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

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 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.

The arrests begin.
© 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

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.

Authors: Gavin Harris and John Witte.

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