UOW lecturer Dr Scott McKinnon. Photo: Paul Jones

History of Mardi Gras shines a light on untold stories

History of Mardi Gras shines a light on untold stories

Two-part series created by UOW academic receives inaugural Oral History Award

A radio documentary about the history of Sydney’s Mardi Gras, co-produced by University of Wollongong (UOW) human geographer Dr Scott McKinnon, has been honoured in the inaugural Oral History Australia Awards.

The Making of Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras Supernova, a two-part series created for The History Listen on ABC’s Radio National, received an Oral History Australia Media Award announced this week (Sunday 19 April).

Dr McKinnon, from the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, was last year invited to work on the project by Catherine Freyne, an award-winning historian and media producer currently completing a PhD at the University of Technology Sydney. They were joined by ABC sound engineer Mark Don in creating the series.

The team were joint winners of the award, which was also bestowed on Anisa Puri and Shirleene Robinson for A City Responds to Crisis: Volunteers and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Sydney 1980s-1990s.

Dr McKinnon said the project was a chance to shine a light on stories and voices in the LGBTQ community.

“It was a real delight to receive this award,” Dr McKinnon said. “The project was very much a collaborative effort led by Catherine and with the support of Mark.

“For me, as an oral historian, crafting new and archived oral histories into an engaging two-part radio documentary was a fascinating process. It was gratifying to bring some little-known aspects of the history of Mardi Gras to a broad audience and to include the voices of some of the activists who made the event happen.

“A particularly exciting part of receiving the award is that we shared it with another LGBTQ history project that was produced by Shirleene Robinson and Anisa Puri. Oral history has been really important to the emergence of LGBTQ history as a subfield within the discipline, so it was great to have some projects investigating queer lives recognised by Oral History Australia in this way.”

The Making of Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras Supernova focused on some lesser-known, yet pivotal, moments in the event’s history, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018. Ms Freyne and Dr McKinnon delved into the longevity of Mardi Gras, which has become one of Australia’s most treasured festivals.

“We came up with the idea of doing two episodes,” Dr McKinnon said. “One would be on Mardi Gras 1979 to 1981, which would explore the decision to hold a second Mardi Gras in 1979 and then the decision to move Mardi Gras to summer in 1981 (the 1978 Mardi Gras was held on a very cold night in June).

“The second episode, Mardi Gras Supernova, is about the years in the 2000s when Mardi Gras nearly collapsed and the decision by a small group of people to keep it going. Across the two episodes, the aim was to mark the 40th anniversary by asking how it became an annual event and how it managed to survive this long.” 

He said the radio documentary format was a great way to create engaging and entertaining histories.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this project to me was that we could tell some stories that haven’t been explored elsewhere, and we could do it in a way that would be accessible to a wide audience.

“This is particularly important for LGBTIQ history, which isn’t generally taught in schools. Unless you study history at university, which most people don’t, there is very little opportunity for LGBTIQ people to learn about the history of their community.

In recognising the team behind The Making of Mardi Gras, Oral History Australia said the series was a powerful look at the social and political contexts and history of Mardi Gras in Sydney.

“The programs have a celebratory tone tempered by explorations of the ways in which tensions within the gay and lesbian community shaped the history and nature of the event.

“These are highly professional productions in which the use of oral history is particularly powerful. They remind us of the value of using both archived and new oral history interviews, and of the evocative effectiveness of careful selection, scripting, editing and interpretation. We are drawn into the commitment to, and understanding of, the issues and events shared by the producers.”

You can listen to The Making of Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras Supernova at The History Listen.