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Gay couples make history at 40th Sydney Mardi Gras

by Heather Cassell

Stuart Henshall, third from left, kisses his new husband, James Brechney, on their float March 3 in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade as onlookers and lookalikes from "Absolutely Fabulous" cheer. Photo: Phat Ngo Photography
Stuart Henshall, third from left, kisses his new husband, James Brechney, on their float March 3 in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade as onlookers and lookalikes from "Absolutely Fabulous" cheer. Photo: Phat Ngo Photography  

It was a long weekend of love and marriage at the recent 40th anniversary of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Australia.

Two historic weddings took place, one at the summit of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the other in the Mardi Gras parade.

The lovefest kicked off early in the morning of March 1 when Warren Orlandi Phillips and Pauly Georg Phillips Orlandi made the steep climb up the Sydney Harbor Bridge to wed.

The couple said their vows and exchanged rings as the sun rose above the harbor and voices rang out from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir.

Friends, family, and select members of the media, including the Bay Area Reporter, looked on as the couple expressed their love and devotion to one another 440 feet above the iconic Sydney Opera House, becoming the first gay couple to wed atop the bridge.

The couple, who have been together for four years, spoke with the B.A.R. following their nuptials, and referenced the nonbinding public vote that opened the door to same-sex marriage last fall.

"We didn't think it was going to happen here because of the situation," said Orlandi Phillips, 49.

Ultimately, the Australian public voted yes, and soon after, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize same-sex marriage.

The gay couple from Bungendore, a country town outside of Canberra, celebrated their commitment to each other with a ceremony last year during the campaign for same-sex marriage. They were on their honeymoon in Queensland when the No on Same-Sex Marriage campaign ramped up its attacks, said Phillips Orlandi, 29.

"It was really hurtful," he said. "We are glad it came through, but it shouldn't have taken a plebiscite to do it."

Orlandi Phillips agreed.

"It was a little bit insulting to us," he said about the government putting recognizing same-sex relationships to public opinion.

However, in climbing the bridge, the men accomplished a feat for themselves that was similar to the one that marriage equality activists did for the LGBT community.

Both men had to lose weight and their fear of heights to conquer climbing the bridge. Orlandi Phillips came out later in life, when he was 47.

The B.A.R. asked them about the symbolism of personally reaching the summit and the long battle for marriage equality.

"You see it. I'm going to get up there. Eventually, you do," said Orlandi Phillips. "We were able to be part of it. It just took too long."

Orlandi Phillips said he used to watch the people climbing the bridge and set a goal to lose the weight so he could reach the summit too. The couples' wedding was his 11th climb of the bridge.

The men noted the importance for those caught up in the fighting with police that followed Sydney's first Mardi Gras street march 40 years ago.

It was after the first march in 1978 that New South Wales police disrupted the participants, ultimately arresting 53 people as the crowd fought back. The Sydney Morning Herald printed the names and addresses of those arrested, effectively outing them and costing some of them their jobs.

"The first Mardi Gras was in 1978," said Orlandi Phillips. "To think that all those people worked so hard, not only worked, they also paid with their bodies, and the fact that we now have a privilege all this time later, we are very grateful for everything that they've done."

"Marriage equality is definitely a huge step for Australia," said Phillips Orlandi, who has climbed the bridge three times.

He told the B.A.R. that there are only a few progressive places in Australia, and that much of Australia is conservative like some Southern states in America. Yet, he credited New Zealand and the United States for their influence on Australia's fight for marriage equality, and said that it "has helped our cause a lot."

Wedding on parade
The momentous occasion wasn't lost on marriage equality activist James Brechney either.

When the yes vote was announced November 14, 2017, Brechney, 34, got down on one knee and asked his boyfriend of three years, Stuart Henshall, 33, to marry him.

Four months, later on March 3, the two men made history, becoming the first gay couple to get married in the Mardi Gras parade.

"We're just so blessed, and everyone is so into it," Brechney, who was born and raised in Sydney, told the B.A.R. aboard the Mardi Gras Sunset Cruise March 1.

He was two days away from marrying Henshall on a colorful float in the parade.

Lookalikes for "Absolutely Fabulous" characters Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon officiated the ceremony before 300,000 paradegoers, according to the Sydney Mardi Gras officials.

The cannon on their float shot out confetti made from the no on marriage equality campaign posters.

"We're going to be the first couple to be married in Mardi Gras ever," said Brechney. "It's historic."

It was historic, but the two gay men were very much aware that they could only marry because of the activism of the 78ers, many of whom wanted to marry their partners, but couldn't.

"It took Australia a long time getting there," said Brechney, pointing out that, historically, Australia has been ahead of the ball with indigenous people's rights and women's suffrage. "So, it's sad. What really hurts me and Stuart is we're very aware when we do get married on Saturday night ... that many of those original activists wanted to get married and they won't be able to do so because they lost their partners."

Henshall, who moved to Australia four years ago from Ulverston, England, agreed.

"It's very special for us and to have the 78ers' blessing," he said.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or oitwnews@gmail.com.

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