Cr Linda Scott, Cr Christine Forster, Co-Chair Fran Bowron, Cr Jenny Green Co-Chair, and Greg Small attend the annual rainbow flag-raising ceremony on the steps of Sydney Town Hall

A symbolic apology to be delivered by NSW Parliament tomorrow morning to the participants of the very first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is engendering “mixed feelings” from some who were there that fateful evening in 1978, when police violently attacked peaceful marchers. Many were beaten and arrested, and a Sydney Morning Herald “name and shame” campaign in the aftermath cost many their jobs — and some their lives.

It was June 24, 1978, and a number of activities had been planned by the city’s leading gay groups of the time, including CAMP, the Gay Solidarity Group and the ADHOC organisation, which drew most of its members from the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus.

The plan was for a morning political march to kick off the day and a celebratory party-like parade to end the evening. The inspiration to call the parade a “Mardi Gras” came from CAMP activist Marg McMann, who along with fellow activist Ron Austin believed a more relaxed and less overtly political night-time event might bring new people into the struggle.

Contrary to some popular myths about Mardi Gras, it was not held as some kind of homage to the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York but was instead designed as a show of solidarity following a request from activists in San Francisco who were fighting the Briggs initiative — which was a referendum in the United States at the time to remove anyone who supported gay rights from the American school system (draw your own conclusion about modern parallels).

After a day of marching and political meetings, a few hundred brave souls met at Taylor Square, many in colourful costumes. Their numbers quickly swelled as the flair and colour of those marching and chanting enticed scores of others from the streets and bars to join them. When they turned off Oxford Street into College Street their numbers were easily pushing more than 1000, and police were becoming antsy.

“One guy ran past me, and I will never forget it,” Austin recalled to Crikey. “I assume from the way he spoke that he had never come out before or taken part in a march or anything like that. He came to me and said, ‘I’m out now and going all the way’. That was the general attitude. You never saw such enthusiasm.

“It was almost like there were all these underlying emotions and a release of tensions — tensions that had been held by people for years. People who wouldn’t walk down the street holding hands, and all of a sudden they were doing it.”

Although organisers had a permit for the march, the atmosphere of the parade began to darken when it got to towards Hyde Park. With police attempting to confiscate Mardi Gras’ first lead float — a truck owned by activist Lance Gowland with a makeshift speaker on top blasting out gay-themed hits — a sudden callout was made to head to Kings Cross.

Their numbers thinned, and 78er David Abello remembers the remaining few hundred parade-goers eventually being hemmed in by dozens of “big, burly, thick-necked” police officers around El Alamein fountain.

From that point on, it was hell for leather, with fisticuffs, bruises, batons and beatings amid a volley of men and women being thrust into the back of paddy wagons.

In the end more than 50 were arrested, with some such as Peter Murphy viciously beaten in the bowels of the notorious Darlinghurst police station.

It was Murphy who first wrote to the NSW government in the 1990s calling for an official apology from both the politicians in Macquarie Street and police.

“I had recently been consulted about a possible parliamentary apology after years of no response, but the last I heard about it was three months ago, so I was surprised to hear the news over the weekend,” he told Crikey this week. “I have no clue what the apology will include, but I will be there on the day. I’m not sure how I will react but I do hope this is the beginning of a process, not the end of it.”

Fellow 78er Ross Duffin says the NSW government isn’t the only one that needs to atone. “One of these is The Sydney Morning Herald, who published the names, addresses and occupations of people arrested but not yet gone to court.”

Abello said the Herald‘s campaign had long-lasting and tragic consequences. “Some people couldn’t get a decent job for years — their careers stopped,” Abello told Crikey. “Others had their family find out they were gay and basically disown them. And a few others, they died from suicide sadly.”

Darren Goodsir, editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald, responded with an unreserved apology:

“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. We acknowledge and apologise for the hurt and suffering that reporting caused. It would never happen today. We have made contact with representatives of the 78’ers so we can apologise in person.”

Duffin also wants an apology from the NSW police.

One of Australia’s leading historians of gay culture, Garry Wotherspoon — also a 78er — says the parliamentary apology is just the first step.

“It would be great to have a royal commission into the gay deaths at beats, but that would be most profitably pursued after the Scott Johnson inquest, when details of police homophobia and lack of interest in solving those cases gets a good airing. And the suggested federal marriage plebiscite will bring all the issues of religious exemptions to public awareness,” he said.

Jo Harrison, another 78er, says the apology has to be backed up with monetary compensation: “As far as I am concerned, an apology without concrete action and … compensation in some form attached to it is hollow and meaningless. Just like the apology to the stolen generation. Oh sorry, but forget about compensation or not having your communities shut down or your legal services and health services gutted. It’s the same.”

NSW Police told Crikey in a statement that an apology from the force was “a matter for consideration by the whole of government”.

Peter Fray

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