The fight for gay liberation in the '70s was a time of great trauma. For Julie McCrossin, it was a time of great change.
Many people would recognise Julie McCrossin from the radio and on television, but Julie has been a gay activist since she was 18 year’s old and took part in many of the demonstrations leading up to, and after, the very first Mardi Gras in 1978.
“I've always considered myself the friendly suburban face of Australian lesbianism. I wanted a family, I wanted a normal life and the radical action that was required to achieve that was just the price we paid on that particular day back in 1978.”
Julie’s activism started not long after attending Sydney University in the early 70’s, where she joined a gay liberation group.
“The first 12 months I went every week to meetings and it was all gay men and me. Then one day a woman came in and inevitably we had a relationship. That's really the 70’s in a nutshell because you just didn't have the community or communities that we have now. It was a time of building things and a time of fighting for the most basic rights.”
Julie was an active member of the fight for gay liberation during this time. It was a time when homosexuality was criminalized and a time when it was listed as a mental illness. It was time of great struggle.
“There were many demonstrations and lots of arrests before the first Mardi Gras.”
“I remember it as a time of trauma because I wasn't used to being put into police cells or locked up in paddy wagons and being at the women's cell at Liverpool Street courthouse with 20 or 30 other women from the demonstrations.”
“But we won. We decriminalized homosexuality in New South Wales in 1984 and we got the diagnostic statistical manual to stop calling it a mental illness in the early 70s.
“So it's a time of trauma combined with rolling success because we changed the world.”
It’s the wins and the small moments of optimism that stick with Julie most, all these years later.
“When we think of that time, we tend to focus a lot on the conflict with police, and that was a big part of it, but there were also really optimistic and great memories from that time.”
“I have a memory from the 1970s that gives me so much heart and inspired me at the time, and inspires me still. It was at a great big demonstration at Saint Mary's cathedral in Sydney, a couple of nights before there had been a television programme where a gay man spoke openly about being a gay an wanting decriminalisation and equal rights for homosexual people and he immediately lost his job at a Catholic school.”
“So we had a great big demonstration at Sunday Mass at Saint Mary's cathedral. I of course dressed as a nun in a habit and went on a motorbike.”
“I arrived there and I remember rushing up the stairs out of the crowd of demonstrators and trying to enter Saint Mary's cathedral with some sort of plan to rush in my nun’s habit towards the altar.”
“But someone grabbed me from behind, I remember a plainclothes detective grab me around the waist and pulled me back.”
“At the bottom of the stairs is an open paddy wagon and I was expecting to go in there and back into the cells, but instead the constable leaned down and said ‘Do you remember me Julie? We went to primary school together.’ and he pushed me past the paddy wagon and didn't arrest me.”
“It was just one of those moments when I thought ‘the zeitgeist is changing. He isn't arresting me, he's remembering in a positive way, as a person’. During all those demonstrations I just had hoped that things would start to change and, in that moment, that hope was fulfilled.”
A hope for change is what drove many fighting for LGBTQI+ rights at the time. Years more of demonstrations happened, until, in 1978 a group of people decided to mix things up and hold a celebration instead of a demonstration, a Mardi Gras.
“It all began with a march in the morning. This was a more conventional demonstration and I was part of that march. I didn’t take part in the celebration march that night thought because, to be honest with you, I was angry, I was fighting for my rights and I wasn't sure about the celebration. I now consider myself to have been plain wrong obviously.”
Julie remembers the oppression of the time vividly, but just as vividly she remembers and holds onto the moments of progress – the very thing she had and continues to fight for.
“So while the '70s is a story of trauma, it's also a time of social change at a rate that was amazingly fast when you look back on it.”
I want to pay credit to people who worked with the New South Wales Police to get gay and lesbian liaison officers to educate and change the police.
“I can remember the first time I saw the New South Wales Police marching in Mardi Gras, there were people that all along Oxford Street applauding and crying because it was such a fantastic symbol of social change.”
Social change continued, and continues today, although not always at the same pace.
Being a strong advocate for marriage equality, Julie had always believed she would wait until the fight for marriage equality in Australia was won before marrying. It was after being diagnosed with stage four throat cancer in 2013 that she changed her mind.
I’m literally sitting there in St Vincent’s Hospital with the chemo dripping in and I turned to my partner of 22 years, Melissa, and said ‘My God Melissa, if I don't live, we won't get married”. I thought I wouldn’t live long enough to see the change here even if I did. I said to her ‘If I survive this cancer, will you come to New York with me and let's get married’, and she said ‘You're on’.
“So I did survive, and in 2014 we flew to New York with our two adult children Luke and Amelia and got married at the registry office in Manhattan.”
Julie still sees the importance of Mardi Gras today.
“I'm as passionate about Mardi Gras now as I was back in the '70s and I see it as important in my life and in the life of Australia, and indeed in the international community. It’s a beacon of hope for many people.”
“Mardi Gras continues to change and continues to celebrate the diversity in everyone. It’s a chance for us to put out to the world that there is a diversity of sexual expression. That it is normal and that there is a place where you can find your tribe.”
“My most happy recent memory is walking up Oxford Street with my friend Emily Dash. Emily is a disability advocate, filmmaker, writer and actor and I'm going to be interviewing her as part of my upcoming Queer Thinking session.”
“We walked up Oxford St together. She and her wheelchair and her support person, both of them in these sexy busty outfits. Emily had her hand out and as she went up the side of Oxford St hundreds of people high fived her as she went up. that's what Mardi Gras embodies for me, it’s a place where Emily could advocate, explore her sexuality and her right to be a sexual being as a woman with a disability – and be applauded and celebrated for it.”
Today, Julie still advocates for LGBTQI+ rights and celebrates the victories we have as we fight for a more equal society. She’s also a proud ‘Lesbian Nana’ to her granddaughter Billie.
“I rise for granddaughter Billie. It brings me extraordinary joy to rise each morning to help raise a little girl who will only know celebration in a positive way with the rainbow community. That is social change.”
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, who are the traditional owners of the land on which our celebrations are held on.
We pay our respects to elders past and present and extend that respect to other First Nations peoples.