SYDNEY, March 1, 2008 (AFP) — Up to 300,000 people lined Sydney's streets to watch the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Saturday as the largest gay pride march in the Asia Pacific region marked its 30th anniversary.
For the first time, serving military personnel were among the 10,000 costumed participants sashaying through the city's Oxford Street gay district, showing how much attitudes have changed since the first event in 1978.
That march, staged at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in New South Wales state, was a demand for gay rights that ended with more than 50 arrests as police and protesters clashed.
Since then, the Mardi Gras has become better known as a sequin-adorned extravaganza that attracts tourists from around the world and pumps millions of dollars into the city's coffers.
Air New Zealand even staged a special "pink flight" to carry revellers from San Francisco to Sydney in a plane that sported a giant pink feather boa and eyelashes over the cockpit windows as passengers embarked in California.
Police officers now march alongside drag queens and the event has become a party night out for young people, both gay and straight, in the harbour city.
About 80 defence force personnel were given permission for the first time to participate, alongside a lesbian motorcycle group who call themselves "Dykes on Bikes" and a contingent of swimwear-clad gay lifesavers.
Despite the glitz, Mardi Gras organiser Marcus Bourget said it retained much of its original political message.
"Mardi Gras is all about the festival and it's all about telling Australia our stories, our lives, and showing Australia that our love is not a second-class love and shouldn't be treated as such," he told public radio.
"So it's all about compassion, understanding and acceptance, so I think they're universal values."
In another first, a group of about 100 ministers of organised religions were set to offer an apology for the treatment of gays and lesbians -- similar to the government's recent apology to Aborigines.
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