After Almost 40 Years, NSW Apologises To Mardi Gras Pioneers

25/02/2016 10:14 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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The men and women who marched in Sydney’s first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras are expected to receive a formal apology from the NSW parliament on Thursday for their mistreatment at the hands of authorities 38 years ago.

On June 24, 1978, about 500 people and a single float gathered at Darlinghurst’s Taylor Square to celebrate diversity and to call for an end to the criminalisation of homosexuality.

During the march -- which swelled to more than 1000 people -- they were met by police and, following violent clashes, 53 people were arrested before being publicly shamed in the media.

On Thursday, Coogee MP Bruce Notley-Smith will move the motion of apology in parliament in front of members of that historic 1978 march -- known as the 78ers.

Recalling the physical and emotional pain experienced he experienced during and after the march, Steve Warren, 59, told the Huffington Post Australia while an apology won’t erase what happened, it is an acknowledgement of the struggle the 78ers went through.

“And our struggle to get to where we are today,” he said.

“It’s not going to be good enough for every 78er, but it’s a great start.”

Notley-Smith sees the apology as unfinished business and made the commitment to pursue it before the last election. He has since been working with a cross party group to garner cross parliamentary support.

"Its time has come," he told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Yes, it's been a long time waiting, but I'm confident that waiting will come to an end."

Amid an anti-gay backlash in the US and a call by San Francisco activists for an international day of protest, Sydney’s gay and lesbian community organised a day of events, culminating in the festive march.

Midway though the first Mardi Gras, police withdrew their permission permit, and tried to arrest float driver Lance Gowland. As the crowd began to move towards Kings Cross, police swooped, the protesters fought back and the 53 marchers were arrested amid allegations of heavy handed police tactics.

mardi gras 78

Police trying to remove Lance Gowland from a truck during the Mardi Gras, Day of International Gay Solidarity, 24 June 1978, photograph by Ross Macarthur or John Cousins for Campaign Magazine

Police used batons, said 78er Mark Gillespie, who firmly believes there would have been "blood on the streets" had they used guns at the time.

“Those of us who were there in ’78 can never forget the sheer scale of the violence," he said.

“It was those events of those few months - three to four months in ’78 -- of civil unrest in the streets. It wasn’t just the night of June 24, but that was the focal point because we decided to resist.

“If you were a gay and lesbian person in that period you were expected to hide hide who you were. You were seen as revolutionaries because you threatened the status quo. On that night the police would have expected us to take flight, go back in our closets, to hide.”

Instead, the incident gave rise to a much loved Sydney institution.

No one could predict the future, and the discrimination didn't end with a single march.

Local media published the names, addresses and workplaces of the arrested protesters three days later, a decision that led to people losing their jobs, being estranged form their families, and worse.

"There were people who unfortunately committed suicide," said 78er Diane Minnis.

"It was pretty major. And the rational at the time was that they did it for other court cases."

On the eve of the parliamentary apology on Wednesday, The Sydney Morning Herald’s editor in chief Darren Goodsir apologised for the paper’s role in publishing the names of the 53.

Subsequent editions carried the details of more protesters, including the names of 104 people facing charges stemming from another homosexual rights march, the Herald reported on Wednesday.

"In 1978, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the names, addresses and professions of people arrested during public protests to advance gay rights. The paper at the time was following the custom and practice of the day,” Goodsir said.

"We acknowledge and apologise for the hurt and suffering that reporting caused. It would never happen today."

mardi gras 1978

Participants during the Mardi Gras, Day of International Gay Solidarity, 24 June 1978, photograph by Ross Macarthur or John Cousins for Campaign Magazine

Homosexuality was finally decriminalised in the state in 1984.

In 2014, parliament passed into law a bill moved by Notley-Smith which allowed a person convicted of a historical homosexual offence to have the conviction extinguished.

“We had no idea that from that first Mardi Gras that it would lead to where it is today,” said Warren.

“It has provided an opportunity for a lot of positive change both in legislation and discrimination issues and also in community attitudes.

“I still think Mardi Gras is very relevant — we still have a few struggles to go through and it’s still important for us to be out and proud too.”

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