SYDNEY (AFP) – Rainbow colours beamed from faces and floats parading through Sydney on Saturday as hundreds of thousands of partygoers celebrated 40 years of the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Organisers predicted close to half a million people would witness the glittery spectacle as some 200 floats and 12,500 participants — including police, politicians, indigenous groups and celebrities — made their way down Oxford Street, Sydney’s gay hub.
The flamboyant displays included an over-the-top dinner party, featuring Mardi Gras costumes from the past four decades, and a giant champagne bottle that erupted, spraying confetti over onlookers.
The event grew out of a brutal and bloody police crackdown of gay and lesbian activists in 1978 and is now one of the biggest street parties in the world.
“This year we look back on the Mardi Gras’ 40 years and we acknowledge that we are built on the backs of so many that have come before us,” said Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras chief executive Terese Casu.
“Those incredible activists, the protestors, our artists, our creators, our volunteers — all those people that have bought us to Mardi Gras.”
Last year, after more than a decade of political wrangling and months of heated debate, Australia legalised gay marriage.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy marched through the parade route before it kicked off. He told reporters this edition carried extra gravity in the wake of the same-sex marriage vote.
“This is a huge affirmation of respect and love. It is so worth it. The vote gave same-sex couples a huge hug,” he said.
Casu said it had been a difficult year for the LGBTQI — lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex — community, “but it showed our strength, our courage and indeed our grace.”
“For many, equality has been a long, hard journey and this year we celebrate. We look back, we dance with our partners, in fact our new wives, our husbands and we celebrate 40 years of Mardi Gras,” she said.
Among the floats was one featuring dozens of giant red, glittering “remembrance butterflies” in tribute to those lost to AIDS-related illnesses, while another showcasing hundreds of sparkling silver and pink hearts was dedicated to volunteers.
A special Sydney Opera House float had giant replicas of the building’s famous sails.
Lebanese-Australian Carlos Lopez, 28, was on a float highlighting diversity in the gay community.
“I feel like this is a really important platform for me to show myself as a Middle Eastern Australian and show a different side of myself, for the people that don’t have my freedom,” he said, referring to more conservative places in the world.
Asked what 40 years of Mardi Gras meant to him, he replied: “The freedom to be who I want to be. The freedom to express myself.”
The growing popularity of the event attracted newcomers. American pop superstar and LGBTQI icon Cher was the headline act at the after-parade party.