How Australia’s first Mardi Gras fought for the liberation of gays and lesbians
Three weeks before the march, we connected with a left-wing group of CAMP members including Ron Austin, Lance Gowland and Margaret and Jim Walker. They had seen the film The word got out, about the life of homosexuals in the United States, and they loved the San Francisco Pride Parade.
CAMP members wanted to throw a nighttime street party in Sydney, starting with Oxford Street, where people could attend in costume, to avoid getting in trouble with family, school or employers if they were recognized. . They wanted it to be a nighttime festival; we spoke of it like a carnival or a street party. During the night and immediately afterwards, it became known as Mardi Gras. We chose Oxford Street because there were several new gay bars popular with young people who couldn’t afford other gay bars.
After the morning walk, we held a forum in the afternoon to keep people engaged. And for the nightly protest, we decided to invite feminist and lesbian singers, including Judy Small and others. At ten o’clock we gathered for the Mardi Gras parade at night.
It was cold and we were in the damn Taylor Square outside the courthouse – and there was no one there. We had a truck with Lance Gowland in the back and a banner I painted to support gay solidarity. We sang “Ode to a Gym Teacher” by Meg Christian and “Glad to Be Gay” by Tom Robinson. At that time, we didn’t have a lot of music choices.
I was wearing a country and western polka dot dress. Only maybe ten or fifteen percent of the other people were in costumes. I didn’t know if the parade was going to be viable.
But around eleven o’clock, we had a critical mass to start the march. And we got permission from the police. We had never done this before – so we weren’t consciously assuming that there would be problems.
Then the police team changed and the Darlinghurst Police who were starting their team saw it as a major problem to have uncontrollable gays and lesbians in the middle of the night on Oxford Street. We had only planned to descend one lane of the road. But of course, that’s not how they interpreted it. They saw it as a threat to their power, a threat to their control of the night, and a threat to their relations with the Syndicate.
Laws called “summary offenses” have given police the power to arrest lesbians for kissing in Hyde Park, men for dancing in clubs, having sex in the bathroom, or having sex. look like they could. These laws gave the police full power over public space. So the police rushed us into Oxford Street. Instead of dancing, we were running.
Then we arrived at Hyde Park. A big disappointment, right? We thought we would go dancing a little. Either way, the police confiscated the fucking sounding truck. In addition to assaulting us, they arrested Lance and others – so spontaneously we headed to Kings Cross, where there were a lot of gay bars.
That’s when it became a walk of about fifteen hundred or two thousand people – it got bigger as we walked through Oxford Street. People took off from the streets and bars to join us. The police response encouraged this.
When we got to the El Alamein fountain, we tried to make improvised speeches. But by then it was midnight and the people were dispersing. As they did, the police started arresting people. They mostly targeted lesbians – then lesbians hit back. They freed women who had been thrown into rice wagons and prevented others from being arrested.
Once the fighting started, it wasn’t just lesbians and gays fighting the police. People by the side of the road thought, “This is my chance to throw a metal garbage can lid at a policeman. One of the reasons for this animosity was that the Darlinghurst police had a reputation for beating and raping sex workers and others.
We later went to Darlinghurst Police Station, where they detained Peter Murphy and others who had been beaten. They didn’t let our lawyers or doctors in. On Sunday, Lee Holloway and Sue Hawke did media for us in Glebe.
Sue was a lesbian at the time and the daughter of future Prime Minister Bob Hawke. On Monday we brought four hundred or five hundred people to the Liverpool Street courthouse. Authorities illegally closed the court and made seven more arrests.