With Midsumma Carnival kicking off on Sunday, here is a look back on the Midsumma Festival over the years.

To define Midsumma strictly by what is contained between the first and last pages of the festival guide is to underestimate its value. There is no argument that this summer event in Melbourne is one of the best arts and cultural festivals and Pride celebrations anywhere in the world, but Midsumma is more: it is the keel of Melbourne’s LGBTQI community. 

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The very first Midsumma Festival was held in 1989. Sydney’s Mardi Gras was already 10 years strong and vacuuming up the Victorian pink dollar and the Melbourne queer community really wanted to stay home and party. A festival had been proposed for some time and the Gay Business Association finally made it happen. 

Midsumma 1989: 10 Days Long and Celebrating All Things Rainbow

Midsumma Festival 1989. Image: Australian Queer Archives

The inaugural Midsumma was 10 days long and celebrated all things rainbow with a street party, sports carnival, theatre, cabaret, film, walks, and talks. Many of its now signature events were there from the start, albeit, in a lite version. Carnival kicked off the first Midsumma with a day of al fresco entertainment in Albert Park Reserve. By 1996, the increasingly popular event had outgrown its original venue and was relocated to the more expansive Alexandra Gardens, which could accommodate the myriad stalls, several performance stages, arenas, dog show, and gratuitous promenading. 

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After sundown, the event transitioned into a dance party with eminent DJs stirring the languid crowd back into energised fervour. 

Carnival is arguably now the centrepiece of Midsumma; free, family-friendly, accessible, and utterly joyous. 

Midsumma 1996: First Midsumma Pride March

A couple of other things happened in 1996: Claire Beckwith was instated as the first lesbian president of Midsumma, and, as a completely separate event, Melbourne held its first Pride March. The daytime parade meandered through the streets of St Kilda, finishing in Luna Park. 

Midsumma Pride March 2016

It was not until 2015, when the cost and logistics of holding a street parade had become prohibitive and Pride March looked like it would be cancelled, that it was incorporated into Midsumma Festival. 

It’s their respective parades that truly differentiate Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, suggests Karen Bryant, CEO and creative director of Midsumma. 

“I think that the fact that the [Midsumma] festival had had close to 30 years of history before it took over Pride March meant that it’s evolved differently. It’s evolved where the whole festival is its base and Pride March is an important part of it, rather than events and a festival being built around the march.” 

Mardi Gras, of course, stemmed from the seminal and violent protest march held in 1978. 

Midsumma Pride March 2016

“That’s where it came from, where its history and its DNA is,” explains Bryant. “Midsumma started as a festival a few years before and completely separate to Pride March Victoria.” 

‘Experience All of the Wonderful Richness of Queer Events Around Australia’

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Comparisons are invariably made between the two festivals held in famously combative cities, but Bryant does not see them as rivals. Rather, she sees them as complementary, contributing to the enrichment of Australia’s LGBTQI culture. 

“Absolutely people should come and see both; they’re both really important events. For me it’s not a competition, but certainly we have worked to create a point of difference. Look, Mardi Gras is such an important event. Australia only needs one Mardi Gras, and we want people to go to Mardi Gras… We want people to experience all of the wonderful richness of queer events around Australia.” 

Bryant has been at the helm of Midsumma for five years, having worked previously with several large arts festivals in Australia, including the Adelaide Festival. She was recruited by Midsumma specifically to address key targets which were part of a new agenda set by the board. Midsumma had already evolved beyond the festival into a year-round organisation and was looking to expand further. 

“They were about really establishing a reputation for being the LGBTIQ arts organisation, arts festival, certainly in Victoria, but also nationally. So they really wanted to build those credentials and obviously the work that would give it those credentials,” Bryant explains. 

Midsumma Carnival 2020

Midsumma had done research and found its audience profile was quite narrow. They wanted to expand that audience. 

“Not change it,” Bryant clarifies. “What they wanted to do was bring in new audiences, new events, and really make it a queer organisation that represented our diverse communities, across all ages as well […] Trying to make sure that you’re creating events and an organisation that really truly is listening and hearing everyone’s story at the exclusion of no one. It’s quite difficult.” 

To achieve that goal, Midsumma has gradually introduced more events, workshops, initiatives that not only identify those lesser heard groups, but seek to engage and work with them on projects. They now have a signature program in which they commission a suite of works each year that respond to a particular theme. 

“So the first one we did was “Body,” and that was a four-day program focused on 21 artists from intersex communities, from trans communities, from gender diverse communities across all art forms – storytelling, visual arts, film, performance, dance – and seeing how important it was for those communities to tell their stories within a context of a whole lot of other like-minded community member’s audiences,” says Bryant. 

Midsumma Continues to Expand

Midsumma Carnival 2019

The following year, Midsumma explored queer identity in the Asia-Pacific region and invited First Nations people from Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, and Asia to share their art, culture, and stories and to variously give the Welcome To Country. 

In 2018, Midsumma introduced Pathways, a nine-month-long, intensive mentorship program for LGBTQI people living with disability. It has helped build confidence and trust and led to growth in community participation. 

“Twenty-four per cent of our surveyed attendees at the last festival identified as living with some disability,” says Bryant. 

Midsumma’s many and varied partnerships have also contributed to the wealth of opportunity offered by the organisation: together with Australia Post, Midsumma offers a national arts prize; with Gasworks, they run a queer playwright competition. In 2017, they partnered with Stomping Ground Brewing Co to create a bespoke beer, PRIDElweiss, from which part of the proceeds now go into the Midsumma Futures mentoring program for emerging queer artists and culture-makers. 

Midsumma is international, universal, but at its core, distinctly Melbourne. Like every city, Melbourne has its own personality, flavour, style, and physicality. The laneway art, intimate theatres, social spaces, dining, shopping, clubbing all have a unique Melbourne feel. And that is true about Midsumma. 

Star Observer’s Midsumma fg (Festival Guide)

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