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Friday essay: on the Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978

The 1978 Mardi Gras started as a peaceful march and degenerated into a violent clash with police. The Pride History Group

Friday essay: on the Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978

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. The NSW Parliament is expected to debate a motion to offer such an apology in the first sitting of Parliament in 2016.

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, 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.

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. At Taylor Square, where we assembled, 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 men and women ready to march down Oxford Street to Hyde Park, along a strip that was becoming the centre of gay life in the city.

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.

Having 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 and, without even basic human rights, we were always vulnerable.

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

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 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 and, unable to deal with all the pain and shame inflicted on them, 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 and 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.

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

That night we were in the streets and we were determined to get our message to as many people as possible. After marching down Oxford Street and seeing our numbers swell as many people came out of the coffee shops, bars and hotels 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 from the oppression that characterised our lives. In numbers, suddenly, wonderfully, we were unafraid. Here 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 police, 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 and 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.

The Pride History Group, Author provided

The more we were assaulted the more we resisted. The group-solidarity had taken hold as we tried to stand our ground, 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 police 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.

The 1978 Mardi Gras parade. Author provided

Some 53 men and women were arrested, all of whom – unhelpfully – 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.

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 and 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 overcome” 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, culminating in 1984 when homosexuality was decriminalised in the NSW Parliament.

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

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.

Facing the HIV epidemic

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 police 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.

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.

A police officer dances in the 2015 Mardi Gras parade. Jason Reed/Reuters

The motion at Sydney Town Hall earlier in 2015, calling for an official apology to the 78ers for the violence of that June night in 1978, was strongly supported by out-lesbian elder and Deputy Lord Mayor Robyn Kemmis, who recently died.

We owe a debt to her work and that of people such as Steve Warren, one of the original 78ers who has worked tirelessly for an apology. That Sydney City Council action has prompted a small bipartisan group of NSW State parliamentarians to take up the call for an official apology.

Sadly, any apology now is too late for so many who were present at that first Mardi Gras and are no longer with us. Many were cut down before their time in the HIV AIDS epidemic.

The efforts of these NSW parliamentarians, though, are important and mean a great deal to the 78ers that survive. Back in 1978 we called, in vain, for a Royal Commission into the police violence of that June night. We also called for an apology from Fairfax for publishing the names, occupations and addresses of all of the 53 people who were arrested that night.

Till this time no formal apology has been received from Fairfax. After nearly 38 years since the first Mardi Gras an apology by the NSW State parliament would help to heal the wounds.

So as an original 78er I welcome an apology by the NSW Parliament. But it needs to be a “living apology”. A living apology is one where Parliament affirms the need for ongoing vigilance so that the human rights of LGBTIQ people are respected and protected in law.

It also has to affirm the need for ongoing social investment in educational programs that create a more inclusive NSW community where differences are respected and where the power of diversity is celebrated.

We welcome anyone who participated in the 1978 Mardi Gras with an interest in the apology to contact the 78ers committee or the Pride History Group. If you are in Sydney for the Fair Day in Victoria Park on Sunday February 21, come our tent and talk to us.

In the current international climate with the re-emergence of fascist threats from all sides there are too few places in the world that offer the hope of this kind of open society. Sydney, and Australia more broadly, could represent this kind of inclusive society. It will be a society where the role of the police shifts from suppressing the rights of minorities to protecting and even championing them.