And this is in Sydney! The most progressive city in Australia. And ’78 isn’t really that long ago, it’s in my lifetime.
In 1978, to celebrate International Gay Solidarity Week and the anniversary of the famous Stonewall riots in NYC, a daytime demonstration was organised for Oxford St followed by a political meeting at Paddington Town Hall. These events were attended by approx 400 gay men and women and it all went by without a hitch. A group of friends had organised a street party for that night, with Police approval, where men and woman could be happy about their differences and for one night forget about the oppressive laws they were being forced to live under.
They gave the party a Mardi Gras theme so that people could dress up if they wanted to hide their identity. That says so much about the politics of the time. The group met at 10pm and began their slow march down Oxford St calling on the patrons of the many clubs to join them in celebration. Numbers grew to about 1000 and the party was gaining momentum. They went with the feeling and emotion of the night and continued past the planned route.
This was when the police attacked!
Attack is a strong word but there is no other way to describe it. A riot erupted. With completely unnecessary force the Police terrorized the crowd and brutally arrested 53 of them, 23 women and 30 men. The bloodied and injured detainess were dumped at Darlinghurst Police Station. But there was still a lot of fight left in the marchers that night, they gathered to support and bailout those arrested with some handing over their savings to strangers as way of helping.
The Premier at the time, Neville Wran, never acknowledged the Police brutality but instead described the injuries as ‘unfortunate’ and said the participants had been given ‘a pretty good go’. The gay community continued to apply pressure in the follow-up until eventually all charges were dropped. But from that night a community spirit was cemented that still lives with us today – Mardi Gras!
|Protesters camped outside Wran's home for weeks to change the law|
The 78’ers, as they became known, still hold a very special place in the gay community. It was through their resilience and determination that gay men and women can now live so openly and accepted in Sydney. Mardi Gras has grown from the street party that night in June ‘78 into an event, parade, party, arts festival and month long celebration of pride and diversity known the world over.
In ’79 there were about 5,000 people at the much more organised parade and party. By ’84 it was up to 8,000 and this was the year that homosexuality was FINALLY decriminalised. In ’89 15,000 tickets were sold to the party, 20,000 in ’97 (I was one of them, my first MG!). At its peak Mardi Gras had over 100,000 people descend on Oxford St for the Parade and it was broadcast on commercial television, Ten, to well over a million people.
|The 78'ers lead the 2008 Parade|
For most Australians Mardi Gras conjures images of toned torso’s, drag queens, glitter, feathers and OTT parade costumes. For me the two real stars of the parade are the Police and PFlag. From its violent beginnings to now having the Police march as a show of support means so much. PFlag is a support group for parents and friends of lesbians and gays. Parents and grandparents march with PFlag and it gets me every time, I always shed a tear when PFlag proudly march by in the Parade. I think these two groups say everything about Mardi Gras.
The lesbian and gay community has come so far since the ground-breaking 78’ers. The wider acceptance of homosexuality has profoundly advanced in the last 33 years. In all but one respect we have total equality, and that’s the last big fight we have. Yes, legalising Gay Marriage is the final hurdle in our government 100% recognising we are equal citizens. This is not a matter for the church to decide, it is for our Government to determine that in the eyes of the law our relationships are of equal value and recognition as the straight community.
To think that until as recently as ’84 my relationships were illegal astounds me. That in 2011 my relationships still don’t have equality breaks my heart. Why is it that my brother can have a union with his partner – completely endorsed and recognised by our Government - but I can’t? There is such acceptance of the gay community now that sometimes I sense and feel that even gays have lost interest in moving our cause forward.
This is when we must remember and draw inspiration from the 78’ers. If they hadn’t been so brave I wouldn’t be able to live so freely and openly as a gay man. Today the gay community must rally and take action so that the next generation does not know what it feels like to not have their love recognised.
Mardi Gras is a celebration! But lets not lose sight of the fight we still have on our hands.
NEWS: I stumbled across a brilliant blog yesterday that is a beautiful representation of gay relationships and the argument to legalise gay marriage. Please check it out here. @_cooperman is the genius behind it.