The first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney started in a way that now feels familiar: costumes, dancing and a pervasive sense of pride.
But what began one night in June, 1978, with a large crowd of partygoers and this yellow flatbed truck …
... would end, a few hours later, in fear, arrests and brutal violence.
With their courage, the “78ers” marched their way into the history books — and helped shape Australia’s modern LGBTQIA+ rights movement.
This is their story.
One day in early 1978, Ken Davis got a letter.
Ken was a gay rights activist in Sydney. His counterparts in San Francisco wrote letters to Ken and his colleagues, urging them to arrange an event in solidarity.
The event would mark the ninth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, an uprising that led to violent clashes between protesters and police, and marked a significant turning point in the gay rights movement.
Members of various lesbian, gay and progressive groups, including Ken, got together and planned a number of events, including a late-night festival that would kick-off at Taylor Square in Darlinghurst.
The groups felt galvanised by what was happening overseas. However, despite Sydney having the most visible gay and lesbian population in the country, New South Wales was not at the vanguard of change in 1978.
Sexual contact between men was a crime, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. You could be sacked from your job if you were discovered to be gay, and same-sex attraction was still considered abnormal by some in the medical community and in religious institutions.
There was also the potential for violence.
Police in central Sydney were notorious for targeting the queer community. The New South Wales Summary Offences Act gave officers broad powers to crack down on all kinds of behaviour, including public displays of affection by same-sex couples.
That — coupled with the possibility of being photographed and potentially outed by the media — meant there was hesitancy in the community about participating.
Ron Austin — a member of CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution), a gay and lesbian political group — suggested a night-time dance party.
It seemed like the perfect idea. Photographing partygoers would be trickier at night, particularly those clad in costume and make-up.
Organiser Margaret McMann deemed it a "Mardi Gras".
Another activist, Lance Gowland, organised a permit with the New South Wales police. It authorised a "procession" down Oxford Street, ending at Hyde Park.
'Out of the bars and into the streets'
At 10pm on a cold June night, the first Mardi Gras began with an air of optimism and excitement as crowds gathered at Taylor Square.
Hundreds of people began streaming down Oxford Street decked out in costume and make-up, following music blasting from Lance’s yellow flatbed truck. They chanted: “Out of the bars and into the streets!”
Passers-by joined drag queens, a scarecrow and even a pope, who were dotted among the crowd.
Trixie Laumonte, a trans woman, worked as a performer at Patches, a nightclub on Oxford Street.
Someone at the club said there was a gay rights march happening outside, so Trixie went down to take a look.
“I just went back upstairs and yelled out, ‘We're out of the clubs onto the streets. We're marching’.
“I emptied the club and ended up getting the sack.”
For many, this was the first time they had publicly celebrated their identity.
However, as they continued down Oxford Street, a familiar dread encroached. Some of the partygoers felt the atmosphere change as police became agitated.
As the truck passed Riley Street, police began hurrying the driver, Lance Gowland, toward the planned end point at Hyde Park.
He was driving erratically, slowing then speeding up, trying to balance the opposing demands of the crowd and police.
When the parade went past the end point and turned onto College Street, police threatened to arrest Lance, and a witness said they saw police trying to drag him out of his seat.
Marchers saw a police officer drive off with the truck, which silenced the music, but the parade went on and the crowd continued to grow.
Witnesses remember someone yelling: “Let’s go to the Cross!”
As they began to move, another said they heard police radioing ahead to “close off” Kings Cross.
By the time they were on William Street, the parade had turned into a demonstration.
They were chanting: “Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks!”
As the march approached Kings Cross, they noticed police vans streaming into the area.
“I counted up to 39 and then I gave up,” activist Peter Murphy says.
“My sense of apprehension was very well founded.
“I knew we were going to have a lot of trouble then.”
When they reached the iconic Coca-Cola sign, witnesses say police began directing them down Darlinghurst Road.
At this point, Sallie says, the crowd had grown to about 2,000 people.
Patrons spilled out of the bars and clubs. Locals climbed out of windows and onto awnings.
They marched down Darlinghurst Road to El Alamein Fountain.
There, witnesses say the crowd stalled — police had blocked the end of the road and they had nowhere to go.
As they attempted to disperse back down Darlinghurst Road, they said, police had also blocked side streets, trapping them in.
That was when the violence erupted.
'Australia's Stonewall moment'
Robyn Plaister, a school teacher, was at the front of the crowd. She says she was the first to be grabbed by officers.
Robyn says four policemen attacked her, as someone else in the crowd tried to hold her back. The police pulled one arm and a group of women pulled the other.
That’s when Robyn saw a flash. The media had taken her photo.
She was worried she would be outed at work.
“I hadn't paid off my car or my house and I'm thinking, what am I going to do without a job?”
The police had effectively sandwiched about 2,000 people into a 350-metre, two-lane section of street between the Coca-Cola sign and the El Alamein Fountain.
Those in the crowd remember screaming and shouting as police grabbed people, shoved them against the side of police vans and arrested them. Bottles and garbage bins were crashing against the footpath.
Sallie Colechin says some officers weren’t wearing their badge numbers, making these nearly indistinguishable, uniformed men even harder to identify.
“It was just the way they arrested people,” Sallie says. “There was a really strong feeling of aggression, hatred and blatant homophobia”.
Activist and organiser, Ken Davis, says the level of brutality was unprecedented.
The violence escalated as marchers were struck and kicked by police and thrown into police wagons.
Activist Peter Murphy was one of them.
There, in the back of the wagon, amid the screeching police sirens and people yelling, he had an epiphany: This is Australia’s Stonewall moment.
The rioting continued into the next morning, when 53 people who’d been arrested were rushed away to Darlinghurst Police Station.
Then 100 or so others followed the vans back to the station, which was right next to Taylor Square, where it all began.
Violence at the station
Inside, the violence continued.
Peter Murphy was taken to an isolated area away from the other protesters and was beaten so badly he began to convulse.
“I thought I would die there.”
Others locked up could hear what was happening.
Margaret Lyons was one of more than 20 women confined to a single cell. She could hear Peter being assaulted.
“Listening to Peter Murphy being bashed pretty much changed my life. It sort of meant you are no longer safe in this world.”
Marchers continued to gather outside the police station, calling out in support of those arrested.
Peter Murphy, locked inside, remembers hearing the crowd chanting his name and demanding to know who had attacked him.
“I couldn't figure out how they knew that it happened.”
The crowd outside began to pool cash to post bail, in some instances phoning friends for donations or getting money from people in nearby bars.
Meanwhile, Peter says, the police allowed Jim Walker — a doctor who had been outside the station — to come in and examine Peter’s injuries.
He says Jim recommended he go to hospital but the police refused. Instead, Peter, suffering the effects of concussion, was returned to a cell.
Those arrested — more than 50 people — were charged under the Summary Offences Act and bailed on Sunday morning.
Although the march was over, the battle for equality had only just begun.
The long journey to equality
On Monday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the local court on Liverpool Street, where the 53 arrested on Saturday night were appearing before a magistrate.
Despite a ruling that the court remain open, police barricaded the entrance. Amid chants and songs, scuffles broke out and eggs were thrown. More people were arrested.
The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald published the names, addresses and occupations of those arrested.
Without anti-discrimination laws to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, some of those included in the list lost their jobs or were threatened with losing them.
Others who hadn’t come out to their family, friends or workplace were outed.
For school teacher Robyn Plaister, who was photographed scuffling with police, the impact was immediate.
Over the next few months, many more people were detained at a series of rallies around Sydney. Those marches were designed to pressure police to drop the charges against the protesters, a campaign that was ultimately successful.
In 1979, a year after the clash with police, the New South Wales Summary Offences Act was repealed.
In 1982, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act was amended to include protection on the basis of sexual orientation in education, workplaces and other settings.
Two years later, homosexual acts between men were decriminalised in the state.
Many in the queer community, including the 78ers, see the first Mardi Gras as a critical juncture in the long — and ongoing — journey towards full equality.
One year after the first Mardi Gras, the event was held again.
No-one was arrested, and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has been held every year since.
Shifted to the Australian summer in 1981, it is now one of the biggest pride events in the world, part of a glittering, weeks-long festival of music, art and queer culture.
In 2016, almost 40 years after 78ers clashed with police, The Sydney Morning Herald formally apologised for publishing the names of those arrested, saying “it would never happen today”.
A few months later, speaking at an event just prior to that year’s parade, Superintendent Tony Crandell, a police commander in Surry Hills, issued an apology on behalf of New South Wales police, saying it had then-commissioner Andrew Scipione’s endorsement.
Some were unhappy and called for an apology from the commissioner himself.
Two years later, the new commissioner, Mick Fuller, did deliver a formal apology to the 78ers.
Still, the trauma remains, and views on the involvement of police in the Mardi Gras today are mixed.
In a statement, Cath Emery, co-chair of the NSW Police Force's internal LGBTIQ+ employee network, Pride in Police, said personnel attended Mardi Gras with pride to support their LGBTIQ+ identifying employees, but also the broader LGBTIQ+ communities.
"The NSW Police Force has marched every year since being invited to in 1998 and are proud and committed to continuing to do so."
Like the other 78ers, Sallie Colechin is proud to have played a part in the evolution of gay rights in Australia.
However, she hopes young people recognise there is still work to be done.
“It's great now. We can watch TV shows, we can see movies, we can read books and we can have some identification with our queerness,” she said.
“[However,] I hope the political side of [Mardi Gras] continues, because we cannot just remain a happy parade down the street.
“We're not equal yet.”
Editor's note, 23/02/2023: This article has been updated to clarify that Margaret McMann suggested the name "Mardi Gras" during a conversation with Ron Austin. She was responding to Ron Austin’s idea to hold a night-time dance party. An earlier version of this article inadvertently suggested she coined the name at a later date.
- Reporting and research: Paul Donoughue, Alex Palmer, Chloe Brice
- Interviews: Mon Schafter
- Video production: Tejas Bhat, Jack Fisher
- Editing: Gina McKeon, Mark Doman
- Design and 3D modelling: Alex Palmer
- Development: Matthew Heffernan, Andrew Hystek-Dunk, Katia Shatoba
- Images: Sallie Colechin, Branco Gaica, News Corp, Kevin Nguyen
- Archival footage of 1978 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras: Scenes from the film Witches and Faggots, Dykes and Poofters - © Producer Digby Duncan Australia 1980
- With thanks to: Bec Annetts, Linton Besser, Angela Stengel, Darcy Watt, Michelle Baddiley
Read the full statement from Cath Emery, co-chair of the NSW Police Force’s internal LGBTIQ+ Employee Network, Pride in Police.