It Was A Riot! — The Origins of Mardi Gras

Words by Leigh Briar

March 2nd, 2019 marked the anniversary of the 41st Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, the largest and arguably most iconic LGBTQIA+ celebration in Australia. It was the second since the victory of the extraordinary demonstrations that won marriage equality in 2017. But four decades ago, it was blood, not glitter, on the streets after Sydney’s first Mardi Gras.

It was a Saturday night — June 24, 1978 — when a street parade organised by Sydney’s Gay Solidarity Group, a celebration of gay and lesbian resistance, marched, danced and chanted down Oxford Street to Hyde Park. “Out of the bars and into the streets!” they cried as they marched. Following a demonstration earlier in the day commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots and demanding an end to homophobic laws across the country, the Mardi Gras crowd were persistent to end a day of political activity in a blaze of colour. What was originally a celebration of the LGBT community soon became an evening scolded into the memories and culture of modern Australia.

The police soon began harassing Lance Gowland, the organiser of the march and the driver of the lead truck — the only float for this first year — while he read messages of support to the crowd in the Park. When he refused to stop, they dragged him off the truck and confiscated it, along with the PA system.

The revellers resisted, chanting, “Stop police attacks on gays, women, and blacks!” as they freed Gowland before linking arms and pushing on towards Kings Cross, an act of mass defiance in breach of a police permit.

It was here that numerous police vans appeared, cops pouring out of them and laying into the crowd. The cops had removed their identification numbers to avoid being held accountable for the ensuing chaos. Batons and fists fell upon the demonstrators, many of whom were shoved ruthlessly into the paddy wagons. People were punched, dragged from their hair, kicked.

With little opportunity to escape, they fought back. Garbage cans and their contents, as well as other objects, began flying through the air at the gangs of NSW police. People were liberated from police vans to once again join the struggle. Those being dragged away by cops became the subjects of a tug of war.

Joseph Chetcuti, one of the 78ers (those who attended the first parade), recalled the night: “We’d had enough of the state and the church telling us what to do with our bodies… a crowd of mostly gay men and lesbians stood up to the police. The Stonewall riots may well have been a watershed for the worldwide gay and lesbian rights movement but for Australia, the Mardi Gras of 1978 was our first very public act of resistance and a turning point in our struggle against oppression.”

Fifty three people were arrested that evening, dragged to Darlinghurst Station where they were detained in cramped cells. The police targeted the organisers of the parade, such as gay liberationist Peter Murphy, who was severely beaten. His screams could be heard through the thick concrete walls. Outside, hundreds had gathered, calling for bail money and for the freedom of those arrested.

The fight did not end with the riot that evening. The morning after the march, the Sydney Morning Herald printed the names, occupations and addresses of those arrested, outing them against their will and causing many to lose their jobs or become estranged from their friends and family.

On the following Monday morning, hundreds mobilised outside the Liverpool Street courthouse in solidarity with those arrested. Entry was difficult as police were barricading doors, resulting in multiple scuffles and seven arrests.

A mass meeting was called for July 1st, a week after the riot, to organise the “drop the charges” campaign. Another week later, a march retracing the route of the June 24th parade became the largest LGBTI rights demonstration Australia had ever seen.

There was a continued series of clashes and demonstrations until the NSW police quietly dropped the charges against those arrested at, and in the aftermath of, the first Mardi Gras. The state Labor government also had their hand forced by social pressure from the strong campaign to repeal the hated Summary Offences Act (NSW), which was the law used by the police to stop protests by LGBTI organisations and a wide range of other groups. The right to march for everyone had been won in a shining rainbow victory.

Undeterred by state repression, the 78ers, Gay Liberationists, and everyone else who marched for equality in the momentous year of 1978 offer a lesson that should be taken into all the campaigns we are part of, and all the demands we make: a defiant spirit of resistance and relentless perseverance is absolutely necessary to change the world. Today LGBTI people in Australia are able to openly and proudly declare who they are. Without those fighting police in the first Mardi Gras, marching against backwards laws, we would not have reached the level of social inclusion and formal equality we have today. The demonstrations for marriage equality and annual pride marches across the country are the living, breathing legacy of activists from decades past.

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