“Out of the bars and into the streets.” This was the call to arms on Oxford Street in 1978 when queer protestors gathered in relation to the New York Stonewall Riots. The march was broken up; 53 men and women were arrested and brutalised by Darlinghurst police (homosexuality remained illegal in NSW until 1984). This was the first iteration of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Fast forward 40 years and the march is beloved as the glitteriest, leatheriest and most liberating event on the Australian queer calendar. But what happened in the years between? Has Mardi Gras’s rainbow-coloured history been a platform for social justice?
We spoke to Dennis Altman – academic, author and legendary activist of the Australian gay civil rights movement. He was down Oxford Street on that bloody day in 1978, although luckily was unhurt.
“When I look back, I sort of have a sense of having been a spectator,” Altman says. “I was in the march at Oxford Street … I remember I was with someone and standing by the side of Darlinghurst Road and watching what had then become very violent police arrests. I was careful not to be arrested. I guess that makes me a B-grade 78er [the name given to the people who were at the first Mardis Gras parade].
“I do remember in the subsequent weeks there was a lot of activity, and a lot of money being raised [for bail and court appearances]. A lot of people who’d never had any contact with a gay movement suddenly got very worked up. I think it certainly had a major impact on a lot of people.”
There are plenty of detailed records of that first Mardi Gras. It’s worth reading 78er Mark Gillespie’s moving account, as well as Kate Rowe’s punchy opinion piece published by Broadsheet. These are the voices to be celebrated on the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras. Altman will be marching with 250 other 78ers as a part of the biggest Mardi Gras float of 2018. He also encourages people to read meaty historical texts if they’re interested in getting to know the full story. Altman cites Graham Willett’s Living Out Loud and Garry Wotherspoon’s City Of The Plain as two books of incomparable accuracy on Sydney’s gay culture.
That violent inaugural year is widely remembered in Australia, but Greg Clarke, the creative director of Mardi Gras, says there are other pivotal moments in the explosive history of the festival.
“It was huge when artists really started to get involved in Mardi Gras,” Clarke told Broadsheet. “Artists such as David McDermott [a contemporary visual artist and Peter Tully [Mardi Gras’s artistic director from 1982 to 1986]. They really saw the potential of the parade in becoming an amazing spectacular. They were the first to design costumes and floats for the parade. With an Australian council grant [awarded in 2008] they were able to provide Mardi Gras workshops. That’s a key moment.”
Another key period was when AIDS hit in the mid-’80s. “It was a huge impact on our community,” says Clarke. “In 1985 Fred Nile and other politicians … were calling for the parade to not go ahead because of the so-called ‘AIDS crisis’. The organisers at Mardi Gras decided it was more important than ever that the parade should. It did. And with a giant banner that read: “Fighting For Our Lives”. We lost so many people, so many friends and family, and so many great artists that worked on the parade as well. I wouldn’t call it a milestone but I’d call it a horrible thing that happened that had a huge impact on the community and on Mardi Gras.”
In 1988 the name of the event was changed from the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which encouraged more lesbians to get involved in the parade.
“It’s also important to remember that in 1988 the First Nations float led the parade. You had Malcolm Cole, an Indigenous man, wearing a Captain Cook outfit in a boat leading that parade. That was such a milestone.” (For more information on Indigenous representation in Mardi Gras, see this comprehensive and interactive history of First People’s entries in the parade).
The Mardi Gras team has this year been working to immortalise and exhibit its history. The [Museum of Love & Protest](http://www.mardigras.org.au/events/museum-of-love-protest], at the National Art School, is an incredible exhibition of street photography and elaborate costume design.
“We decided to tell the history of Mardi Gras through the eyes of artists,” Clarke says. “There are iconic images of the parade, such as Fred Nile’s head on a platter, Pauline Hanson being chased by dancers with giant packets of chips on their heads … There’s an amazing amount of satire that we’ve seen in the parade through the years.”
(For those unable to visit the Museum of Love & Protest, there’s a beautiful digital timeline of the parade available on the Mardi Gras website. This multimedia compendium brings together oral histories from 78ers, video footage from 40 years of the celebration and historical accounts of the Mardi Gras experience.)
Altman says the build-up to the first 1978 Mardi Gras, and how poignant that period was, is represented in ABC’s new docudrama Riot. The telemovie stars Damon Herriman as Lance Gowland (a vocal founder of Mardi Gras and the person driving the lead float in the first parade), who was involved inqueer activism for nearly a decade (he died in 2008). We see moments of tenderness, and of violence delivered by hateful hands. Riot simultaneously makes us yearn to have been there at the front of the fight, and yet feel so grateful that we never had to be.
“I think Riot captures that evening very well,” Altman says. “The Darlinghurst police station was known to be vicious and corrupt. One of the other strong points is it showed the inability of the Wran [NSW] Government to do anything about the situation of policing, even though of course they knew exactly how bad it was. I think there are some real problems in the earlier historical stuff in Riot, but I think in terms of that first march, they do very well.”
Watching Riot today, in our post-postal-survey world, it’s easy to feel complacent. It’s tempting to feel as though the biggest battle, that of marriage equality, has been won. Watching the violent struggles of queer protestors in the 1970s feels light-years away. Of course, that’s not the case.
“People might feel as though everything is finished,” Altman says. “But the campaign around the [2017 postal survey] certainly got a lot of people very angry and very upset. In some ways I would expect the mood to be more radical this year than it’s been in the past. I think the marriage debate certainly energised and politicised a lot of people. Mardi Gras might be a bit of a test. Is it going to be a new ongoing political energy? Or are people going to say … well it’s all over, we don’t have to do anything but party. I think we’ll find out gradually.”
Clarke is confident Mardi Gras will continue to provide a space for politicisation and activism for queer Australians.
“Of course marriage equality has been won, but there’s still so much to be done,” he says. “If you’re a young person living in regional Australia, are you equal to everyone else? LGBTQI youth suicide is the highest in the country. Our trans community are still under attack. There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces of legislation, in many of the states, where I’m still not equal to everyone else. There’s plenty to fight for. Mardi Gras will continue to do that and continue to be a platform for social justice.”
The 40th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade starts at 7pm on Saturday March 3, on Oxford Street.
The Museum of Love & Protest is showing at the National Art School until Sunday March 4.
If you identify as LGBTQI and need support dealing with depression and suicide, or just need to hear an empathetic voice, call QLife on 1800 184 527.