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By Rita Bratovich.

The 53 men and women arrested and brutally beaten in their cells by police could scarcely have imagined what they and their 1500 fellow protesters had spawned that bitter winter’s day in June 1978. Forty years on, their humble walk of solidarity down Oxford Street has become one of the world’s largest LGBT+ festivals and this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras promises to be the biggest and best ever.

“Mardi Gras has gone through an amazing history, and I think our challenge now is to make sure that we remain relevant to our community,” says CEO Terese Casu. As well as acknowledging past contributors and successes, Casu wants this year’s festival to be a call to action for new participants and ideas. In particular, she’d like to see the political satire that was once a parade hallmark make a return, hinting at the possible cameo appearance of some infamous past floats (Fred Nile? Pauline Hanson?) in this year’s parade. The parade – and festival overall – will reflect Mardi Gras’ 40 year timeline:

“We’re looking at the AIDS era, we’re looking at the women’s era, the lesbian era, we’re looking at when transgender and rainbow families entered into our parades, and really marking those moments,” explains Casu. Naturally, special attention has been given to those who started it all.

“There’s a crowd funding campaign to bring all the 78ers from across Australia to Mardi Gras this year, so we’re hoping to bring them together and have a really beautiful celebration with them. And lets wait and see how they activate on parade because we’ve got something very special planned,” Casu says with a wink.

A man who has forged a career out of impersonating legends has become a legend himself in the LGBT+ arts world, and the great Trevor Ashley returns this season with an all-star show, Mardi Gala.

“I’m so thrilled to be involved in Mardi Gras again, as always. The Gala’s really going to be something special here at the Opera House – to be able to perform with, you know, five really close mates and make it a real party!” says Ashley. Those five mates are Paul Capsis, Todd McKenney, Joel Creasey, Casey Donovan and the immortal Carlotta.

“I’m beyond excited,” says Paul Capsis. “I love all these people and I’ve known most of them for quite a long time.” Capsis is especially thrilled about the 14 piece orchestra providing back up. “As a singer, that’s what we live for!”

Joel Creasey experienced his first ever Mardi Gras by hosting the parade broadcast on SBS last year. He’ll be hosting again this year as well as performing in Ashley’s Gala representing the youth of the LGBT talent pool.

“It’s an absolute honour…It’s time for people in my generation to step up and do our part in the community and I’m thrilled to be involved.”

The flagship event for the 40th Anniversary festival is the Museum of Love and Protest, a collection of artefacts, costumes, photographs, film and video, posters, music and more presented in an immersive exhibition in cooperation with the National Art School. It represents the who’s who and what’s what of Sydney queer culture over the last four decades.

A new addition to the calendar – intended to become a regular event – is the inaugural Red Bull Music presents Sissy Ball. Curated by Sydney interdisciplinary artist, Bhenji Ra, Sissy Ball promises the thrilling, competitive sass, shade and style of the New York voguing scene. Three Asia-Pacific houses – Slé (Au), Fafswag (NZ), and House of Envy (NZ) will give their best Hand Performance, Runway, Face, Sex Siren and Vogue Fem in a throwdown MC’d by Dashaun and judged by Leiomy, two of the biggest names in the New York scene. High energy music will be provided by New Jersey DJ, MikeQ; Australian duo, Electric Fields; New York rapper Quay Dash; and South African artist, Angel-Ho.

After a popular debut last year, Queer Art After Hours returns to the Art Gallery of NSW. Stroll the grand halls while sipping a creative beverage and imbibing the atmosphere enlivened by DJs, live music and surprise performances. While you’re there, catch the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition mere days before it closes.

Koori Gras is a mini festival within the festival, celebrating international First Nation queer culture and comprising workshops, talks and cabaret at Carriageworks. It’s produced by Moogahlin Performing Arts, a local arts organisation that is inclusive and active in supporting emerging Black artists.

Once again, the Seymour Centre will be a hub of Mardi Gras activity with one particularly exciting highlight being the return of drag legend, Mitzi Macintosh in her one-woman show, A Lifetime In Lipstick. Ms Macintosh will regale her sure-to-be mesmerised audience with this cabaret-cum-memoir directed by the indefatigable Trevor Ashley.

Sydney’s most famous smiling face opens its mouth wide to welcome rainbow families on Luna Park Family Fun Day. Unlimited all-day rides with paid entry (make sure you give the kids a turn too!) or stroll around the iconic harbour-side fair ground and enjoy performances by drag queens Coco Jumbo and Hannah Conda.  DJ royalty Kate Monroe and Victoria Anthony will be spinning discs for the kids inside Crystal Palace.

For a more traditional Mardi Gras family day celebration there is of course Fair Day, back where it belongs in Victoria Park. Doggywood, Sports Village, Main Stage, kids rides, food trucks and lots of crazy sun-filled fun.

Of course, the news that is causing a shimmering wave of ecstasy throughout the community is that the goddess of curls and Hollywood tape, Cher, will be gracing the party with her elegance this year.

It’s going to be an amazing festival and for 16 days, Sydney is going to be a 40 zone.

Feb 16-Mar 4. Info: www.mardigras.org.au