Sandra was young, in her early twenties, when she heard about a pride parade happening that evening on her local Double J radio station; it was a march celebrating gays and lesbians, people like her, through Oxford Street — now the heart of Sydney’s queer scene. She, her girlfriend, and another friend decided to go along; it sounded like fun — and it was, at first. Until it wasn’t.
Being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia in the 1970s was — to put it bluntly — shit. Homosexuality for men back then was a crime (it would stay that way until 1984), so picking someone up could lead to prison time. If you got outed you could lose your job, or, worse still, face involuntary admission to a psych ward. Gays, lesbians and anyone who subscribed to anything outside heteronormative roles were targets of verbal and physical abuse. Robert French, a 78er and longtime LGBTQIA+ advocate said it was like living in “shadow world”.
Still, by the late ‘70s, things were changing. Rallies, talks, events and protests were slowly gaining public interest. Sydney’s quiet queer scene was getting louder. So, when Sandra went along to the march, she wasn’t too worried about what might happen.
The horrors of that night are well documented. Members of the NSW Police brutally attacked the protestors; pulling women by their hair and ripping out their earrings, beating protesters and throwing them into vans. More than 50 people were arrested. The people who endured that night and the shitstorm that followed: who bailed people out of jail, who waited outside Darlinghurst Police station all night, who got their names published in the Sydney Morning Herald and lost their jobs; they became known as the 78ers. While many events, both before and after, contributed to the change in culture that makes it possible to be out and proud in Australia today — this event sticks out as one of the most defining moments.
To understand more about why that is, we spoke to OG 78ers Penny, David, Robert and Sandra. We picked their brains on how far we've come; their thoughts on Mardi Gras today; and the advice they'd give to young people in the community. Each of these 78ers have seen tons of progressive change since Sydney's first Mardi Gras, but all still think we have a long way to go.
A radical lesbian feminist, Penny was a student at the University of NSW when she attended Sydney’s first Mardi Gras with a few friends after a dinner party in Petersham. She’s been advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights in the decades since.
What was it like to be a young lesbian in the ‘70s?
I remember the first moment that I discovered that I was a lesbian. We were walking up City road, Chippendale, and I said [to my friend, Gary], ‘Oh well, you’re a gay guy’ and he said to me, ‘You’re a lesbian, aren’t you?’. It was like an epiphany. It was the first moment that I thought, ‘Huh, yes I am’. It was both exhilarating and terrifying to finally own that.
Talk us through life as a radical young feminist.
It was a lot of fun. We used to do things like spray paint ‘lesbians are lovely’ all over Sydney. We used to get on buses and yell, ‘All the lesbians on this bus please stand up!” and we’d all stand up and get on the next bus. I herald those days as forming my identity, and giving me the strength to do the things that I did back then and now.
LGBTQIA+ rights have evolved so much since 1978. What are your hopes for the future?
The LGBTI community is certainly more accepted than it was back then, and people certainly feel more supported, but not always. I know people who have commited suicide in more recent times. Homophobia is a very powerful insidious thing, and all we can do is ask everyone not to put up with it. The allies need to stand up and not just want to come to our parties, but stand up when the going gets tough — not just put on a pretty dress for Mardi Gras. Know what that means, stand up and be counted, even when it costs you something. Because a movement can’t exist without allies who are prepared to be as brave as we are.
David was one of the organisers of the first Sydney Mardi Gras. He handed out flyers before the event encouraging people to get ‘out of the bars and into the streets’. Today David’s an LGBTQIA+ disability rights campaigner and is the President of People with Disability Australia.
What discrimination did you face as a young gay man?
I really wanted to be a teacher when I was kid. I love children and I was good with children. I did teaching for three years and I showed a real talent for working with very disadvantaged children. But no one took me aside and said, ‘Don't do teaching, they won't let you teach,’ so of course, I was outed and that was it. That was the end of my teaching career. Three years [of study] wasted. It really shocked me, you know. I just had this silly idea in my head that if I was the very best teacher, it wouldn't matter. I suppose that was my first experience of discrimination.
Are you proud of what you did that night in 1978, and what all your actions led to?
What you have to do, you have to do. It's not about being brave. I'm not a brave person but I'm certainly going to stand up for something if I have to, or get in the way of authority if I need to. I'm quite frightened by violence, but I will put myself in that place if I have to, and in the ‘70s, you know, we just had to do what we had to do.
How do you feel about where we are now as a society?
I still meet young people who've been discriminated against. You wonder if that is just going to be a permanent feature of our culture, is it always going to be homophobic? Then other times, you see how things do change and they can be subtle.
I'm happy to see young people who can express the collective diversity in sex and sexuality and gender it in a real way, not just on television or something — that diverse people have leadership roles [now], that they have an influence on the way we think. I'd like elders to be regarded as important people in any community, who can share and teach things.
Robert was in Canberra when he heard about what took place on the night of June 24, 1978. He drove to Sydney the following day and campaigned to get those arrested out of jail. He went on to become a well-known activist in Australia’s LGBTQIA+ community.
What does it mean to you to be a 78er?
I wasn’t at that demonstration. I came up from Canberra the night after the [Sydney] Mardi Gras took place. On the Sunday morning, I remember hearing the news broadcasts on the ABC of the police riot and hearing both the Police Minister and also the NSW Premier trying to justify what the police did and I got very, very angry. Although I'd been a member of the gay community right from 1971, I actually date the Mardi Gras and that morning as the point where I actually became an activist.
People often say to me, ‘Oh, you were in the first parade’ and I say, ‘Well actually, no, I wasn't in the first parade, and you misunderstand what a 78er is’. A 78er is somebody who, yes, was caught up in the police riot up in Kings Cross in June 1978, but it's also those people who fronted up at Liverpool Street Courthouse on the following Monday morning, insisting that the police and the government drop the charges [against those arrested].
Do you participate in Mardi Gras now?
Well I participate as a ‘78er and I'm there up front. We have the contingent, quite rightly, behind the First Nations group who lead out the parade. I'm happy to actually take part in it and I'm happy to see the feathers and the frou-frou, but I sometimes think we need to get a bit serious and be a bit more political.
What advice would you give to young people who are facing discrimination because of who they are?
People say, ‘Oh if you just stand back, everything will be alright — if you don't make waves, you'll get your rights’. That's bullshit. That is wrong. We've only ever achieved the gains that we have because we fought. We stood up and demanded them. You can't sit back passively. You've got to actually be in the forefront like the 78ers and resist, resist, resist.
Sandra grew up in a conservative Italian-Aussie household in Melbourne. She moved to Sydney in the ‘70s where she became involved in LGBTQIA+ activism. She’s been campaigning ever since.
What do you think made this event so significant?
I just remember being at demos [before 1978], and the police might grab you and pull you a bit roughly, but that was the extent of it. I think that's what made everybody so angry [about that night]. It was just so outrageous and so violent, and they did it with the full knowledge of the Police Commissioner and the government. The whole idea was to shut us down. That’s what made the following demonstrations that much bigger and stronger because people were going, ‘No, this is crap, we're not putting up with it’.
What’s your involvement in Mardi Gras now?
I'm not really that interested in the corporate float idea. That isn’t to say … I mean it's a huge organisation, and to put that sort of a parade together they need the resources, certainly with insurance and stuff like that, that is required now, but I'm a little bit dismayed at the content now.
I mean, I still march just because I think it's important to march for the people who aren't here anymore. They’re gone but not forgotten.
Any advice for young people in the community today?
Do not care what anybody says or thinks of you, who the fuck are they? You do you and be proud, because every one of us is an individual. We’re important and we're perfect versions of us. What anyone else thinks in the end is irrelevant.
WATCH: the 78ers tell their story...
Written by Alice Griffin, writer and editor-in-chief of MTV Australia. Follow Alice on Twitter @_alicegriffin.
Editor's note: These interviews were edited for clarity. Photography supplied by the 78ers.