On December 7, members of Australian parliament made history. With only four votes opposing, the House of Representatives passed its same-sex marriage bill, opening the doors for same-sex couples across New South Wales to wed freely.
In the spirit of pride, we talked with Terese Casu, CEO of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, and Michael James, customer service manager for Australian national carrier Qantas Airways, which has participated in the celebration for over 20 years and been an official partner since 2013.
"Passing marriage equality into law was a proud moment for Australia," James said. "It represents a ‘fair go’ and shows that as a nation we want to be more inclusive, not less."
James, who is a four-year veteran of his company's exceptional Mardi Gras Gay 380 float and both choreographs and leads his team's parade performance, gave us some important tips on travel to the festivities. The leader of her country's most prominent LGBTQ event, which celebrates its 40th anniversary from mid-February to early March, Casu walked us through the origins of the fight for LGBTQ equality in Australia.
OUT: Looking through the event listings, there are so many options for Mardi-goers to spend their days and nights in Sydney. Which parts of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras are you particularly looking forward to this year?
Casu: We've had an unprecedented number of applications for entries into our 40th-anniversary Parade, many with spectacularly wondrous ideas for floats. It's shaping up to be one the biggest and most beautiful Parades Australia has ever seen. Make sure you're there to see it. Then the after-party on that night will gather over 12,000 people for a truly decadent experience with amazing talent, big surprises, and incredible DJs.
James: I love the atmosphere in Sydney during Mardi Gras — it really comes alive! There are so many events during the two-week festival, but the parade is always the highlight for me. Seeing our employees march alongside our iconic Gay380 float to celebrate diversity is an extraordinary thing.
Our readers will be familiar with the names Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson… How did Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras come to be?
Casu: Way back in 1978 — 40 years ago [this] year — a lively group got together to celebrate being gay and lesbian, and raise attention to issues like decriminalization of homosexuality. It was still illegal to be gay then, and the police shut down their Mardi Gras march. Many were arrested and beaten up in prison cells. But our community would not be silent. Many more rallies followed, and Mardi Gras became a defining moment in Australia's LGBTQI history.
Who are some of the founding members of the Gay Solidarity Group? Are some still involved with Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras?
Casu: The Gay Solidarity Group was a collective of gay activists who met at Sydney University. Those who marched in the first Mardi Gras and other protests in 1978 are now called the "78ers", and they lead the Mardi Gras Parade each year. For our 40th anniversary Mardi Gras season we're planning a special celebration for the 78ers and look forward to seeing many of them joining us from around Australia.
After the attack on Darlinghurst, how did the incident catalyze Australian LGBTQ liberation?
Casu: Mardi Gras is both a protest and a celebration. Those who marched in the initial years were rallying for decriminalization, bravely showing their faces and raising their voices — showing that being gay or lesbian is something to be proud of and celebrate. We see this a lot now, but in those days they were risking their careers and families by speaking out. Every year more people gathered, creating a vibrant, creative, and wonderful celebration of our communities, which shows that being LGBTQI is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
With Australia's historic marriage equality bill recently made law, what role do you see pride playing in public discourse 40 years later?
Casu: We are moving slowly closer to equality for our communities, after many decades of struggle. We hope it's getting easier for our next generations who are discovering their sexuality or gender identity now. It's vital that our communities remain strong, as political situations can change quickly, and we realize many of our neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region still outlaw homosexuality. While life for LGBTQI people is improving in many nations, it's becoming even more unsafe in other parts of the world. … No matter how our communities are faring, our people have a unique creative culture, which we aim to cherish and nurture.
It should be noted that the first Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras was part of International Gay Solidarity Day. How can international communities rally around the cause at such a pivotal moment?
Casu: We take our responsibility as a global beacon of LGBTQI visibility seriously and realize people are watching our events online from across the globe as well as around Australia. We stand with our many friends, allies and LGBTQI families across the world, and share their struggles for marriage equality, rights and respect for transgender people, support for LGBTQI youth, the aim to end new HIV infections, among many other global movements.
For many in the U.S. planning to visit for Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, this may be their first time traveling to Australia. What recommendations do you have for a smooth trip?
Casu: Arriving at Sydney Airport after such a long flight, our U.S. visitors often tell us how pleased they are to get the taste of summer back again after a long winter there. You'll love our beaches and sparkling harbor. Our locals are always very keen to meet visitors from near and far. Our city is multicultural and proudly welcomes diversity.
The 40th anniversary Mardi Gras season will be super packed, and tickets are already selling out for some events. Head to mardigras.org.au to plan your trip.
James: First of all, fly with Qantas! We offer more non-stop flights per week between the U.S. and Australia than any other airline, and we’re the only carrier to operate the award-winning A380 between the U.S. and Australia. And your experience of Australia starts the moment you step on board with award-winning Australian hospitality and service, and menus and wines that showcase the best produce Australia has to offer. Australia is only a meal, a movie, and a nap away from the U.S., so you’ll be there in no time.
If you have purchased a Business or First ticket, or are a Qantas Frequent Flyer with Gold status or higher, or oneworld equivalent, you can start your flight at the Business or First Lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. The Salt & Pepper Squid on the menu is a must!
While you are in Australia, make time to enjoy our incredible beaches, great shopping, and restaurant and cafe scene. For those that are looking for adventure, exploring the outback or snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef are also great options at this time of year. Qantas offers flights to 60 destinations across the country, so there are plenty of great regional towns and coastal areas to explore. Lastly, don’t forget to pack your glitter — and sunscreen!