Show Sydney your satin and sequins at the biggest gay party in the world

It started 20 years ago as a protest march for gay rights - now three-quarters-of-a-million people turn out to watch the 270-float parade and dance until dawn. Andrew Tuck visits Australia's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

THE LOUDEST cheer is saved for the officers of the New South Wales Police Service, marching in their blue uniforms and with faces glowing under their peaked-caps from the adulatory roar of the 750,000-strong crowd. The appearance of so many officers - an impressive 40 - in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is a barometer of how once bigoted Sydney has been transformed into a capital of tolerance and diversity. In 1978 the first march, in support of gay rights, ended with 53 arrests. Today Mardi Gras is the biggest gay event in the world and attracts high- spending international visitors (4,000 last year), as well as crowds of Sydneysiders, who all know that this is the perfect excuse for excessive partying. It's also the one time in the year when anyone can get away with wearing sequins.

The main Mardi Gras weekend is always on the first weekend in March and kicks off with the lavish Saturday-evening parade (there were 270 floats and marching troupes last year). This is followed by an all-night dance party for over 20,000 gays, lesbians and their closest friends. And its very easy to get close friends when the ticket allocation is so strictly controlled - even local members are only allowed to buy three tickets, overseas members just one.

But over two decades Mardi Gras has grown and grown until it's now a month-long celebration of all things queer. In the weeks running up to the party night, there are films, plays, debates, drag shows (including Frocks on the Rocks), parties (do not miss the Harbour Party held outdoors on the edge of the Royal Botanical Gardens, with the postcard Sydney view of the Opera House as a backdrop), cabaret performances, and even the chance to go shopping in aid of charity (this day is charmingly entitled "Shop Yourself Stupid").

Everyone seems to get in on the act and Mardi Gras has high-profile corporate backers including Qantas, Coco-Cola and Telstra (the Australian version of BT). Last year, for the first time, the owners of the Sydney Tower, a structure that dominates the city's skyline, illuminated it with pink lights for Mardi Gras week.

Such is the frantic pace of events, many revellers book a week off work prior to Mardi Gras so that they can indulge in the hedonistic nights hosted by the bars and clubs along Oxford Street's gay strip. The same people are usually compelled to take another week off after Mardi Gras to recover in Queensland's beach resorts. For some these "recovery breaks" are just an excuse to carry on partying.

In the week running up to the big night, we (myself and the significant other) were staying with friends who lived yards away from Taylor Square, the most full-on section of Oxford Street. As each day came and went we noticed the streets filling with more and more partygoers. By the eve of the Mardi Gras parade, every bar had queues snaking away from their doors; gay restaurants were struggling to cope with their orders; and shops selling skimpy shorts and disco outfits were having to calm down panicking outfit-less punters.

Only the weather threatened to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds: after weeks of record-breaking heat, grey clouds had gathered and rain begun to fall.

Warned by locals of the danger of getting too tired and too excited before the fun really started, we opted for a quiet Friday. In the early evening we made a last circuit of Oxford Street's clothes stores to make sure we didn't need to buy something just a bit more colourful to wear (two hours later we had bought two pairs of brightly checked trousers and some equally lurid shorts - well better safe than sorry). Next stop was Gilligan's for cocktails as colourful as our shorts and then home about midnight, slightly the worse for wear.

By Saturday morning the weather had calmed slightly, although the rain clouds continued to reappear just when you thought the sun was about to break through. Yet no one thought that this was God trying to rain on the parade, except perhaps for the Reverend Fred Nile, a critic of the parade and a member of the legislative council of New South Wales. Fred had been declaring for weeks in the press that he would pray for rain to "dampen the enthusiasm of the exhibitionists". Fred's annoyance levels were tweaked even more when the news came out that once again the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (men in nun's habits) would be marching with a giant model of Fred's head on a plate. Soon after he announced that he had abandoned his plan to blockade the parade, because he didn't want his young Christian followers getting mowed down by the Dykes on Bikes.

There are two options if you intend to watch the parade. Either you stand on the road or you sit in the stands set up by the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Australia's equivalent of the Terrence Higgins Trust. Standing on the street is fine if you can remain in place for several hours without requiring a visit to the loo (no, me neither) and can contend with the tall people who just don't understand that their position in life is at the back. To sit in the stands you need a ticket, and despite there being several thousand of these, they sell out weeks before the event. Our Sydney friends had bought us tickets as soon as we had announced our intention of abusing their hospitality. At AU$60 (around pounds 22) apiece they were another expense but it was worthwhile: not only did you get to sit with your mates in some comfort, but each section of seating had its own compere and there were bars and loos too. More importantly, the people on the floats and the marchers timed their choreographed routines so that you saw them at their best.

The stands are at the end of the parade route, close to the Showground where the party is held, and the first floats came into view only at about 9pm, a full hour and-a-half since they had set off from downtown. The entrants varied from Miss New Zealand, a man who marches every year dragged up in Fifties fashion (the joke being that Australians consider New Zealand rather backward. Indeed one story has it that until a few years ago waggish Qantas stewards would announce on arrival in New Zealand, "The local time is 10am ... 1952") to Gayviation, featuring hundreds of air stewards in slinky silver outfits and a giant model of a jumbo jet. There were also the community and political groups, churches, parents of gays marching with their kids (and movingly holding hands), rather a lot of Janet Jackson lookalikes and, of course, the police. It took more than two hours for the parade to pass us and, to make sure you didn't get bored and wander off, the best floats were saved to last.

As soon as the last float had passed there was a scramble as people headed for the Showground, and a night of relentless partying. It's an all-ticket affair so the queues move fairly quickly and after 15 minutes we had fought our way through the turnstile and into the party.

The Showground, usually used for trade and agricultural fairs (it's a bit like Olympia), is made up of several massive halls. For Mardi Gras each of these is pitched at a different crowd. The Dome is for the leather set, the Hawden is very mixed and has a reputation for appealing to non- gay partygoers, and the RHI (Royal Hall of Industries), the largest of the venues, is young and gay and where most of the shows take place: we saw sets from Kylie and Danii Minogue, among others. And in between these vast arenas are stalls, bars, women-only zones and plenty of places to sit down and chill out.

Stripped down to shorts and singlets, we chose the RHI as our home for the night and danced there for a worrying number of hours, among thousands upon thousands of ridiculously handsome people, who had clearly spent weeks in the gym and on the beach preparing themselves for this one night. Whenever the heat became almost too much, we would head outside to gulp down water. It was during one of these breaks from slowly killing ourselves that we noticed that our hands were puckered from the sweat trickling down our bodies and that our clothes were covered with an even less appealing mix of dirt and sweat.

Back on the busy dancefloor it was almost impossible to move (especially when any act was on, including the oddly emotional sight of more than a hundred drag queens taking to the stage to sing I Am What I Am). We also had to contend with the carpet of plastic water bottles on to the already slippery floor.

At 10am, the party finally drew to a close with Jimmy Somerville strutting his stuff on stage (good, but not quite Madonna). Then, slowly, people began to gather up their friends, clothes and senses to depart, staggering back towards their homes in the fresh morning air. Well, at least some of them went home. Many others ended up in the bars along Oxford Street and even those who went home to shower and perhaps sleep, dragged themselves along to one of the huge chill-out parties on Sunday night (yep, I was there).

FACT FILE

gay & lesbian mardi gras

Getting there

Andrew Tuck travelled courtesy of Qantas (tel: 0345 747767). Qantas "Getaway Fares" to Australia start from pounds 699 (excluding taxes) to the east coast, including Sydney, and include one stop-over in each direction in Asia. Qantas also flies to 52 destinations within Australia and the Boomerang Pass offers passengers low-cost domestic flights in Australia, New Zealand and the south-west Pacific.

Mardi Gras

The main celebrations are an evening parade, followed by a ticketed party for over 20,000 people. Last year party tickets cost AUS$70, plus an additional AUS$20 for international memberships. Mardi Gras office tel: 00 61 2 9557 4332/fax: 00 61 2 9516 4446. For seats in the parade stands tel: 00 61 2 9320 9169.

What to do

What's hot changes rapidly but you could try Oxford Street bars such as Stonewall, The Albury (drag), The Beresford (on nearby Bourke Street), and Gilligan's.

Several of Sydney's numerous beaches are unofficially gay. The most famous of these is Tamarama - or as it is also affectionately known, Glamarama - one bay round from Bondi. Nervous of your pecs deflating while on holiday? Then head for the City Gym in Crown Street, which is very gay, very friendly, and very busy.

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