The 1978 Mardi Gras

The 1970s were a really tough time for LGBTIQA+ people in Australia.

To be honest with you, it still is. But we have made a great deal of progress since the 1970s because of LGTIQA+ activists and our allies who have taken action for equality.

Trade unions have played a pivotal role in making this change.

So in 1973, for instance, the Builders Labourers’ Federation in New South Wales took industrial action to protect the rights of Jeremy Fisher.

Fisher was a Gay Liberation activist and a resident at the Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University – a student residential block under construction at the time.

Fisher was barred from returning to his accommodation after the administration discovered he was gay.

When activists campaigning against Fisher’s ban brought this to the attention of the Builders Labourers’ Federation, the BLF members working at Macquarie University walked off the job until he was allowed to return.

This is believed to the world’s first industrial action in support of LGBTIQA+ rights.

In 1978, Sydney LGBTIQA+ activists working under the banner of the “Gay Solidarity Group” organised the first Mardi Gras – a political protest.

Many union activists were involved in the event.

The date was set for June 24 – the anniversary month of the Stonewall Riot which is generally recognised as a key moment in the creation of the LGBTIQA+ rights movement in the United States.

The protest was intended to have a serious message – but also to be a celebration. Marchers had fun as they marched down Oxford Street.

Marchers chanted “Out of the bars and into the streets” – to encourage others to join.

There was singing, dancing, and general expressions of joy at being together, and being able to publicly express their identity.

But soon the atmosphere changed as police began to harass the marches. Police attempted to arrest the driver of the sound truck.

Hundreds of police soon surrounded the marchers – and then they attacked.

Many protestors were bashed. 53 were arrested.

Newspapers, like the Sydney Morning Herald, printed the names, addresses, and professions of the people arrested – exposing them to victimisation, discrimination, and potentially even violence.

A massive “Drop the Charges” campaign began to defend the arrestees, with union participation.

Protests were organised – often encountering the same violence and arrest.

They refused to be intimidated. The Second Mardi Gras, in June 1979, attracted double the size of the first one.

The event was a major charge to LGBTIQA+ activism.

This included the creation of the Gay Trade Unionist Group in 1978. This group built off the successes of the Gay Teachers’ Group, which had been formed in 1975.

Today, we honour the “78ers” as those original marchers are known.

We continue their proud legacy of campaigning for full LGBTIQA+ equality, in our workplaces, and in the streets.

Because equality is union business.

 

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