Law Reform Victories after 1978
The shocking violence and arrests by police during the first night-time Mardi Gras parade and the subsequent protests that took place from June to August 1978 constituted a significant turning point in lesbian and gay activism. Lesbian and gay individuals and organisations were united under common goals – an end to police harassment, repeal of oppressive legislation and an end to discrimination.
The right to peaceful assembly also became a flashpoint that united not just lesbian and gay activists but other social movements – civil libertarians, unions, students, women, progressive churches. These social movements energised a massive campaign for lesbian and gay rights and a battle with the NSW government over Police control of public spaces.
The energising impact of resilient united action carried through over months and years resulting in most of the charges against 78ers being dropped in April 1979. In May 1979, the NSW Summary Offences Act was repealed. The Summary Offences Act was the legal framework that Police used to arrest 78ers. It was also used against Indigenous people, sex workers, demonstrations, displays of same sex affection and enabled entrapment in beats. After the repeal of the Act, NSW residents could just inform the Police they were having a demonstration, with no need to apply for a permit but the Police could lodge any reasonable objection within a short time frame.
Despite the opposition of many gay groups, gay businesses and gay media, a very enlarged, energised and defiant Gay Solidarity Group organised a second 3,000 strong parade on 30 June 1979. Because the parade was a peaceful success, that allowed a proud annual tradition to be born.
In 1982, grass roots action, along with research and lobbying, led to an amendment to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, making it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the ground of their homosexuality in areas such as employment, education, provision of goods and services, accommodation and registered clubs. At the time, very few jurisdictions overseas had such laws.
In 1984, the Crimes Act in NSW was amended to decriminalise sexual acts between consenting adult males. But it wasn’t until 2003 that the age of consent for homosexual sexual acts was equalised with that for heterosexuals. NSW was the second last state in Australia to reform its unequal age of consent law.
Despite taking many years to achieve basic human rights in NSW, the first Mardi Gras showed us that such achievements were possible through united and creative political action.