40th Anniversary of 1978 Mardi Gras

I am pleased to discuss as the matter of public importance the fortieth anniversary of the 1978 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

In the past couple of years parliaments at a State and Federal level have taken significant steps on the pathway to progress and justice for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning [LGBTIQ] community.

Obviously, the big news federally was the public campaign and subsequent popular support for a change to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry.

In early 2016 in this place it was my honour to join with a great many other members to move a motion of apology to participants of the original Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978 for the mistreatment, physical assault and public persecution they were subjected to at a time when society was a much more intolerant, fearful and violent place. It was long overdue that the New South Wales Parliament apologised for its part in a long history of oppression and marginalisation of LGBTIQ communities.

Today, a couple of weeks out from mardi gras in March, I pay tribute to the rainbow community past and present for its ongoing efforts to campaign for equality and recognition.

Nowadays the mardi gras is a city-wide celebration of the LGBTIQ community, but it began as a protest movement and a struggle for basic rights. They were campaigning to oppose police brutality, repeal anti-homosexuality laws and abolish the Summary Offences Act that restricted the right of people to organise and participate in public protests.

A former President of the Legislative Council, Labor's Meredith Burgmann, was a 78er. She wrote recently about the 1978 march:

Up Oxford Street we trooped yelling, "Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks!" But this soon gave way to "Out of the bars and into the streets" as we moved into the gay bar district. Interested drinkers and the occasional drag queen joined us.

Her recollection of the first part of the evening is vague, but she says that as soon as the police moved in everything came into sharp focus. She wrote that she had never seen such brutality, saying:

Fifty three protesters were arrested and thrown into the cells at the old Darlinghurst Police station. The rest of us thronged outside waiting in the cold, knowing that our friends were being assaulted inside.

Writing on the SBS website, 78er Mark Gillespie outlined the lived experience of a gay man from the bush in the 1960s and 1970s:

Having arrived in Sydney seeking refuge from the never-ending police state of mind that was life under the Joh Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government, I was renting a studio flat in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, at the time.

All through history, cities have offered people like me a measure of escape from oppression and persecution. But in 1978, even in a big city like Sydney, refuge and security could not always be found and, without even basic human rights, we were always vulnerable.

As a high school teacher working for the NSW Department of Education, "coming out" posed a major risk for me—it could mean the loss of my job. For those who were subjected to electric shock treatment in the 1970s at the old Prince Henry Hospital in Little Bay, it could even mean losing your mind.

When politicians and activists like me, and a number of colleagues and supporters march in the modern mardi gras as allies of the LGBTIQ community it is easy to forget the reality for those original 1978 mardi gras activists. They were not safe in their own city. They were not safe at home or at work. They lived in constant fear of physical persecution, losing their jobs or being ostracised socially by their friends and family. It is important to mark the fortieth anniversary of the groundbreaking effort by those activists and to acknowledge the advances and reforms that came as a consequence of their struggle.

The decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1984 was made possible by the 78ers, who dared to struggle against oppression and persecution. I pay tribute to them and I congratulate them.

I note that my friend and comrade Jo Haylen, the member for Summer Hill, would have joined me in discussing this matter of public importance but she is on leave with her newborn twins.

I acknowledge the work and activist zeal of Legislative Council member Penny Sharpe and former member and my dear friend Helen Westwood, AM. I wish them all a happy mardi gras in a few short weeks.

I thank the member for Coogee, the ember for Sydney, the member for Charlestown and the member for Newtown for their contributions on this very important matter of public importance. In acknowledging the sad history of oppression around this upcoming day, it would be remiss of me to not also mention the uplifting, proud and positive work undertaken by many smaller groups that often do not get mentioned.

I acknowledge Rainbow Families, which was quite a prominent part of the marriage equality debate. It is wonderful that families come out and dance, sing and celebrate life with us now.

I acknowledge Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFLAG]—those fabulous parents, carers and families who step in to support public awareness raising for their families. I acknowledge Ruth and Ron Green from my electorate.

I acknowledge the organising committee and all the volunteers. As other members mentioned, hours upon hours of work go into putting the mardi gras together.

I acknowledge the many communities—such as mine, the Pink Mountains—who travel from far and wide to participate in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras., I thank all who have made a contribution and all who have been here to listen in the name of equality and justice and the struggle of determining rights.

Rain, hail or shine, may this fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras be a never-ending dance party.

[Download PDF]