The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras may be one of the city’s most exuberant celebrations, but it wasn’t like that in 1978 when the first march took place. It ended with police violently arresting 53 women and men, many of who were beaten in their prison cells.

It had started peacefully. Mardi Gras was Sydney’s contribution to the international Gay Solidarity Celebrations, an event born from the New York Stonewall riots, and a protest against homophobia. It began at Taylor Square, where several hundred gays, lesbians and straight supporters met and followed a truck with a small sound system down Oxford Street to Hyde Park. People joined along the way as police harassed the lead float, and eventually arrested the driver, Lance Gowland. It angered the revellers, who diverted up William Street to Darlinghurst Road, where police had closed the road. That’s when the violence started.

Kate Rowe was there and now, 40 years on, looks back at that moment, and at how Sydney has grown up.

“1978. It feels like such a long time ago, and yet with the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and all the accompanying events both artistic and discursive, memories have been filtering back about that year.

As over 240 “78ers” (as we are now collectively known) flood the city for the celebrations, some meeting again for the first time since that watershed event, what strikes me is how young, strong and defiant we were. And I’ve been wondering again about what it was at that time in the gay and lesbian community that created such a paradigm shift on our road to progress.

What isn’t well known or often acknowledged is how many women were involved – not only in that first Mardi Gras but in the broader liberation movements at that time. Some lesbians were working alongside their male counterparts, while others chose to work separate from the men. In both instances, we had to deal with the misogyny of some of the gay men. It’s no wonder that feminism was an integral part of our liberation struggle and journey. And it still is.

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Sydney was such a different place back then. Homophobia was virulent, violent and oppressive. Again, it’s not well known that our resistance to it pre-dated the 1978 “riot”. There had been years of activism and organisation leading up to that point, and it was this that enabled a myriad of organisations and activists (mainly from the left) to come together on that day and night to march together in solidarity for a common cause.

I was among the 53 arrested. It was my political awakening, as it was for many others. I think the plan was to shut us and our activism down, but instead, it woke us up. Being in a single cell with 23 other women was a strangely cathartic experience. We could hear the crowds outside Darlinghurst Police Station chanting and supporting us. This gave us strength and courage and we banded together, singing songs and chanting ourselves. This bonding carried over to the Monday outside the Courthouse in Liverpool Street. It fuelled the huge collaborative effort to raise bail money and to organise ourselves in the days, weeks and months after.

It wasn’t always easy working together when we had ideologies so disparate that at times it felt like we had nothing in common. But, as time went on, we found that the common ground of wanting legislative, cultural and societal change was enough to bind us together and to find our way through to facilitate the changes we all wanted.

The AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s was another watershed time that brought our disparate communities together into one united community. It both drew on and extended what was achieved in the ’70s.

Skip to 2017 and 2018 and it’s interesting as a 78er to have watched and participated in another zeitgeist moment: when marriage equality finally came to Australia.

This long struggle saw not only the left but the centre and, in some ways, the right of politics, working side-by-side for a common cause. The campaign was fought in a more mature way, but its success was not just built on utilising modern techniques and communication strategies – it drew together disparate groups. We saw young and old, lesbians, gay men, straights, small community groups and big corporations, city and country dwellers, mums, dads and grandparents – all understanding the need for change, and being willing to come out on the streets to back it.

Again it was many of our political leaders who were resisting what the grassroots already knew and accepted – that it was time for Australia to grow up and join the global shift to marriage equality.
My delight now as a 66-year-old lesbian is to see how much more freedom our younger community has to be themselves and part of society – though this is not always the case in country areas or some pockets of our society. It still warms my heart to see so many more young people not only having the freedom to be themselves but also being committed to carrying on our continuing journey.”

For more on the history of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, see here.

The 40th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is on Saturday March 3.

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