Saturday 24th June, 1978. At around 10pm, a small crowd began to gather in Taylor Square rugged up against the cold – it had been a big day. A morning street march and public meeting had been held. Those gathered were now primed for the street festival that became the first Mardi Gras.
But how did this come about? Well, in March 1978, San Francisco activists wrote to Ken Davis and Annie Talve. They asked for solidarity activities on the Stonewall anniversary to coincide with their march against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative on the California ballot. Ken and others called a meeting of lesbian and gay groups and individuals, which became the Gay Solidarity Group. Two weeks before 24 June, reps from CAMP Inc. suggested that a night-time, fun event for our community be added. The late Marg McMann, Co-President of CAMP Inc., dubbed it a Mardi Gras.
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’. A small sound system and some banners were 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 issuing a permit for the march, the police began to rush revelers down the street. When the marchers reached Hyde Park, the police confiscated the truck and sound system.
The crowd spontaneously marched up to 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.
The Gay Solidarity Group, other groups and individuals and came together for a massive political and legal effort – the Drop the Charges campaign. With pro bono legal assistance from the Council for Civil Liberties, they fought the charges in court. With growing support from many communities, they demonstrate for the charges to be dropped. But the Police continued to arrest protesters:
• 26 June – 300 protested outside the closed court in Liverpool St with 7 arrested
• 15 July – 2,000 take part in largest ever gay rights march with 14 arrests
• 27 August – 300 march down Oxford St from the 4th National Homosexual Conference with 104 arrests
• The total arrested in June, July and August 1978 was 178.
Most of the charges against those arrested were eventually dropped, though not all. The NSW Summary Offences Act, which had given Police very wide powers to arrest people, was repealed in May 1979.
The Sydney Morning Herald published the names, occupations and addresses of all those arrested – outing many and causing some to lose their jobs, rental accommodation and family relationships. 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 who witnessed and joined in the event know, this was to be the start of Mardi Gras. This would become a defining moment not only in our LGBTQI rights history, but a defining moment in the cultural heritage of Australia.