It started with just a few hundred angry people marching in Sydney. Today, it couldn’t be more different…
Sydney’s Mardi Gras is now a spectacular month-long event encompassing theatre, inspirational talks, wild parties and a parade of floats down Sydney’s Oxford Street, each representing different expressions of sexuality and liberty.
This event didn’t start life as a rainbow extravaganza though, but a march of solidarity, in support of gay liberation around the world, that ended in arrests, police aggression and a climate of fear.
The Sydney march took its cue from the gay rights movement that had sprung up after the Stonewall Riots of 1968 – a series of violent demonstrations by members of the gay community after police raided a popular meeting place for for gays in Manhattan’s Greenwich village, the Stonewall Inn. That uprising led to the first Gay Pride marches in US cities in 1970, and the growth of the Gay Solidarity movement in Australia.
The first Mardi Gras, on June 24, 1978, was organised by the Gay Solidarity Group to promote a national conference on homosexuality and to protest against a visit by the homophobic British campaigner Mary Whitehouse and Festival of Light. Several hundred people – gays, lesbians and straight supporters who cared – met in Taylor Square then marched down Oxford Street to Hyde park, accompanied by a truck playing music.
When they reached Hyde Park, police, who had harassed the marchers along the way, impounded the truck and arrested the driver. The crowd, by now numbering more than a 1,000, broke away and headed for Darlinghurst Road, where more police confronted them and stopped the march. When the marchers refused to disperse, police waded in and arrested 53 people, many of whom were roughly treated and beaten, spending a night in custody. As at Stonewall, the police action spurred the gay liberation movement and public awareness, eventually leading to changes in legislation and greater public awareness of the issues. A year later, 3000 gay people and their supporters marched to commemorate June 24. There were no arrests.
Fast forward 37 years and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has become one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions, attracting 20,000 interstate and international visitors a year. The scale of the parade and the number of floats has grown over the years – just as the costumes have grown ever more extravagant. Despite some notorious incidents such as a police officer tackling a young man to the ground to make an unnecessarily violent arrest, police now largely facilitate the parade and even take part. (A court threw out charges against the victim, awarding him $39,000 costs.)
And in more good news for the LGBTI community, on February 25 this year the NSW State Parliament formally apologised to the original Mardi Gras protesters, now known as the ’78ers, for the brutal and hateful treatment they faced on June 24, 1978.
One of those proudly participating in this year’s parade is Catherine Tyler. For Catherine, who is bisexual, the modern parade is more of an illustrative protest than a literal one, telling The Newsroom, “For me marching is about supporting my friends and community and also highlighting the inequalities that the LGBT community face on a daily basis.”
The parade has always been about raising awareness for gay rights, but now people use the campaign to make real change. This year Catherine will be on the float “Housewives on Fire and Red Heaven” and will raise funds for Twenty10, a community-based organisation that supports young people of diverse genders and sexuality. Her action will help provide support for young people in need of housing, medical and mental health services.
She accepts that in many ways homosexuality has become more visible among the general population and in the media, with celebrities such as Ruby Rose and Ian Thorpe coming out publicly, but argues that Australia still has a long way to go.
“I have definitely noticed more straight people and families over the past few years. However, many people may think that because homosexuality is more visible and accepted that everything is ok. That’s not the case at all,” says Catherine.
She is concerned about statistics on suicide among gay and transsexual teenagers and young people. According to a Beyond Blue briefing paper, 20 per cent of trans, lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians experience suicidal thoughts. The paper pointed to studies showing that about 36 per cent of trans and 24.4 per cent of gay, lesbian and bisexual Australians met the criteria for a “major depressive episode”. Catherine feels those statistics prove “something is very wrong with our society”.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras organisers recognise that reaching out to youth is a key to cultural progression, and have launched the YourGen campaign to accommodate their aspirations. The initiative aims to “increase engagement and participation of people aged 15-30 in all aspects” of the Mardi Gras. While crediting the efforts of the older generations, the organisation believes that through youth Australia can eliminate discrimination and alter cultural norms.
Catherine agrees that nurturing youth is key and believes that each individual has a role to play.
“I have a 20-month-old daughter and I will be teaching her that it is as normal to be gay as heterosexual,” says Catherine. “I hope that it is just something that she will grow up accepting as normal.” – Holly Cormack