On the evening of May 24, 1978, 600 LGBT people crowded into Sydney’s Paris Cinema to watch a movie. They had gathered for the opening night of Images of Gays, Sydney’s first major film festival focussed on lesbian and gay lives. No ordinary night at the movies, this particular screening would prove a pivotal moment for an emerging community.

The film that night was Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, a 1977 documentary featuring interviews with 26 lesbian and gay Americans talking openly about being queer in an often hostile world. Listening to these stories with other LGBT people was a deeply moving experience. In 1978, opportunities like this were rare.  Journalist Lee Franklin described the feeling in the room as “a communal wave of human emotion: anger, joy, compassion and sorrow. More than anything, it was a mass sensation of pride.”

Among the audience that night was gay rights activist and movie lover Ron Austin.  Although unable to recall the names of the films he saw, in a 1995 oral history interview, Austin clearly remembered the on-screen moment featuring a gay rights parade in the United States. He was struck by the joyful celebration: “I saw this group of gay people walking along with banners fluttering in the breeze, looking free and positive and assertive.”

In the following weeks, Ron would suggest to fellow activists including Marg McMann, Ken Davis and Lance Gowland, that they organise something similar in Sydney. He imagined a street party with music and fancy dress. McMann replied “Do you mean something like a Mardi Gras?”

The rest, as they say, is history.

- Scott McKinnon: “we’ll always have the Paris”

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 40th Anniversary Magazine, ABC 2018

Photos: Sallie Colechin

paris theatre