology upgrades have made it ideal for ticket holders and those watching from elsewhere.

“We’ve got the largest video board in the southern hemisphere, state of the art stadium sound, multi-level high-definition ribbon boards that go right around the venue, we’ve got 1,600 TV screens throughout the venue and, of course, venue-wide free WIFI.

“For those that can’t attend, we hope everyone tunes in on our host broadcaster, SBS. Our broadcast facilities here are second to none after being modelled on Yankee Stadium.”

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 Much like the team at Mardi Gras, Mather has put safety at the forefront. Since the pandemic began, the SCG has operated under a stringent COVID-safe plan, working closely with their epidemiologist as well as NSW Health and event organisers. To date, their venue network has hosted more than 90 events and welcomed 750,000 guests with zero community transmission incidents.

Beyond safety, the next other major advantage is the ingenuitive and unique format of this year’s parade.

The SCG doesn’t allow for large vehicles like cars and buses, which would normally be the foundation of many parade floats. This has posed some obstacles for organisers, but many are reporting inspiration, creativity and adaptability.

In addition, the circular venue means participating floats will enter the oval and be on full display to all spectators for the duration of the parade. To maintain some tradition and give all participants their “Taylor Square moment”, each float will have 45 seconds at centre stage. These moments will be broadcast as part of SBS’ live coverage of the event.

Albert Kruger said, “The parade itself has evolved into a very interactive, immersive experience. There’s lot of surprises inside individual floats, guest appearances and a lot of entertainment value. Traditionally, it has just been a float driving by.

“The Mardi Gras community show, which was normally at midnight at the after party, will now be part of the parade to impress on everyone the RISE theme. The parade will conclude this year with a performance from our headlining guest (TBA), who would normally perform at the after party, too.”

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 Liz Carter is the SGLMG Workshop Production Manager. She and her crew are responsible for the much of the spectacle viewers have come to expect from MG parade floats.

“We work from the initial design concept stage all the way to the final build. It’s a lengthy process and a lot of work goes into what you actually see in the parade.

“With a few special exceptions, there won’t be any vehicles in the parade this year. Everyone is doing pushable trolleys or puppets, inflatables, flags, huge pieces of costume.”

As someone who has been designing 12 floats a year for six years, Carter said this year will be one of a kind, with hints of nostalgia.

“It’s very much going back to a Ron Muncastor kind of big, elaborate costumes and performance. I think it’s going to be a really magical, once in a lifetime treat. It’s definitely going to be a parade with a difference.”

As a founding member of CAMP Inc., Peter de Waal played an integral part in the conception, organisation and running of the first ever Sydney Mardi Gras back in 1978.

“We only had one float, not even a float, it was a tabletop truck with a couple of large speakers on it. Somebody had brought a cassette player and that was the music.

“In those days, Oxford Street was gay Mecca, so to try and get numbers up I and a few others ran from bar-to-bar yelling, ‘OUT OF THE BAR! INTO THE STREET!’

“By the end there were maybe 400 or 500 of us. It was a wonderful, joyous event until we got to Hyde Park.”

 The first ever parade ended in a violent scene. Members of the LGBTQI community, Indigenous Australians, sex workers and people from migrant backgrounds were assaulted and arrested by policemen, despite holding the appropriate permits for the gathering.

Out of the turmoil, some of this country’s most marginalised groups came to share a mutual history, a history commemorated annually by the Mardi Gras parade.

As a 78er, Peter has seen the parade evolve over its 43-year history.

“In a sense, the first parade was a very lonely event. Of course, we were all together, but there was no community welcoming us or maybe even shouting abuse at us. Over the years, the parade has achieved an enormous amount in that way. Community recognition, the euphoria, all people welcoming us, straight people, families with children. That would have been so special to us in 1978.

“Of course, the modern parade also goes the wrong direction. We used to start in Taylor Square,” he adds, as a poignant reminder that although the details may change, the message can endure.

This year, Peter says the biggest decision wasn’t whether to attend the parade or not, but whether he’d be marching in front of the float or hitching a ride on the 78ers’ golf buggy convoy that will replace their iconic bus.

Brian Murphy, president of Sydney Queer Irish, said the new format is more opportunity than obstacle.

“From an organisation perspective, it’s almost a bit of a godsend that we don’t have to worry about floats with our own vehicles and speakers. A few years ago, our speakers blew up and we were hauntingly silent going up Oxford Street. That was the year we won best choreography… I think that’s just about all we had that year.”

 Murphy said this year’s festival is more important than ever, with so many people stuck overseas.

“It’s really important for members of the queer migrant community, who can’t go home and see their families and friends, to have that visibility and bring more of us together after a really difficult 2020.

“More than anything, hats off to the organisers for pulling this off.”

While not all of MG’s regular floats will be on display this year, organisers are more invested than ever in creating safe and exciting community events.

General Manager at Poof Doof Sydney, Nic Holland, told Star Observer they had made the tough decision to not enter a float this year and instead focus on bringing their flagship MG events to life in a COVID-safe way.

“We’ll be reformatting the Big Gay Boat Party and our Parade After Party at Ivy. Mardi Gras have been incredibly supportive and understanding of our decision and, after six consecutive years of show-stopping floats, I’m looking forward to having a year off to watch the parade. See you all at the SCG!”

In the build-up to the parade, SGLMG have an extensive calendar of events planned. Favourites like Queer Thinking, Laugh Out Proud and My Trans Story will be back, with the new addition of My Drag Story.

Outside of the major line-up, there are 50 events registered with Mardi Gras across the two-and-a-half-week festival period to cater to all ages, said Albert Kruger.

“Theatre productions in the park, Oxtravaganza will return, there’s a tattoo exhibition, Randwick Council will be painting the stairs down at Coogee Beach rainbow. There are fantastic cultural and artistic events on offer for the whole community we service; from eight years old, to rainbow families, all the way up to 80.

“It’s truly spectacular and it is an example for the world of what is possible if you put your mind to it.”

Full details are available on the Mardi Gras website.

Queer Thinking

Queer Thinking is a series of conversations between panel and audience, taking a deep dive into a diverse range of LGBTQI issues and the society we all share. The three sessions include:

  • The Fights Ahead
    • Writer and media personality, Benjamin Law, seeks to identify the source of anti-queer culture and what can be done to oppose it.
  • Raising The Rainbow Flag: Rising Up For ‘GAYRABIA’
    • Award winning journalist and TV presenter Patrick Abboud hosts a panel of local and international queer heroes rising up for ‘Gayrabia’.
  • Dating When You’re different – Tips & Tricks With Julie McCrossin & Friends
    • The panel shares their five-point-plans for successful dating in discussion with lesbian icon and new grandmother, Julie McCrossin.

Saturday, Feb 27 | NSW Teachers Federation Auditorium
2pm — Dating While You’re Different | 4pm — The Fights Ahead 6pm — Rising up for ‘GAYRABIA’ | Day Pass 2-7:30pm (3 Sessions) $59 | Single Pass (1 session) $29 | Concession $19

Oxtravaganza

Darlinghurst puts on a fortnight of celebrations across the full Mardi Gras calendar, with events ranging from live music, to burlesque, retail promotions, art walks and much more.

This year will be the fifth incarnation of Oxtravaganza, a celebration of ‘the Pink Mile’, with contributions from over 100 local businesses holding up the Oxford Street fort while the parade takes to the SCG for 2021.

Patrons can look forward to Oxtravaganza Shop Till You Drop on Saturday, Feb 27 for retail bargains, Meet Me On Stanley for a taste of cuisine from around the globe and, if you’re game, a new do from the Naked Barber.

Throughout the festival period | www.oxtravaganza.com

 Laugh Out Proud

Laugh Out Proud returns to Mardi Gras this year after it’s sold out inaugural event at 2020’s festival.

This comedy gala features Australia’s best and brightest LGBTQI comedians. Hosted by the award-winning Nath Valvo, Laugh Out Proud is chocked full of comedic talent, including Geraldine Hickey, Mel Buttle, Thomas Jaspers, Rosie Piper, Margot Tanjutco, Selina Jenkins, Jake Howie and Jay Wymarra.

Laugh Out Proud has already gained a reputation for hilarity and promises to be one of the biggest nights of comedy Sydney will see in 2021.

Friday, February 26 | Enmore Theatre | Single ticket $59

My Trans Story

Another event returning for the 2021 line-up, My Trans Story has sold out every year since 2018.

While trans experiences are more commonly seen in media in recent years, few portray experiences beyond the cliché. My Trans Story offers insight from the perspective of proud trans and gender diverse storytellers.

The event will be curated by Trans Pride Australia founder Peta Friend, with a line-up including author and activist Tea Uglow, actor and presenter Andrew Guy and Yamatjii  / Noongar woman Rusty Nannup, plus more to be announced.

Friday, February 26 | NSW Teachers Federation Auditorium Single ticket $39 | Concession $29

My Drag Story

A new inclusion to the festival, My Drag Story celebrates the art of drag in Australia.

From Dame Edna and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, to nights at the Sly Fox and Stonewall, to Courtney Act and Cherylyn Barnes, we have a long history of gender impersonation in this country. Now, with Drag Race set to head down under, we may be on the verge of a drag revolution.

My Drag Story shares seven stories of Australia’s drag artists from foundation to stage, with a line-up including Nana Miss Koori, Sexy Galexy, Amelia Airhead, Cindy Pastel, and more to be announced.

Saturday, Feb 27 | NSW Teachers Federation Auditorium Single ticket $39 | Concession $29

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