The morning march
The first Mardi Gras held on June 24, 1978 was planned as an addition to the morning demonstration to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969.
At the time, the lesbian and gay community in San Francisco were fighting the Briggs Initiative, which was a push to remove anyone who supported lesbian and gay rights from the school system.
The lesbian and gay community in San Francisco reached out to communities around the world, including in Sydney. They asked that lesbian and gay communities host Gay Solidarity events. In Sydney, lesbian and gay organisations called a march that was held in the morning. This was very successful by our standards, with around 500 people participating.
Some people also wanted a night time celebration. In 1978, many lesbians and gay men were reluctant to participate in a daytime demonstration – if your employer or school saw you, you could easily lose your job. It wasn’t just lesbians and gay men that participated in the first Mardi Gras. Many others attended in support of our fight against oppression and discrimination.
The night parade
On June 24, 1978, what had been a fun event was dramatically altered by systematic, brutal bashings and arrests by Police.
At 10pm that night, people began to assemble at Taylor Square. We had a flat-bed truck with a sound system playing Meg Christian’s Ode to a Gym Teacher and Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay. Some people wore fun outfits – capes, floor length ruffled dresses, bizarre hats and lots of make-up. The Pope even made an appearance. Spirits were high.
Our intended route was to move down Oxford Street, stop for a while at Riley Street and then carry on to Hyde Park. We sauntered down Oxford Street behind the truck. It was a festive and light-hearted atmosphere. Lesbians and gay men came out of the bars to watch and a few even joined us - responding to our 'Out of the bars and into the streets' chant.
Even though we had a permit to ‘assemble and march’ the Police kept forcing the truck to speed up. It was clear that the Police were not going to let a street party happen.
By the time we got to College Street, we had hundreds of hyped-up people. But then the Police confiscated the truck. This was followed by shouts of To the Cross! The response from the crowd was electric – we charged over to William Street and up to Kings Cross. We were on the road, chanting and yelling. It was mass defiance and it was exhilarating.
Once we got there we started to disperse, but Police had blocked off both ends of Darlinghurst Road and started arresting people and throwing them violently into waiting paddy wagons. People were punched, pushed over, kicked and dragged along the ground. The crowd fought back - people started fighting to release those arrested, pulling them out of the paddy wagons. Indigenous people and sex workers became involved in the fight. The bashing and arrests bound us all together.
In all, there were 53 arrests and some brutal bashings, particularly in the cells at Darlinghurst Police Station. It was the most systematic Police bashing and the highest number of arrests that we had seen.
On the following Monday 26th June, the Sydney Morning Herald published the names, addresses and occupations of those arrested. This was devastating for those arrested – with many losing their jobs, being kicked out of home or having their rental tenancy terminated. Some committed suicide.
Over the next few months, a further 125 people were arrested at “Drop the Charges” marches and rallies. By April 1979, most of the charges were dropped after court battles. With the assistance of pro-bono lawyers, organised mainly by the Council for Civil Liberties, we proved in court that the arrests were unlawful. The stage was set for the Mardi Gras parade to continue as an annual event.
Download a copy of 'It Was Riot!' – the story of what happened in the lead up, during and after the first Mardi Gras, containing photos and accounts from those who were there.