August 05


A Look Back on the Origins of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras


via The Age.

Mardis Gras still marching for social change 35 years on

In the 35 years since the 1978 march for gay rights, Steve Warren has never missed a Mardi Gras parade.

Mr Warren was among the hundreds of young gay men and lesbians who came out of the Oxford Street gay bars that night and took to the streets.

But what started as a joyous street parade turned ugly when police confronted the marchers.

At the time, Mr Warren was a 21-year-old university graduate. ”It was exhilarating and scary,” he said. ”It was an amazing experience as a young person coming out. There were all these bars and venues where you could be yourselves. But as soon as you came home and you left Oxford Street, you went back into a world that was hostile and depressing.”

On Saturday, tens of thousands braved the elements to watch the 78ers – along with 100 floats and 8000 participants – make their annual pilgrimage down Oxford Street in Australia’s largest gay pride celebration.

In a tribute to this year’s theme ”Generations of Love”, the 78ers – as they are affectionately known – re-enacted some of the original chants and dances from when they first marched.

The original march in 1978.

Homosexuality was illegal in most states and those who were openly gay faced police raids, harassment and discrimination – or worse. Those who kept their sexuality a secret lived in fear of being ”outed”.

Police raids were routine along Oxford Street’s ”gay mile” and gay men and lesbians who were caught showing affection in public could be arrested.

Former radio presenter and this year’s chief of parade Julie McCrossin, a 78er herself, explains: ”It is hard to understand how tough it was, and how much courage it took … to be out.”

That first Mardi Gras was planned as part of a day of gay solidarity to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York.

Gay activist Ken Davis was a Sydney University student who helped organise the event. He said the idea was to give people who weren’t comfortable protesting the chance to dress up in costume and be counted.

”It wasn’t a protest. It was a celebration of who we were,” Mr Davis said. (He wore a ”country and western frock”.)

And it worked. As the parade made its way down Oxford Street towards Hyde Park, the crowd swelled from a few hundred to more than 1500.

Mr Warren said the atmosphere was joyous. ”People were dancing, singing and chanting.”

Despite the event having a permit, police began trying to shut the parade down, seizing the truck leading the marchers. When the crowd began heading towards Kings Cross, they were met by police who blockaded the street and set upon the crowd.

Police began grabbing the marchers and hauling them into paddy wagons.

”Once the fighting started, we knew it was a watershed moment,” Mr Davis said.

Police arrested 53 people. In the aftermath, the gay community was galvanised into activism. Thousands of people attended protests, campaigning for the charges to be dropped.

”It was a real victory for the gay community,” Mr Davis said. ”It started a chain of events that led to the decriminalising of homosexuality, among other things.”

NSW police now march each year in uniform. This year, Defence Force personnel were permitted to march in uniform for the first time.

Army Corporal Renae Fritzell-Flint, who has marched since 2001, said: ”To be able to wear military uniform, something we do every day, is great. We wear it with pride – and to be recognised after 20 years of being discriminated against is fine.”