On the 24th of June, 1978, more than 500 activists marched down Oxford Street in Sydney, calling for an end to discrimination against the gay community. It was the first Mardi Gras march – and it ended in violence, mass arrests and public shaming by NSW police, the government and the media.
Today, the NSW Parliament said sorry for the treatment of the protesters who were there that night, known as the ‘78ers’.
The Hon Meredith Burgmann is a 78er. She writes for Mamamia about the brutality of that night – and today’s touching apology that has come too late for some…
I really didn’t think that an apology from the NSW Parliament would be that big a deal.
But then one of the speakers read out ‘78er’ Peter Murphy’s words “There were two police but only one was beating me. He only stopped when the other intervened. I was convulsing…I thought I was going to die”.
It was at this stage that the apology became real for me. Peter was quietly crying beside me and I squeezed his knee.
To put it all in context, in 1978 I was part of a loose bunch of civil libertarians, anarchists, prison campaigners, Aboriginal activists and of course the gay and lesbian community who had been meeting regularly to oppose police brutality, repeal the anti-homosexuality laws and campaign for the abolition of the infamous Summary Offences Act.
Watch a clip of the 1978 protests below (post continues after video).
The demonstration that took place on the morning of 24 June was a fairly standard street protest. But the pointy end of the first Mardi Gras occurred in the evening when we marched through the streets behind Lance Gowland’s van draped with a banner proclaiming “Gay rights are human rights”.
Up Oxford Street we trooped yelling, “Stop police attacks on gays women and blacks!” but this soon gave way to “Out of the bars and into the streets” as we moved into the gay bar district. Interested drinkers and the occasional drag queen joined us. For many it was their first taste of political activity. Kate Rowe remembers “I was just wild, ecstatic and screaming up and down the street, ‘Up the lezzos’”.
My memory of the first part of the evening is vague but as soon as the police moved in everything came into focus. I have never seen such brutality.
Fifty three protesters were arrested and thrown into the cells at the old Darlinghurst Police station. The rest of us thronged outside waiting in the cold, knowing that our friends were being assaulted inside. I had collected some money and was eventually, at about 5am, allowed into the station to bail out my friends. I have such a bad memory that it was only when they showed me the bail slips with my name on it that I remembered this bit of the night. I was probably half asleep.
When I saw Peter he was in a shocking state. I took him up to St Vincents Hospital where the doctors were strangely uninterested in his injuries. By 7.30 Peter had recovered enough to be pretty angry about his treatment and wanted some legal advice, I drove him to Glebe where we woke up my lawyer friend, Pat O’Shane (later to be the first Aboriginal magistrate).
So as we sat in the gallery of the NSW Parliament today I guess it was OK for us both to feel a bit emotional. I hadn’t suffered the ostracism and worse, that my gay and lesbian friends had but I had been part of an historically important event.
As we listened to the speeches, so many of them by young women, I was especially touched by the apology from Linda Burney. Her voice breaking, she apologised to us all – and this from a member of the most discriminated group in Australia, Aboriginal Australians.
As I looked around the gallery at my greying, balding, knobbly kneed fellow seventy-eighters I just felt proud to be part of them all and was just so terribly terribly sorry that so many of them were no longer with us.
For them it was too late.