History – The Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978

In memory of Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978 – LGBTQ History

On April 27, 2015, Christine Foster, a Liberal Party councillor and the sister of the then Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, moved a motion at the Sydney City Council calling for a formal apology to the original gay and lesbian Mardi Gras marchers. It was passed unanimously.

Is a formal apology warranted?

To answer this question, some understanding of the prevailing oppressive social conditions affecting the lives of sexual minorities (now termed GLBTIQ communities) in Australia in the 1960s and 70s is required.

What is needed, too, is a better knowledge of the actual, momentous events that took place in Sydney between June and August 1978. Period when violent social unrest and public protests on the streets erupted with far-reaching effects for Australia that can now be seen in historical context. Gay and lesbian population of Sydney had enough.

The march of 78

On a cold Saturday night in Sydney on June 24, 1978, a number of gay men, lesbians and transgender people marched into the pages of Australian social history. I was one of them.

Several protests and demonstrations were organised during June that year to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York. And to demand civil rights for Australian lesbians and gay men.

Gay activists in San Francisco had asked the Gay Solidarity Group in Sydney for support in their campaigns in California and the word had got out. We assembled at Taylor Square. I was impressed by the turnout. A report in The Australian estimated the crowd at about 1,000 people at this early stage of the night.

Marchers at the 1978 Mardi Gras parade. The Pride History Group, Author provided

The early rainbow nature of the movement was evident. With transgender and Aboriginal people and people from migrant backgrounds all mixing in. We were a diverse and spirited group of a few hundred mostly younger gay men and lesbian women. Ready to march down Oxford Street to Hyde Park, along a strip that was becoming the centre of gay life in the city.

More Celebration than Protest Atmosphere

The atmosphere was more one of celebration than protest. Little did we know then that, by the end of the night, many of us would be traumatised and our lives changed forever.

As a young émigré in my twenties, from the Queensland bush, like many gay men and lesbians from the country in those days, I was, in effect, an internally displaced person. We were refugees in our own country.

I arrived in Sydney seeking refuge from the never-ending police state of mind that was life under the Joh Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government. I was renting a studio flat in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, at the time.

All through history, cities have offered people like me a measure of escape from oppression and persecution. But in 1978, even in a big city like Sydney, refuge and security could not always be found. Without even basic human rights, we were always vulnerable.

The 1978 Mardi Gras parade. The Pride History Group, Author provided

Risks of “Coming Out”

As a high school teacher working for the NSW Department of Education, “coming out” posed a major risk for me. It could mean the loss of my job. For the those who were subjected to electric shock treatment in the 1970s at the old Prince Henry Hospital in Little Bay, it could even mean losing your mind.

Living a “double life” was a means of survival. Gay and lesbian people’s lives were wrapped in stigma and shame.

The real unspoken tragedy of the times was the loss of the lives of so many wonderful young people who struggled with their sexual identities. Unable to deal with all the pain and shame inflicted on them, many ended up committing suicide.

The Stonewall Riot, which had occurred nine years earlier, far away in Greenwich Village on Manhattan in New York, marks the modern era of “homosexual liberation”. This oft-quoted term was popularised as early as 1971 by Dennis Altman. The Australian academic who became a leading voice of the movement.

Altman continues today to chronicle and interpret the movement. The violence, unrest and resistance of the Sydney Mardi Gras of 1978 has clear parallels to Stonewall.

Back to the march

We started off from Taylor Square in a festive mood. Chants rippled along the marchers, strangers joined hands. We sought to bring people out of the bars and into the streets to join us. Some did come out of the bars and joined us. Others lined up and watched the parade but did not join in.

I heard the commonly used Australian put-down of those times, “poofters”, hurled at us. “Ratbag poofters”, too. When we reached Hyde Park we were denied entry.

Confusion reigned and an officer in authority appeared intent on breaking up the march. His derogatory tone of voice and the way he hurled insults and abuse angered all within earshot.

Police and marchers met in the 1978 Mardi Gras. The Pride History Group, Author provided

It soon became clear that our open-back truck that would have provided the disco music for a party and a platform for speeches in the park was to be forcefully confiscated and the driver arrested. We then realised it would be a mistake for us to enter Hyde Park at all.

At the front of the march I remember a few split seconds of initial doubt that we would be able to do it. And then, in perfect, bold, spontaneous unison, at our success in breaking through the cordon of police across College Street, we shouted, “On to the Cross!” (Kings Cross).

With an exhilarating surge of energy we turned from College Street into William Street. Propelled onwards with hundreds joining in behind us, we turned left into Darlinghurst Road into the heart of Kings Cross. We were sick and tired of being criminalised, pathologised, demonised. Of being made to hide who we were and having our rights to live as human beings denied.

Getting the Message Out

That night we were in the streets and we were determined to get our message to as many people as possible. We were marching down Oxford Street and seeing our numbers swell as many people came out to join us. Now we wanted to call on everybody in the Cross to listen to our chants and come out and support us as well. We chanted: “Out of the bars and into the streets!”

We wanted the whole world to hear our cries for freedom. In numbers, suddenly, wonderfully, we were unafraid. There was a direct parallel with Stonewall. For as with the NYPD, the NSW police force faced an unexpected and vigorous resistance.

As determined as they were to put us back in our closets there was no stopping us. Now we were coming out! And now we had straight people willing to join in and support us. In Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross we were cut off and ambushed with hundreds of police with dozens of wagons blocking us in front and from behind.

These were critical moments, because in truth the crowd would most likely have dispersed at this point.

Yet the real violence was about to begin. It was there in Darlinghurst Road that we faced the most brutal onslaught of the whole night. The cops, arriving in numbers, took advantage of the semi darkness of the night, unleashing a reckless and ugly attack on the marchers.

They acted as if they had a licence to inflict as much injury as they could. I feared there would be dead bodies everywhere if they had guns in those paddy wagons and were to open fire. Despite that fear we did not run. We fought back, resisting arrest as the police wielded their heavy batons indiscriminately.

Resistance – Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The more we were assaulted the more we resisted. The group-solidarity had taken hold as we tried to stand our ground. We were rescuing “brothers” and “sisters” from the clutches of the police as they were being forced into paddy-wagons. I distinctly remember the way that the cops near the El Alamein Fountain targeted women for arrest. In particular, and the smaller and more vulnerable among us.

The first Mardi Gras is often described as a riot but I didn’t see it that way. It was a very defiant act of resistance that proved a turning point. We were willing to stand up, to resist. We were people too. Our sexualities may have been diverse and different but that did not make us any less human than others.

The discriminatory attitude of the police and the violence they meted out to us seemed to represent in highly symbolic and condensed form the very pain, humiliation and suffering that society as a whole constantly inflicted on us as lesbians and gay men.

Some 53 men and women were arrested, all of whom had their names and occupations subsequently published in The Sydney Morning Herald. Many lost their jobs or housing as a result.

Gail Hewison, one of the women detained, described to me the whole experience of being locked-up without charge as one of shock and trauma. She had all her possessions taken away from her including her glasses. She told me she could hear the sounds of a man being horribly beaten in another cell. Then, after a while she also began to hear the supportive chants of the crowds gathering outside.

Let them Free

In front of the police station, close to Oxford Street and Taylor Square where the march had started hours earlier, battered and bruised, hundreds of us gathered in an enraged state shouting, “Let them free!”. We continued the refrains from our earlier chants:

Two four six eight, gay is just as good as straight!

Looking out at the angry crowd the police inside the station must have been apprehensive about what would happen next. They were greatly outnumbered. For some moments as we inched closer and closer, you could sense an urge on the part of the crowd to takeover the police station. To demand the jailers keys and so to release our brothers and sisters.

Over the years I have often wondered why we didn’t storm the building then and there. Strangely after a short period of silence somebody started to sing the Afro-American spiritual “We shall not be moved” and the whole crowd joined in:

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
We shall not be moved

Reflecting on this now I would like to think that, despite the provocation on that night itself and the centuries of violence that had been perpetrated upon us, we as a collective knew instinctively that violence was one of our main grievances and we had a mission to resist it and fight against violence using other means.

Someone in the crowd cried out, “I am a lawyer. Are there any other lawyers or solicitors here? We need to raise bail money!”. The campaign to win the legal battles was now well underway. It culminated in 1984 when homosexuality was decriminalised in the NSW Parliament.

Facing the HIV Epidemic

This brief narrative of the first Mardi Gras is told because the events of that night, their causes and repercussions can now be placed in clearer historical perspective and they help us to understand why keeping politics at the centre of the annual Mardi Gras is so important.

As Dennis Altman pointed out in The End of the Homosexual? (2013), it was the precise timing of the Mardi Gras leading to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in NSW in 1984 that ultimately helped save thousands of Australian lives in the HIV epidemic that hit Sydney hard in 1985.

The epidemic could only have been handled as effectively as it was because decriminalisation and critical bi-partisan cross party political support resulted in more openness and less stigma.

The old days of identity politics are now gone and labels are eschewed in these times where the fluidity of sexuality is recognised and better understood. But the struggle is not over. In 2013 we witnessed the arrest of a young teenager at the Mardi Gras parade who was assaulted and abused in ways reminiscent of 1978. Again the cops were not held accountable for their actions.

Young people are still ending their lives because of the pain and homophobia they experience. If there is a timely lesson for the police here it is in the need for an authentic engagement with minority groups where honesty and respect replaces suspicion and contempt.

Today we March Together

So at the same time we celebrate just how far GLBTQI people in NSW have come with dramatically improved community attitudes and we not only welcome but applaud a contingent of the NSW Police Service marching in the annual parade, we need to resist attempts to whitewash our history and we need to make sure we do not lose the memories of our earlier struggles.


Author

  1. Mark Gillespie English for Academic Purposes Specialist, Anthropologist, Centre for English Teaching, University of Sydney

This article was originally published by The Conversation

International Gay Guide is paying deep respect to Sydney gay and lesbian activists who fought for their and our rights. Australia, and Sydney in particular, today are among the world most friendly places for gay and lesbian population. As long as we keep Sydney gay and lesbian Mardi Gras Parade going, remembrance on original fighters will be alive. Let’s hope that Sydney Mardi Gras will continue forever.

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