The first time Michael Gardiner realised he shouldn’t be ashamed of his sexuality was marching in the Mardi Gras parade in 2004 – he and his then wife dressed in matching fluffy bunny costumes. He had come out as gay just days earlier to his wife, Theresa Leggett.
“I was petrified about what it meant to be gay … It got to a point where I thought it would be better to end my life, but Theresa wasn’t going to have a bar of that,” he says.
“She marched me up Oxford Street to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets and basically said, ‘This is your family, how could you not want to be part of this’.”
On Saturday, Sydney’s metamorphosis into an LGBTQ+ mecca for WorldPride will be dialled up when the 45th Mardi Gras parade – under the theme “Gather, Dream, Amplify” – descends on to Oxford and Flinders streets.
It will be the first time in three years that the parade takes this route after being moved to the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2021 and 2022 due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The Mardi Gras chief executive, Albert Kruger, said he expects it to be the biggest parade yet as hundreds of thousands of people line the route to watch 12,500 participants and 208 floats snake from Hyde Park to Moore Park.
To brace for the number of people, Mardi Gras will be using CCTV technology temporarily installed along the parade route to track the density and mood of crowds.
“How it works is if we find that an area is very dense, we cut off feeding people [into that area] and we feed them into [an area] further up the street,” Kruger says. “It’s really just to make sure we don’t have too many people in one space.”
The floats will represent each corner of the LGBTQ+ community, from a Balinese-themed float to celebrate LGBTQ+ people from Indonesia to the first float from Tamworth’s pride group, which will celebrate the queer community in rural Australia with the theme of cowboys and cowgirls.
Kruger says he’s most excited for the Mardi Gras float that will have on board 14-year-old Logan, the youngest ever drag queen to march in the parade.
Gardiner and Leggett will ride on a Mad Max-themed float – 19 years after they first marched together.
The float is the entry for Free Gay and Happy, a group that Leggett started the year after Gardiner came out to support mental health and community connections for LGBTQ+ people.
The group started with a few friends but has grown to more than 1,500 members.
“Thinking back to that first parade, the joy we get now is realising how far we’ve come,” says Gardiner. “And the magical experience of seeing others march for the first time and what that moment means for them.”
Taking part in the parade will be 72-year-old Kate Rowe, one of the activists – proudly known as the 78ers – who stepped on to Oxford Street for the first Mardi Gras parade in 1978. She was one of 23 women who was arrested by police for marching.
“I was 27 and I had just started to get politicised and the violence that people unleashed against us for marching was a shock,” she recalls. “I got bashed and ended up in a cell. I then had my name published in the paper as one of the marchers and almost lost my job because of it.
“But there was this collectivism and energy that we weren’t going to let go of and it’s because of that that we’ve got to where we are today.”
Rowe has watched the Mardi Gras parade change over the 45 years. “It’s like having a child – you gave birth to this thing and then you have to sit back and watch it become what it needs to be,” she says.
“For me, the political message is still there; it’s just done in a different way now.”
How to see the 2023 Mardi Gras parade
When: The parade will run on Saturday 25 February, 6-11pm.
Where: It will start at Hyde Park on Oxford Street and end at Moore Park on Anzac Parade.
Where to watch it: For those not game to brave the crowds, the parade will be broadcast domestically from 7.30pm AEST on ABC TV. Internationally, it can be watched on ABC TV’s YouTube channel. There will also be free live viewings across a number of venues in Sydney, including Newtown’s Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, where a screen has been erected for viewing the event.