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

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.

Authors: Gavin Harris and John Witte.

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