It’s virtually impossible to establish when individual people living with AIDS (PLWAs) first marched in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. My guess would be around 1985/86 as that’s when we began to see significant numbers of people with AIDS in Sydney.
But I’m pretty certain that the first organised group of people living with AIDS marched in 1988. These were people from the Maitraya Day Centre for PLWAs, which had been established (by me, in my role as Social Worker at St. Vincent’s Hospital’s AIDS Unit) in November 1987.
The entry itself was pretty low key (which might explain why few people know about it, even to this day.) It consisted of a minibus, provided by Central Sydney Community Transport, decked out with the Maitraya Day Centre banner. Those service users unable to walk did the whole route in the van while others marched alongside and hopped on and off as their energy levels dictated.
Community nurses and Day Centre volunteers also rode and/or marched along as part of the contingent.
Many of the participants were well enough to be living at home. However, a few had temporarily discharged themselves from hospital in order to take part. One guy was so excited he walked the entire route – and returned to his hospital bed absolutely exhausted. It might not have been ‘what the doctor ordered’ but I can’t over-state how much being in the Mardi Gras parade or attending the Party meant to people.
I saw one guy have himself disconnected from the variety of tubes that pumped various drugs into his ravaged body so that he could attend the Party. And I saw various others who, quite clearly at death’s doorstep, hung on for that extra couple of days so they could watch – or at least hear about – the parade.
I’d never seen anything like it before. But it quickly became clear to me how important Mardi Gras was (in those days at least). It was a very real celebration and affirmation of queer community and identity. Not participating simply was not an option for so many of our guys.