Thousands to march for gay rights in Australia parade



SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian Olympic diving champion Matthew Mitcham will lead almost 10,000 marchers through Sydney's streets in a world-renowned annual gay pride celebration on Saturday.
Under the banner "Nations United", the city's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will celebrate its 31st year with a focus on the city's diverse ethnic and national groups, as well as international visitors drawn to the party.
Beach lifesavers in brief bathing costumes will join leather-clad lesbian motorcyclists, flamboyant drag queens and uniformed police officers in a colourful parade of elaborate floats and dancers.

With a focus on global gay rights, this year's parade is expected to be the largest ever, with 9,700 participants and more than 300,000 spectators, including around 3,000 visitors from more than 40 countries, organisers say.
"There hasn?t been a Mardi Gras like this for a long time," said Mardi Gras chair, David Imrie. "Last year?s 30th was an enormous high point for us, but we?re building on it."
"We expect this year?s parade to be amongst the most colourful ever," he added.
"'Nations United' will see the diverse ethnic and national groups amongst Sydney?s gay and lesbian community on full show. It?s also an invitation to our many international visitors to take part."
In a sign of the parade's growing fame, the Surf Lifesaving group said it had received inquiries from all over the world and a US contingent had flown in for the event.
"In many countries gays and lesbians do not enjoy the same freedom as we do in Australia," said lifesaving float spokeswoman Tara Martin.
"It shows that Australia is leading the way when it comes to acceptance and diversity in lifesaving and the rest of the world is looking to us for inspiration."
American comedian Joan Rivers, jazz singer Roberta Flack and pop songstress Tina Arena headlined three weeks of pre-parade festivities, with more than 80 events on the annual festival calendar.
Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham, who edged out China's Luxin Zhou to take the 10-metre platform gold last year in Beijing, will lead the parade.
It is the first time in recent years the coveted chief of parade role has gone to an Australian, with American comedian Margaret Cho and British actor Rupert Everett leading past marches.
Imrie said Mitcham's success as an openly gay athlete was an inspiration to the community.
"It was also one of the most encouraging signs that Australia is a place where you can be openly gay without it limiting your opportunities," he said.
The Australian Human Rights Commission will march for the first time, in recognition of laws passed last year to remove same-sex discrimination from almost all of the country's legislation.
"What better place to celebrate this historic achievement for gay and lesbian people and for equality, than in the Mardi Gras parade?" said the commissioner of the government body, Graeme Innes.
"The Mardi Gras essentially began as a march for equality, so there is no more perfect place to shine a light on this outstanding social achievement."
The inaugural 1978 march was staged at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in New South Wales state, and ended with more than 50 arrests as police and protesters clashed.
Now, police and even members of the military join the parade, but Imrie said it was important to remember in many countries homosexuality was a capital offence.

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