Shortcuts / 16 February 2023

Sydney WorldPride 2023

Sydneysiders wouldn’t be able to miss the fact that the Harbour City is hosting the 2023 WorldPride – the world’s biggest LGBTQIA+ festival that’s kicking off this week. So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at the origins of the Pride movement, how Sydney snagged hosting duties, and what’s going down during the festivities.

Paint a picture for the non-Sydneysiders…
Most Aussies would be aware of the annual Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, which is a huge event for the LGBTIQ+ community. So think of WorldPride as a mega Mardi Gras and you’ll get the vibe of what’s happening in Sydney right now.

C’mon, gimme something more evocative…
Well, Damien Woolnough – the proudly gay style editor for The Sydney Morning Herald – wrote, “Walking around Sydney… in the lead-up to WorldPride is like being trapped in a RuPaul’s Drag Race marathon, with countless images of drag queens promoting pride flights, hotel brunches… with back-up from a slew of oiled, topless men.”

That’s more like it…. So what’s the deal with this festival anyway?
So WorldPride was first held in Rome in 2000 – something the then-Pope John Paul II wasn’t too pleased about. Basically, it’s a weeks-long event held in a host city that’s all about celebrating LGBTIQ+ pride.

And it’s held every year?
It will be soon – but since Rome, it’s been held only every few years or so. It’s been in London, Jerusalem and New York – but this year’s event in Sydney is the first time it’s been held in the Southern Hemisphere.

How did Sydney get hosting duties?
It’s like the Olympics – Sydney had to bid for it, and that was probably helped along by our huge Mardi Gras event. And this is serious business – the NSW Government expects more than half a million people will attend the events and it will bring more than $100 million into the economy.

No wonder it’s so fought over… How did the Pride movement come about?
It began as a protest as the gay community really started campaigning for equal rights. The flashpoint was in 1969 when police raided a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn. This was during a time when same-sex relationships were illegal and LGBTIQ+ folks pretty much had to live their lives in the shadows.

What happened during the raid?
Well on this particular day – when police started harassing and arresting people at the Stonewall – patrons began resisting arrest. It set off riots that lasted for 5 days.

So people were arrested despite not doing anything wrong?
It’s hard to wrap your head around these days, but back then one of the ways police could arrest people in the bar was for not wearing “gender appropriate” clothing – that was actually a law in the New York statute books.

It sure was a different time. So what happened after the riots?
That showdown in New York – which was just a response to continual police harassment – became a watershed moment for the gay rights movement that spread to cities around America and eventually the world.

Including in Oz?
Yep, but it was nearly a decade later – 1978 to be precise – until the movement really picked up steam here.

How did that come about?
So groups in the US were trying to get other countries involved in events to commemorate those Stonewall riots. That led to the formation of the Gay Solidarity Group in Sydney to organise a march and public meeting in the morning and a street parade at night. That happened in 1978.

And that was the first Sydney Mardi Gras?
Yep, but it was quite different to the one we know today… That first street parade – and the violent police response to it – pretty much brought national attention to the whole issue of gay rights in Australia and really helped establish it as an annual event.

What happened that day?
On 24 June, 1978, hundreds of peaceful protesters marched down Oxford Street towards Hyde Park in the centre of the city. But police moved in to disperse the crowd because they didn’t give them an official permit to march. They ended up arresting dozens of people and many were badly beaten.

What was the reaction to that?
There was a public uproar in response to the violent arrests and eventually, all charges were dropped. Then a year later in 1979, there was a peaceful, incident-free Mardi Gras with about 3,000 people joining in the march.

So it’s been a struggle to get to where we are now…
Yep, and Ben Graetz – the First Nations creative director of Sydney WorldPride – believes it was recognition of the older gay community that fought for human rights in Australia in the 1970s that really helped Sydney’s winning bid, as well as the emphasis on First Nations participation.

Who else is part of the Sydney WorldPride team?
So one member of a contingent who was sent over to Athens to make the bid was Robyn Kennedy, who was arrested during the 1978 protest in Oxford Street. She told her story of the arrests and the public shaming.

Anyone else?
Gadigal drag queen Nana Miss Koori – an absolute local icon who had a sell-out show at the 2021 Mardi Gras – is also part of the team. Graetz and the WorldPride crew have travelled the country – as far as Broome and the Tiwi Islands – to talk to Indigenous Aussies about how they would like to be represented in the event – so it’s not just for Sydney.

It’s sure going to be something…
Yep – it will run from 17 February until 5 March. There’s going to be pop-up dining, free performances and rainbow-coloured street parties. And some roads will be temporarily shut down on the eastern side of the city so organisers can set up ‘Pride Villages’ where a lot of the events will take place.

What are some of the biggest tickets in town?
Some massive events that have already sold out include a march over the Harbour Bridge on 5 March that 50,000 people will participate in. And Bondi Beach is going to be transformed into what the organisers call “the city’s hottest club” on 4 March.

So there’s a lot happening…
There sure is, and there’s a whole range of options to choose from including concerts in the Domain, art exhibitions, drag queen performances, and even a human rights conference. A lot of them are free, too.

It’s going to be a total sensory overload…
Indeed – and we haven’t even mentioned Australia’s most famous queer icon, Kylie Minogue yet… She’s headlining the WorldPride’s opening concert on Friday, 24 February – tickets to that sold out in mere minutes.

I missed out on a ticket…
Well, the good news is that it will be broadcast live on ABC TV. It’s going to be Magic

Squiz recommends:

The 2023 WorldPride Program

‘I’m a proud, gay, married man. But World Pride looks like a drag’ – SMH

The first gay Mardi Gras – National Museum of Australia

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