The first Mardi Gras: 40 years on


Forty years on, we’re still arguing about what happened at the first Mardi Gras. Who was there and what were they trying to do? Why did 53 of them end up in the Darlo clink? Why do they still expect apologies?

John Witte and Gavin Harris claim that when the cops confiscated their flat back, the revelers repeated defied their directions. Then when Inspector Millar told his men that the revelers were taking part in an unauthorised procession, the heavy-handed cops went for it.

Read the evidence and have your say.

 


 

What happened at Sydney’s first Mardi Gras?

1. What was gay and lesbian Sydney like in 1978?

2. Who organized the first Mardi Gras?

3. Why did the activists organize a Saturday night street party?

4. Where did the idea come from?

5. Was it a demonstration, march or parade?

6. Why was the authorized route so short?

7. Did the organizers provoke the police?

8. Who got arrested and what did they get charged with?

9. Why did the Sydney Morning Herald publish their names, ages, addresses and occupations?

10. Were the police using the Mardi Gras to embarrass the Labor government?

11. Did people lose their jobs?

12. Did people get hurt?

13. Were the police out of control?

14. What impact did Mardi Gras ’78 have on Sydney’s gay and lesbian life?

15. Did the police drop the charges?

16. What role did Rupert Murdoch play in our story?

17. Can we say that Mardi Gras ’78 was Sydney’s Stonewall?

 


 

What happened at Sydney’s first Mardi Gras?


Many claims and counterclaims circulate about our first Mardi Gras. Drawing on Pride History’s interviews with 42 ‘78er and the Police Charge Sheets, Gavin Harris & John Witte asked: why did the police arrest 53 people on that cold winter night, in June 1978?


A letter from America

The American and British gay movements had made great strides in the ‘70s, but a backlash was heating up. In London, Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light was promoting ‘family values’ and lobbying against abortion, pornography and homosexuality. And Fred Nile was bringing her to Sydney. Meanwhile, Anita Bryant was fighting to save Florida’s children from homosexuals and Senator John Briggs was campaigning to stop them from teaching in California’s high schools. Fighting back, San Francisco’s activists called for international support. They sent form letters to a lot of activists (8 March 1978), urging them to parade or demonstrate; screen films; send representatives to San Francisco and telegraph support. They sent a copy to Ken Davis, a Sydney part-time student and postal worker.

Davis convened a meeting of gay groups at Sydney University to organize Sydney’s a Day of International Gay Solidarity (DIGS) on the 9th anniversary of the legendary Stonewall Riots. At about the same time, Sydney’s first gay film festival screened Word Is Out, an American documentary of activists’ testimonials.

"Word is Out” book documents the making of the documentary © New Glide Publications 1978
"Word is Out” book documents the making of the documentary
© New Glide Publications 1978 


Its scenes of campy street parades got Ron Austin thinking about a night time street party. He and his friends formed a sub-committee to organize a procession that invited the Oxford Street crowd to join their movement. Lance Gowland and Graham Chuck applied for the necessary permit. They got it, with 10 conditions. But, by evening’s end they had broken at least four of them.

The large group called itself Gay Solidarity Group (GSG) and staged a morning march, to confront the Saturday shoppers, and an afternoon forum, to tell people about our anti-gay laws and gay life in Canada, Cuba, Chile and the USA. That evening, about 500 people gathered near Taylor Square and Inspector Ken Millar checked the permit. At 10.30pm, Gowland drove a flat-back down Oxford Street; the revelers followed, dancing to amplified music and chanting, ‘Out Of The Bars & Onto The Streets’. Gowland drove slowly and stopped outside the bars, to draw the queens out and to let the revelers catch up. The police kept hassling him, so he turned into College St, stopped the flat-back and began to read telegrams. The police pulled him out of the cabin and arrested him. Some revellers tried to stop them. They tussled; Gowland escaped; the police confiscated the flat-back; Jeff Stanton and some GSG mates told the revellers to go to Kings Cross. The police called for back-up.
The crowd surged up William Street and some people saw paddy wagons heading into Darlinghurst Road. Should they go into the Cross? Some people dropped out. But a lot skirted a paddy wagon and partied into Darlinghurst Road. When they got to the El Alamein Fountain, the police were blocking off Macleay Street, Elizabeth Bay Road and Barncleuth Avenue.

The crowd arrives at the El Alamein Fountain. © Branco Gaica photographer
The crowd arrives at the El Alamein Fountain.
© Branco Gaica photographer

The arrests begin. © Branco Gaica photographer
The arrests begin.
© Branco Gaica photographer


The crowd turned around. Other paddy wagons had blocked the side streets and the Bayswater Road end. The street erupted. People fled; others watched the police nab their friends and tried to rescue them. People were hurling litter bins and bottles at the police. The police were tossing people into the wagons. 

Darlinghurst Road explodes. © Branco Gaica photographer
Darlinghurst Road explodes.
© Branco Gaica photographer


By 12.35, the police had arrested 51 people and taken them to Darlinghurst Police Station. A lot of their friends and lovers walked there, camped outside and chanted their anger.

Bail is collected outside Darlinghurst Police Station. © Branco Gaica photographer
Bail is collected outside Darlinghurst Police Station.
© Branco Gaica photographer


The police arrested another two people. Supportive lawyers and a doctor had to demand access to the arrestees. The police bashed Peter Murphy and transferred all the women to Central Police Station. They had injured at least four other people and traumatised others. The police charged the arrestees and released them on bail. They had to appear at the Central Court of Petty Sessions on Monday morning.

 


 

1. What was gay and lesbian Sydney like in 1978?


Sydney’s gay men and lesbians were living in an oppressive culture. Clerics and cops, politicians and parents, shrinks and social-workers, employers and estate agents, hoons and kids could all attack them – in blatant and subtle ways.

We have to recognize that criminal interests were paying our politicians and cops to ignore, and sometimes encourage, their casinos, brothels and gay spaces. Macquarie Street was happy to have them in the inner Eastern Suburbs, where the legendary Bumper Farrell ran the Darlinghurst Vice Squad. He and his larrikin mates believed that prostitution, gambling and after-hours drinking were part of the ‘Australian way of life’. They used to raid the brothels, SP bookies and gambling clubs, fine them and let them get back to work. Farrell used to torment the drag queens. Nikki Rich, a Les Girls dancer, said he shoved and browbeat ‘the girls’ because he hated gay men (Writer 2011 p 286). He also directed his ‘peanutters’ to entrap men and they ‘made over 4,000 busts in the public toilets and parks… but were disbanded when [they] arrested too many politicians and judges’ (ibid p 302).

Town Hall Railway Station Toilets – where plain clothes policemen watch for “funny business”. © Campaign Issue 34, July 1978
Town Hall Railway Station Toilets – where plain clothes policemen watch for “funny business”.
© Campaign Issue 34, July 1978


Although Farrell retired in ’76, he had cultivated a poofter-bashing culture. Duncan McNab claims that drunken detectives went to Bondi Beach to terrorise the beat queens. He was working in the 21st Division in 1978, when they were still catching bookmakers, raiding casinos, arresting drunks and peanutting poofs (McNab 2017 p3-4). Gay Sydney was onto this:
One policeman from the 21st Division said proudly at a recent court that he had made 750 arrests of men in public toilets for ‘offensive behaviour’. Each conviction involved a minimum fine of $30. He told the magistrate… he was watching for people who were ‘up to no good’. This policeman had become so obsessed that he spent all his time peeping under cubicle doors. (The Australian 24 June 1978).

A gay newsletter reported that a copper had bashed a ‘homosexual activist’ in a gay bar and that some cops had arrested some drag queens because they had ‘a social disease’. Meanwhile too, detectives were intimidating women at Ruby Reds, forcing them to squeeze against them on their way to and from the toilets.

The activists knew that the gay bars paid for protection and Dennis ‘Flo’ Fuller, who ran Capriccios, eventually explained that the Darlo cops were ‘on the books’ (rather than collecting paper bags).

Capricios crew celebrate NYE 1970. From the Dennis ‘Flo’ Fuller collection, Pride History Group
Capricios crew celebrate NYE 1970.
From the Dennis ‘Flo’ Fuller collection, Pride History Group

They used the Summary Offences Act (1970) to arrest the beat queens. But they could also use it if anyone assembled to commit a ‘violent act’ or ‘breach the peace’. It meant that activists [of any persuasion] had to apply to the Police Commissioner to hold their demonstrations.

In this climate, John Ware and Christobel Poll set up Sydney’s first gay and lesbian political group. Their Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) wanted to educate the public, stress the homosexual’s ordinariness, develop his confidence, alleviate his guilt, provide support and engage with the ‘helping professions’. CAMP held social events, ran phone-a-friend and published a newsletter.

CAMP INK January 1971.
CAMP INK January 1971.

But some militant members were soon demonstrating against a Fundamentalist’s attempt to gain Liberal Party preselection and supporting a campaign to shame the (closeted) Prime Minister in the 1972 election. They had already organised Sydney’s first gay and lesbian street demonstration (March 1972), a Sex Lib Week march (July 1972) and a rally against the Anglican Church (November 1972). Some brave souls even came out on television’s Chequerboard (1972), Monday Conference (1977) and

Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone kiss for national television 1972 © Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall Boone Collection, Pride History Group
Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone kiss for national television 1972
© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall Boone Collection, Pride History Group

The CAMP Political Action Group also tabled submissions to a Royal Commission of Enquiry into Human Relationships (September 1975) and organised a tribunal on Homosexuals & Discrimination (November 1976). Some militant groups withered away but The Sydney Gay Liberation argued that the homosexual’s self-loathing encouraged anonymous sex, objectification and rip-off bars. Its members donned drag and zapped the Festival of Light (1973). But when 200 of them placed a mock wreath on the Cenotaph and refused to leave the steps of the GPO the police arrested 15 people and The Sun Herald ‘rewarded’ them with three paragraphs of visibility (16 September 1973).

Gay Pride Week March September 1973 © Green Left. Photographer unknown.
Gay Pride Week March September 1973
© Green Left. Photographer unknown.

After this, they set up smaller, specific religious and professional groups. When the Homosexual Caucus of University Students organised annual National Homosexual Conferences and Sydney was planning another one for August ‘78. Other activists worked in the trade unions, or in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), International Socialists (IS), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or the Spartacist League (Trotskyists).

By 1978, they were sharing houses; decrying organised religion and psychiatry; critiquing capitalism, patriarchy and the nuclear family; bonding at demonstrations; attending conferences and consciousness-raising groups and dancing to live women’s music. They saw the camp world as a relic of homosexual oppression, and dismissed the commercial scene as capitalist exploitation. But they were only one of gay and lesbian scenes. CAMP’s counselling service was still helping people acknowledge their same-sex desires and hosting dances. And the Pollynesians, the Boomerangs, the Regents, Clover, The South Pacific Motor Club (SPMG) and other social groups were offering emotional support and fun times.

The Karingals lesbian and gay social group’s 6th Olympics handbill 18.7.71 Pride History Group’s Donnie Smith Collection
The Karingals lesbian and gay social group’s 6th Olympics handbill 18.7.71
Pride History Group’s Donnie Smith Collection

Several religious groups were offering solace for the spiritually inclined. But even so, a lot of gay men were just doing the pubs, the bars, the saunas, the backrooms and the beats. They were disco dancing and butching-up. Others kept away from any scene.

The new gay man was visible and beautiful. He had lost that wounded look that ‘fags all had ten years ago’ (Ginsberg). He was challenging religion and psychiatry. He was uncoupling his same-sex desires from effeminacy.

The new lesbian was visible and beautiful. She had her own concerns. The International Women’s Year (1975) celebrations had encouraged many women to feminism and a lot of lesbians were fervent new converts. They were separatists, radical feminists, Marxist feminists and butch-femme (bar) dykes. Although many women were more gender focused than lesbian identified, the lesbian activists were contesting the silence that surrounded women’s same-sex desire and lesbians’ isolation. They were building friendship networks (rather than a commercial bar scene) and arguing that ‘feminism was the theory, lesbianism the practice’. They thought that when a woman came out, her lesbianism would constitute her central identity. Some of them had worked with men, but many women were hostile to bi-sexuality, drag and butch-femme relationships. Challenging male violence and oppressive gender roles, they were supporting women’s health centres, rape crisis services, women’s refuges and childcare cooperatives. Some had withdrawn to Amazon Acres and women-only households, arguing that gay men were their arch-oppressors.

When Gore Vidal trawled along Oxford Street in 1973, he quipped that they could have been in New York twenty years earlier. Five years later, The Australian had discovered the pink dollar. But there were still only three gay watering holes between Taylor Square and Hyde Park although Ruby Reds, Sydney’s only lesbian bar, was just around the corner. There were some gay-friendly restaurants and coffee shops as well as back-rooms and a sauna, but there were no gay pubs. The Cricketer’s Arms was in Surry Hill, The Unicorn was in Paddington and the Bottom’s Up Bar was in Kings Cross. In fact Kings Cross was still the centre of Sydney’s night life and had some camp-gay spaces including The Barrel Inn; the Bunk House, Castellos, the Chevron Hotel, the Rex Hotel, Ida’s Disco and Les Girls.

An advert for Patchs Disco 1979 © Sydney Star
An advert for Patchs Disco 1979
© Sydney Star


An advert for the Barrell Inn 1979 © Sydney Star
An advert for the Barrell Inn 1979
© Sydney Star

The big money didn’t roll into Oxford Street until 1979. However, CAMP felt that a lot of men were already drifting away from its outreach services and heading for the bars and discos.

 


 

2. Who organized the first Mardi Gras?


The gay and lesbian radicals wanted to restructure society and organised reading groups and a conference to discuss capitalism and the family; lesbian feminism and socialism; ideology and psychoanalysis; lesbians and male homosexuals in the class struggle; working with non-socialist lesbians and homosexual men; working with the working-class; men and the anti-patriarchal struggle; sexual objectification; relations with other oppressed minorities; sources of lesbian and male homosexual oppression; therapy; separatism and homosexual chauvinism (Red & Lavender No 1 1976).

A lot of these people believed their sexuality was their essential identity – and central to their struggles. They saw themselves as oppressed and vulnerable. They saw themselves as stereotyped, invisible, appropriated, violated, exploited, marginalized and powerless. Rather than accepting the mainstream’s scripts about their inferiority, they wanted to transform their sense of self and community. They were demanding recognition and respect “in spite of” their difference – and respect for themselves as different. They argued that

The fight against the oppression of homosexuals is an essential part of all revolutionary activity waged against patriarchy and capitalism. Sexist ideology and sexist institutions, particularly the family and the schools, provide a vital bastion for a society whose ruling class derives wealth and power from wage-labour and the unpaid labour of women. Homosexuals break up the divided roles of the sexes – the dominance of men and the submissiveness of women (Red & Lavender No 5 1977).

These were the people planned the Day of International Gay Solidarity (DIGS) to address local injustices, support Californian gay activists and commemorate the legendary Stonewall Riots. They planned a morning demonstration, afternoon talks and an evening ‘procession’ for Saturday 24 June 1978.

A poster advertising a march, public meeting and a “festival” was plastered around Sydney in June 1978 © Chris Jones
A poster advertising a march, public meeting and a “festival” was plastered around Sydney in June 1978
© Chris Jones

Some of the organizers were with the CAMP Political Action Group and most people called themselves socialists or communists. But if they had radical critiques of society, their morning parade was demonstrating against police attacks, anti-homosexual laws and discrimination. The main banner read ’Gay Solidarity Group, Repeal All Homosexual Laws, End Police Harassment Of Homosexuals’ and the parade targeted the George Street shoppers (while sending messages to Macquarie Street).

The evening ‘street party’ had one specific objective. It was encouraging homosexuals to join the political movement. It had amplified music, fancy dress, painted faces and dancing. They were chanting ‘out of the bars and onto the streets’. The truck used the morning’s banner but a couple of people brought their own signs. The sub-committee wanted to broaden the gay liberation movement’s appeal to the kids who partied on Oxford Street. Kym Skinner, for example, saw it as a sugar-coated political event and Peter Murphy felt ‘it fitted into a bigger discussion in the Communist Party about doing things in new ways, doing things that people enjoy, don’t be taking actions which are too demanding of people’. They believed that ‘coming out’ was a political act.

 


 

3. Why did the activists organize a Saturday night street party?


Steeped in Marxist thought, some of the organizers despised the Oxford Street scene. They claimed that the over-priced gay bars ripped off their customers, contained them in a ‘gay ghetto’ and diffused gay lib’s critiques of mainstream society. Others wanted to engage the ‘apolitical homosexuals’ in their struggle. GSG extended the International Day of Gay Solidarity to a conversation with the ‘apolitical’ bar queens and dykes. They wanted to show them there were alternatives to the bars.

 


 

4. Where did the idea come from?


The Stonewall Riots had smashed the reformists’ strategy of staid and respectful marches. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam, Black and women’s movements and their own camp heritage, America’s Christopher Street Parades were sassy and fun. In Sydney, activists’ zaps, entendres and radical drag had challenged the status quo. Johnny Allen had just curated Sydney’s first gay and lesbian film festival where The Word Is Out featured charismatic activists and flamboyant street parades. Seeing these parades, Ron Austin thought that a night parade would encourage gay men and lesbians to get onto the streets. It would be less threatening than a full-on, day-time street demonstration. To set an example and/or to obscure their own identities, he and his boyfriend had clown-like make-up and caftans.

Kym Skinner and Ron Austin (detail) © Branco Gaica photographer
Kym Skinner and Ron Austin (detail)
© Branco Gaica photographer

His idea turned the American day parades into an innovative, after-dark event.

 


 

5. Was it a demonstration, march or parade?


Many LGTBQI writers, and more mainstream publications, persistently misrepresent the first Mardi Gras. They conflate the morning demonstration with the night parade. They say the Oxford Street event was calling for the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, the end of discrimination and celebrating ‘love and diversity’. In fact, the morning event was a typical ‘70s protest. GSG timed it to tie in with San Francisco’s call for international support against Anita Bryant’s and John Briggs’s attacks by staging a demonstration on the 9th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

This is a demonstration: Day of International Gay Solidarity Morning March June 24 1978 © Green Left. Photographer Anthony Forward

This is a demonstration: Day of International Gay Solidarity Morning March June 24 1978
© Green Left. Photographer Anthony Forward

This is a mardi gras/street party. Peter Tully in full feathered glory 24th June 1978 10:30pm. © Branco Gaica photographer
This is a mardi gras/street party.
Peter Tully in full feathered glory 24th June 1978 10:30pm.
© Branco Gaica photographer

GSG timed the ‘festival’ to get gay men and lesbians to get out of the Oxford Street bars. This is why it began at 10.30pm, progressed from Taylor Square to Hyde Park, played gay anthems and salsa music and encouraged everyone to wear fancy dress. Although Margaret McMann dubbed it a Mardi Gras, the organisers billed it as ‘a festival’ and ‘a street party’. Once it hit the headlines, the mainstream press called it ‘a protest march for homosexual rights’- which it wasn’t. Its participants had various reasons for attending. Some supported GSG’s intentions, others wanted to support their gay friends and other people just wanted to have fun. Of course, the mood changed in College Street. People stopped dancing and reveling, linked arms, changed their chants, rushed forward into William Street and then into Darlinghurst Road.

 


 

6. Why was the authorized route so short?


The Summary Offences Act obliged the organizers to apply for a permit, stating their route. They applied to go down Oxford Street, along Liverpool Street and pass the George Street cinemas before ending up in Hyde Park. Gowland and Chuck tried to negotiate with the College Street Police Headquarters but they wouldn’t listen. Dated 21 June, the permit said they could begin east of Taylor Square and end at Liverpool Street, next to Hyde Park – a mere 600 metres.

Copy of the permit signed by Roy Hyde, Assistant Commissioner (Page 1) Pride History Group collection
Copy of the permit signed by Roy Hyde, Assistant Commissioner (Page 1)
Pride History Group collection
Copy of the permit signed by Roy Hyde, Assistant Commissioner (Page 2) Pride History Group collection
Copy of the permit signed by Roy Hyde, Assistant Commissioner (Page 2)
Pride History Group collection

The permit told them to turn into Riley Street, go as far as Campbell Street and then, back track to Oxford. However, Gowland went straight down Oxford. The duty police did not direct him into Riley Street. They had just seen the permit and, even if they read this detail, they didn’t (or couldn’t) do anything about it. They wanted to get them off the roads as soon as possible.

Wanting to control the Saturday night traffic and not understanding the spirit of the parade, Head Office had forced the organizers to stage a very restrictive event which hyped people up and left them with no way to dissipate their energy.

 


 

7. Did the organizers provoke the police?


Lance Gowland was the driving force behind the first procession. He intentionally, or inadvertently, frustrated the police. When he failed to meet the permit conditions and when the police confiscated the flat-back and tried to arrest him, the manic crowd protected him, sparking the first altercation.

Gowland parks the lead truck in College Street, against the demands of police. They will soon attempt an arrest. © Branco Gaica photographer
Gowland parks the lead truck in College Street, against the demands of police. They will soon attempt an arrest.
© Branco Gaica photographer

After this, neither the police nor the organizers could marshal the crowd. According to Inspector Millar, the headless crowd defied his directives at the corner of College and William Streets, at the junction of William Street, Bayswater Road and Darlinghurst and, thirdly, at the El Alamein Fountain.

Inspector Millar and police attempt to direct the crowd away from William Street © Branco Gaica photographer
Inspector Millar and police attempt to direct the crowd away from William Street
© Branco Gaica photographer

Speaking as a Prosecution witness at Peter Murphy’s trial, he said he didn’t have an amplifier and the crowd kept brushing him aside. You could argue that this was his self-serving bias. Alternatively, you could argue that the crowd had repeatedly defied the police. But this still does not warrant the police brutality.

 


 

8. Who got arrested and what did they get charged with?


The Charge Sheets show that the police arrested 29 men and 24 women. Some reports claim that they arrested two people on College Street. Leigh Holloway was supposed to be one of these, but his friends say that the police nabbed him on Darlinghurst Road.

Of course, the police had to write up all Charge Sheets several hours after the mayhem, a recipe for confusion or even cover-up. We believe that 28 men and 23 women were arrested at Darlinghurst Road, while Owen Sullivan and Christine Pearce were arrested outside Darlinghurst Police Station. Gowland was arrested on College Street, but never charged. The police let at least three people escape. Nearly all the arrestees were gay-identified or their friends, but a few other people got caught up in the melee. Sullivan, for example, was a company director (or taxi driver) who told the court that he and his mate were walking to his car when the police nabbed him for trying to let down their tyres. He distanced himself from the parade and protested his innocence, but the court fined him $75.

They charged everyone with breaking the Summary Offences Act (1970). The police claimed they had taken part in an unlawful procession, resisted arrest, disobeyed their directions, hindered them from executing their duties, assaulted them or used unseemly words.

 


 

9. Why did the Sydney Morning Herald publish their names, ages, addresses and occupations?


When The Sydney Morning Herald outed most of arrestees, GSG wrote to the editor arguing that The Herald was not bound to publish these details. When it named them, it was denying the presumption of their innocence, implying that they were all homosexuals and could incite poofter bashing. The editor replied that it was The Herald’s job to ‘keep the community in touch with the courts by reporting on representative or significant cases’. When a magistrate suppressed a miscreant’s names, The Herald respected his decision. However, if The Herald decided not to publish names its critics could say it was covering-up for rank and privilege. Publicity, the editor argued, has always deterred law-breakers. This warranted two letters. A Mrs Garnsey thought that press should respect protesters’ privacy. And Kendall Lovett argued that The Herald’s publicity could incite intolerance and unwarranted victimization.

39 years later, The Herald acknowledged that its ‘discrimination… was wrong and unjust’.

Its editor-in-chief argued that it was ‘the custom and practice at the day’ but that this had led to further discrimination and some people had lost their jobs and homes (SMH 24.4.2016). They were still getting it wrong.

 


 

10. Were the police using the Mardi Gras to embarrass the Labor government?


When Neville Wran’s Labor Party won the 1976 election, the activists called on his libertarian credentials to decriminalise gay men’s sexual activities and include ‘sexual orientation’ in his anti-discrimination bill. But even before the Mardi Gras, some observers argued that the conservatives were using the police to attack his reforms.

They know Wran is unable to defend homosexuals and it would be very easy for the casino issue to be transformed into a more general attack on vice (Red & Lavender no 9 1977).

Other people thought that the police wanted to discredit Wran because he threatened their lucrative scams. The National Times was running many reports on police corruption and calling on Wran to reform them. Some of the ‘78ers still hold this position. However, the evidence suggests that the police bungled their responsibilities. On the face of it, Head Office and Inspector Millar were independently concerned about controlling the traffic and maintaining law and order. They made several bad decisions and this led to the violence.

 


 

11. Did people lose their jobs?


The Sydney Morning Herald published the names, addresses and occupations of most of the arrestees. But at least four people gave false names to protect their reputations. As far as we can tell, no one got the sack. But several people were told to keep a low profile or pressured to leave. When Susan Fletcher got back to work the other women told her not to use ‘their bathroom’ and shunned her in the tea-room. The men jostled her on the stairs and called her a ‘filthy lezzo’. No one tried to conceal their contempt. Her family turned against her. Feeling isolated, she called her union. Several calls rang out and an official eventually hung up on her. Feeling scared and intimidated, she resigned. When the great day came, her manager harangued her for 40 minutes. Holding her severance cheque in his hand, he told her that she was scum and they were glad to be rid of her.

Robyn Plaister’s boss called her in to explain why her photo was in The Sunday Telegraph.

Is this you Miss Plaister? © Daily Telegraph Source: from Digby Duncan’s Scrapbook, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives
Is this you Miss Plaister?
© Daily Telegraph Source: from Digby Duncan’s Scrapbook, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

And when Kate Rowe applied for time off to attend her six court hearings, her workmates abused her and sent porn. Some families were embarrassed and rejected their ‘loved ones’. One man stayed overseas for many years because of the stigma. Furthermore, the police tapped the organizers’ phones, turned up at their workplaces and intimidated them at subsequent rallies. Graham Chuck still believes that Optometry NSW blacklisted him, but he eventually got a job in Melbourne.

 


 

12. Did people get hurt?


Speaking on the Channel 7 News, the next day, Robyn Clarke said: ‘They punched people. One woman got kicked in the base of her spine and another woman just had her clothes ripped to pieces, the arm of her jacket just falling off. Women were bruised, bashed in the head.’

One cop bashed Peter Murphy and he had bruises all around his skull, a badly bruised leg, bruised kidneys and bruised ribs. He had severe concussion. He wasn’t the only casualty. Chips Mackinolty ended up with badly injured legs and a burst ear drum. The cops also broke a student’s leg and he ended up at Emergency, along with some others who were treated for minor injuries. Sandra Banks’s arms and chest were bruised for weeks. And the last man to be bailed out had a burst eardrum after a cop assaulted him in the Station garage. GSG told Wran that the police had bashed a woman because she refused to be fingerprinted. They wouldn’t let a doctor see her. GSG claimed that she was suffering blackouts for days.

 


 

13. Were the police out of control?


Inspector Millar testified that he was trying to contain the revelers when he directed them into Hyde Park and tried to keep them out of the Cross. He claimed that he told them to disperse three times but didn’t have a loudspeaker. He presented himself as strangely passive, saying they kept brushing him aside. It was only when the crowd was backtracking along Darlinghurst Road, that he told his men that he had informed the revelers they were taking part in an unauthorized procession. This authorized them to arrest people ‘if, and where, necessary only’. They went for it and this sparked the resistance. But of course, the revelers were not aware of Millar’s directives.

When GSG’s representatives met with Wran (28 June 1978), they wanted the Police Commissioner to ‘resign’. They tabled 57 questions, including: who authorized the police and who was in charge of the police operation? Why did the police lie when they told the press that they used loudspeakers to disperse the crowd in College Street? Why did the police refuse to read the Summary Offences Act at the El Alamein Fountain? Why did the police refuse to let the organizers use a microphone when they wanted to disperse the crowd at the Fountain? Hearing this, Wran told them ‘they had a bloody good case’. However, he recanted soon after, saying, ’the statement they made is just not true and I will not be seeing them again’ (Campaign July 1978).

40 years on, we still don’t know the answers to their questions. The Police Corporate Records, NSW Police Commissioner, Premier’s and Treasurer’s Parliamentary Secretaries have all failed to answer our requests for access to the relevant records.

Of course, every government authorizes every police officer to assert his authority and to use force, if necessary. Unlike soldiers, who have to obey orders, each officer can decide to keep the peace or enforce the law: ‘the decision is his alone and he alone bears the responsibilities for any consequences’ (Avery 1980 p 64). If he is too soft, his superiors (or public opinion) can say he neglected his duty. If he over-reacts or resorts to physical force, he can be hauled-over-the-coals, suspended or end up in court. Furthermore he has to appear to be impartial to the demonstrators’ concerns (eg Ward & Woods 1972, Avery 1980).

These cops had to meet height and weight standards. They were burly men who used physical force to do their job. They could use sprung steel batons, guns and handcuffs – but they didn’t use them on the night. At least some of them thought the revelers were sick, sinful and illegal deviant-lefties. They believed they were arresting unauthorized demonstrators who were swearing, obstructing traffic, disobeying their orders, hindering their efforts and resisting arrest. On the other hand, some activists thought that the police were establishment stooges. Many activists thought they were corrupt and sadistic, who were curtailing their rights.

We don’t know if the police had an internal review or whether anyone got hauled over the coals for bungling the incident. We don’t know if anyone got a commendation. We still want to know: Why didn’t they mobilize forces at College to contain the crowd? Why did they pull Gowland out of the van and confiscate the sound system? Why did they let so many people run wild through the streets? Why did they exclude them from Darlinghurst Road without an effective blockade? Mardi Gras ’78 was an unprecedented event and the police mismanaged its supervision and over-reacted when the revelers ignored their lame directives.

 


 

14. What impact did Mardi Gras ’78 have on Sydney’s gay and lesbian life?


The Mardi Gras exposed the hatred and distrust that Sydney’s gay and lesbian factions had for each other. Frank Wells, who wrote for Campaign, was appalled by the infighting and tried to project an image of a unified community. Peter Langford believed that the parade had provoked the police. He thought CAMP was incompetent and claimed GSG was promoting its Marxist agenda. Another man deplored the ‘badly dressed’ feminists and GSG’s claim that gay rights had anything to do with Aborigines, socialism, women and police brutality. In this climate, CAMP’s executive set up Gayfed to speak for ‘ordinary homosexuals’. At the same time a ‘think gay, buy gay’ lobby was challenging the ‘pro-socialist and pro-feminist’ faction.

First issue of the Sydney Star, later the Sydney Star Observer. © Sydney Star
First issue of the Sydney Star, later the Sydney Star Observer.
© Sydney Star

And when GSG was organizing a follow-up parade in ’79, The Sydney Star Observer tried to stop it, saying that it would help the police arrest more people and claim that GSG had provoked them.

However, a year later the organizing committee invited the independent bar owners (as against those who had links to organized crime) to come onboard. The first social groups joined the parade in ’81 and regional and interstate groups were there by the mid-80s. The men’s hedonism and sexism alienated a lot of feminists and many rejoined the parades in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. More and more people felt they could join the parade.

 


 

15. Did the police drop the charges?


Some people copped several charges. All up, the cops levelled 21 charges of participating in an unauthorized procession, 12 charges of swearing, 16 of hindering police, 4 of failure to observe their directions, 2 of offensive behaviour and 1 of disobeying a reasonable instruction. They got 6 people for resisting arrest, 2 for assaulting policemen, 1 for malicious injury and 1 for a ‘proscribed concentration of alcohol’.

Some of the court cases dragged on for ages. Many people were listed to go to Court 6 or 7 times and 19 people’s cases were finally dismissed in November 1979. All in all, the Central Court of Petty Sessions dismissed at least 23 people on 26 charges (and the trail dies out on 33% of the cases). There are two explanations. Either the police ‘mislaid’ the paperwork or they did not give the revellers time to disperse. However, not everyone got off scot free. The Court used the Summary Offences Act to fine 3 people for ‘unseemly words’; 4 for ‘hindering the police’, 2 for ‘resisting arrest’; 1 for ‘behaving in an offensive manner’ and 1 for ‘malicious injury and resisting arrest’.
Kate Rowe did not pay her $50 fine for swearing at a cop and went to jail for two days. Owen Sullivan, who said he didn’t have anything to do with the parade, had to pay $75. Peter Murphy, who had been bashed in the Police Station, ended up paying $200.

 


 

16. What role did Rupert Murdoch play in our story?


When Peter Blazey approached The Weekend Australian about publishing a lift-out on ‘homosexuality in Australia’, its editor-in-chief contacted Rupert Murdoch, his boss, in New York. Murdoch knew about gay New York’s discos, designers and decorators. He saw ‘gay’ as ‘something new, sexy and money-making’. So The Weekend Australian commissioned Blazey to out our politicians, actors and sportspeople. When they slammed their closet doors, Blazey’s team publicized the up-and-coming DIGS as ‘an act of defiance’. The Weekend Australian ran the lift-out on the very day of the procession and this probably encouraged some people to rock up to Taylor Square.

Peter Blazey’s article is balanced by “the Case Against” © Weekend Australian Source:Weekend Australian page 2. Digby Duncan’s Scrapbook, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
Peter Blazey’s article is balanced by “the Case Against”
© Weekend Australian Source:Weekend Australian page 2. Digby Duncan’s Scrapbook, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives
.

Clearly, an aspiring world-class city like Sydney was ripe for a commercial gay scene. Indeed, CAMP felt that a lot of men were drifting away from its outreach services and heading for the bars and discos. And GSG believed that they were ripping-off their patrons. As reported in the lift-out, GSG claimed that Oxford Street was a ‘gay ghetto’ that contained its push for equality.

 


 

17. Can we say that Mardi Gras ’78 was Sydney’s Stonewall?


A placard at the July 15 1978 “Drop the Charges” demonstration. © Steve Lewis. Source: Pride History Group
A placard at the July 15 1978 “Drop the Charges” demonstration.
© Steve Lewis. Source: Pride History Group

The Stonewall Riots were the spark that ignited the fight for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. The old homophile activists had tried to assimilate gay men and lesbians into mainstream society and demonstrate that their normality. Stonewall changed all that and begs comparison with our first Mardi Gras. Both events responded to police attacks and shaped their nation’s gay and lesbian politics.

Organised crime ran New York’s gay bars. The Genovese crime family owned the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village. It was a dingy, dark dump and it didn’t have a liquor licence. It was probably making more from extorting its Wall Street patrons than from its liquor sales. Lilly Law was collecting its brown paper bag every week and raiding it every month. Still, it was the only joint where (White, Black & Hispanic) men could dance together.

At 1.20am, Saturday 28 June 1969, seven cops walked in; turned the music off, turned the lights up, seized the liquor and barred the doors. But this time the trannies didn’t cower; the johns didn’t produce their IDs and, when the cops began feeling up some women, it got ugly. When the cops’ back-up didn’t come, the queens camped it up. When the cops were shuffling the mobsters and managers into wagons, a cop shoved a tranny. A scuffle broke out and the kids started hurling garbage cans, bottles, rocks and bricks at the Stonewall. They uprooted a parking meter and rammed the doors. They lit some garbage and stuffed it through the broken windows. They torched the bar. The Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) appeared and chucked people into their wagons. The trannies kept fighting. The cops formed a phalanx. The mob jeered and formed a chorus line… By 4.0am, the cops had arrested 13 people and hospitalised others. The crowd had injured four cops and trashed the Stonewall. The next night, activists, bystanders and tourists joined them to fight 100 cops. The TPF arrived. The crowd formed kick lines. When the cops nabbed some sissies and swishes the crowd surged to rescue them… Three nights later, the street exploded again. They looted shops and the cops arrested another five people.

These riots sparked a new militancy. Activists formed the Gay Liberation Front to support other New Left causes and organise same-sex dances. Frustrated by its chaotic meetings, some members formed the Gay Activists Alliance to zap politicians and the American Psychiatric Association. Within a year the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) was organizing a street parade to commemorate Stonewall. They wanted to call it the ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’ demonstration. They also contacted other Homophile organizations, suggesting that they hold their own demonstrations on that day. They proposed an American-wide show of support. It was ‘a new and entirely unexpected spirit of homosexuals’ (Camp Ink No3 January 1971).

By June ’71, Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, Stockholm and West Berlin were parading. By ‘77, San Francisco’s Gay Pride Day Parade could rally 375,000 supporters. But they were fragile and fraught alliances of different ethnic, class, political and religious ideologies. Their women and gender-conforming gay men mocked cross-dressers and drag queens. Their feminists saw gay men as patriarchal and misogynistic, claiming that they were fixated on law reform.

Both Mardi Gras ’78 and Stonewall galvanised resistance to corrupt and brutal police; provided a public transcript / visibility; followed up with annual street parades and were sites of great jealousies. Who spoke for ‘the ordinary homosexual’? Of course, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras became the public face of Australian homosexuality and eventually accommodated the bisexual, transgender, queer etc communities. It became a site to thank the community’s supporters, to lambast its enemies and to raise its political concerns.

 


 

Gavin Harris and John Witte have collaborated on a number of research projects for the 40th anniversary of the first mardi gras parade including research for the ABC telemovie, "Riot". This Q & A format we thought would be a good introduction to the main topics discussed when people talk about the first parade. We will also be using the KXACF web site to publish a more comprehensive story of the night sometime in February 2018. https://kxacf.org.au/the-first-mardi-gras-40-years-on/