With rainbow flags soaring high across Sydney’s CBD, there’s a real buzz amongst the LGBTIQA+ community, family, friends and supporters, as the city celebrated the Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday and continues to celebrate Sydney WorldPride 2023 this week. 

Michael Woodhouse, The Benevolent Society’s Executive Director of Disability, Ageing and Carers has been celebrating Mardi Gras for 30-years and was a former Co-Chair of the Board of Mardi Gras. 

Michael shares his personal experience with Mardi Gras and why it’s an important time for the community.

Michael waves the rainbow flag for Mardi Gras

I’ve been part of Mardi Gras for most of my adult life. I think it’s the most important LGBTQ institution in Australia, particularly for bringing visibility of our lives.

I went to my first parade with close friends in 1995 and was blown away by the size and spectacle of my first mass gay and lesbian event. They say you never forget your first, but that night is just a blur of delight. I loved all the different people in the parade and on the streets. All kinds of people, with all kinds of interests, body shapes and reasons to be there; all of whom formed an embracing community that I was invited to be a part of. As a young gay man, I was hooked.

When I moved to Sydney permanently, Mardi Gras became a fixed part of my annual calendar. It became a ‘Gay Christmas’, where old friends came together and new friends were made. Mardi Gras fast became the best part of my growing involvement in the community.
In 2002, the organisation that ran Mardi Gras went into receivership. For months it looked like it was all over. Later that year, I was asked to come to a meeting to stage a rescue bid. The plan was to set up a new organisation, buy control of the event from the receivers and then stage the 2003 festivities on a shoe-string budget.   

Michael Woodhouse
Pictured above, Michael Woodhouse

Within a month, I was Co-Chairing the Board of the new Mardi Gras. It was a wild ride! Every week, new people would turn up wanting to help save an event that had been such an important part of their lives. We shook donation buckets at drag shows to get it off the ground. I met some of my closest friends through frenzied months of organisation.

By the following February, we had 150 people volunteering 10 to 15 hours a week to make it all happen. We staged the Parade, Party and Fair Day. Crowds of people turned up to be part of a community and be visible to the world. And we made enough money to keep it going. Most of us cried from exhaustion once it was all over.

What I realised when I led Mardi Gras was, that most of Sydney seemed to have a Mardi Gras story. People from all areas of my life wanted to tell me about the year they had joined the parade, met tourists at a bar or sent a young family member off to the city for the night. People told stories that made them laugh and feel excited and most importantly talked about LGBTQ people as desirable people they wanted to know. That’s why I think Mardi Gras is such an important institution. 

Nearly 30 years later, I still love Mardi Gras. It’s the season we come together, our stories are told and we put our passions, lives and bodies on display for the world to see. With World Pride in Sydney, this year has an even bigger stage to strut on and everyone is invited. 

Happy Mardi Gras!