"You could hear them in Darlinghurst police station being beaten up and crying out from pain. The night had gone from nerve-wracking to exhilarating to traumatic all in the space of a few hours. The police attack made us more determined to run Mardi Gras the next year."
- KEN DAVIS
It was late and a chill was settling in over Sydney. At around 10pm, a small crowd began to gather in Taylor Square rugged up against the cold - it had been a big day. To coincide with the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, a morning street march and public meeting had been held. Those gathered were now primed for the Mardi Gras street festival.
The bars and cafes on Oxford Street were bustling with late night crowds waiting to see what the night would bring. Often that meant heading to one of three key openly gay venues, in particular Cappriccio’s, which was nearby. However, this Saturday night was very different.
As 11pm approached, a throng of people - some walking, some dancing, a few even skipping - marched down towards Hyde Park. Chants of “Out of the bars and into the streets” joined the sound of gay liberation anthems ‘Glad to be Gay’ and ‘Ode to a Gym Teacher’ emanating from the small sound system on the back of a single flat-bed truck, driven by Lance Gowland.
The NSW Police, however, were not in such a joyous mood. Despite the issuing of a permit for the march, the police began to ush the revellers down the street. When the marchers reached Hyde Park, the police confiscated the truck and sound system. The crowd began to move towards Kings Cross. Once there the police swooped in, blocking the dispersing crowd and throwing people into paddy-wagons. The crowd fought back and 53 were subsequently charged at Darlinghurst police station.
Although most charges were eventually dropped, The Sydney Morning Herald published the names, occupations and addresses of those arrested in full, outing many and causing some to lose their jobs.
This was the authorities attempt to keep the community in line, but Sydney’s gays and lesbians would not get back in line. Little did those witnessing and partaking in the march know, this was to be the start of Mardi Gras and would become a defining moment in the country’s gay rights history.
Protests and arrests continued throughout 1978. On 15 July, more than 2,000 gay men, lesbians and supporters took part in the largest gay rights rally to date. The police responded by arresting 14. On 27 August, gay men and lesbians tried to join up with a ‘right-to-life’ rally after attending the fourth National Homosexual Conference – 104 people were arrested. In all 178 were arrested in the Mardi Gras and subsequent protests. The protracted court cases for the arrestees and ongoing protests served to engage a huge number of additional people in the cause of gay rights – galvanising the movement for gay law reform and the right for the community to protest in the street.