Electropop artist Charli XCX and enduring songster Kylie Minogue will headline WorldPride celebrations in Sydney next year. The gathering marks the southern hemisphere debut of the international sporting and cultural festival that celebrates all things LGBTQ+.
WorldPride was first celebrated in Rome in 2000 – to staunch opposition from Pope John Paul II and the Vatican – and has been held every six or so years, in London, Jerusalem and New York City. It is now a biennial, month-long event in which LGBTQ pride spreads over the space of a city. After Sydney, WorldPride will become annual, heading to Washington DC and Amsterdam in 2025 and 2026.
Along with the parties and music acts at Sydney WorldPride, there will also be a new sober, reflective aspect to the 2023 festival, which coincides with and incorporates the city’s famed annual Mardi Gras celebrations, in what the event’s co-creative directors Ben Graetz and Daniel Clarke describe as “partying with a purpose”.
The experiences of First Nations LGBTQ+ people will take centre stage at Sydney WorldPride, while a centrepiece of the festival will be a three-day human rights conference, with speakers drawn from across the globe, including Yanzi Peng, who exposed China’s practice of government-ordered gay conversion practices, and Ukrainian LGBTQ+ and women’s rights activist Olena Shevchenko.
“We have to remember that in more than 60 countries, being LGBTQ is still punishable by law,” says Graetz, a descendant of Torres Strait Islanders and the Northern Territory’s Iwaidja and Malak-Malak clans.
“We’ve still got a big fight of equality ahead of us but also, in this country, there’s still a lot of inequality around First Nations issues – minorities within minorities, and if you’re a sistagirl, you’re a minority within a minority within a minority. So we’ve got a lot of battles in our own country … there are shows that will be political, ensuring there’s visibility and demanding conversations.”
Putting First Nations first
Graez believes it was the emphasis on First Nations participation and recognition of the older gay community that fought for human rights in Australia in the 1970s that was instrumental in securing Sydney’s winning bid, when the city beating lead contenders Montreal and Houston.
Among the contingent that headed to Athens in 2019 to secure the bid for Sydney were Gadigal drag queen Nana Miss Koori, and one of the original “78ers”, Robyn Kennedy, who was arrested during the 24 June 1978 protest in Oxford Street – Sydney’s historically gay district – held in recognition of the Stonewall riots. Kennedy told her story of the arrests and the consequent public shaming to attenders, who held crushed eucalyptus leaves from a welcoming ceremony that reminded the international gathering that Australia was home to the world’s longest surviving continuous culture.
Foregrounding First Nations and Pasifika cultures is a first for WorldPride, which has only been held in the northern hemisphere before. Around 500,000 participants are expected to head to the city during the festival, both within Australia and from around the world; Qantas is adding extra flights to its Sydney/Los Angeles route to cater for the expected swell in US tourists.
Marri Madung Butbut (many brave hearts), a First Nations gathering space features a six-day showcase of Indigenous queer creativity at Redfern’s Carriageworks. And the vogue competitive party Sissy Ball, a Sydney regular headed up by Kilia Pahulu, a Fakaleitī artist – a member of Tonga’s transgender community, will be held in Sydney town hall.
Canadian company Mammalian Driving Reflex will present the Australian premiere of All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, a production which persuades LGBTQ+ folk over 65 to talk about their real life sexual experiences. There is also the Coming Back Out Salon, a party targeting the over-65s hosted by Robyn Archer, Deborah Cheetham and Paul Capsis.
Parties and pride
Held in conjunction with Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras festivities, however, the party atmosphere remains irrepressible. Among the more than 300 WorldPride events are an expansive street party that will close Oxford Street for two days, while Crown and Albion streets in Surry Hills will be converted to a partying Pride Village precinct for the entire month.
Jessica Mauboy will headline alongside Charli XCX and Minogue at the WorldPride opening concert, an all-day electro party will take over Bondi Beach, and Sydney’s town hall will host an all women-run dance party, Ultra Violet, headlined by Canadian queer musician Peaches.
Sports are also a key element of WorldPride: there will be a roller derby tournament, the World Gay Boxing Championships and competitions for football, tennis, martial arts, squash and golf.
A pride march is expected to involve thousands of pedestrians traversing Sydney Harbour Bridge, while the Oxford Street Mardi Gras parade and post-party, now in its 45th year, will return after years of cancellations and restrictions due to Covid-19.
Sponsorship partner City of Sydney and the local business community are counting on the month-long festivities to breath new life into Oxford Street, after the trend towards online shopping closed many of the precinct’s flagship stores and lockout laws hobbled its vibrant nightlife.
“The history of what happened on that street remains really important,” said Graetz.
“I moved to Sydney in 1996 and Oxford Street changed my life. I remember having such a sense of belonging for the first time. As a young, queer boy from Darwin, for the first time I saw my community and that was life changing. I was able to feel at home, I felt like I belonged.”
Sydney WorldPride will be held from 17 February to 5 March 2023