Back in the day… Oxford Street memories

A rather amazing picture appeared recently on Lost Gay Sydney, a Facebook group.

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That is Martin Place June 24 , 1978, according to the original post on Facebook, and there in the centre carrying a triangle flag is Ian Smith.

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As this history tells it:

Mardi Gras’ origins are steeped deeply in political movements, the progeny of International Gay Solidarity Day, a protest march that took place in Sydney on Saturday 24 June 1978, in commemoration of the Stonewall riots. The Sydney demonstration seemed lilliputian on the event’s world scale. In San Francisco 240,000 turned out on the streets for a peaceful city-funded march, a vastly greater number than Sydney’s 2,000 or so revellers. The worldwide demonstrations called for an end to discrimination against homosexuals and to repeal anti-homosexual laws. Although the organisers were granted a police permit for the march, it was revoked and the march was broken up by police, with 53 marchers arrested. After a public campaign, charges against the marchers were eventually dropped.

Or in more detail in The Dictionary of Sydney:

The day had been set aside by Sydney’s GLBTQ communities as part of a world-wide International Gay Solidarity Day, to commemorate the Stonewall Inn riots that had occurred in New York in June 1969. In Sydney, there was to be a march in the morning, a public meeting in the afternoon, and then a ‘fiesta’ and parade that evening.

Crowds gathered at Taylor Square at about 9.30 pm. Police had given approval for a parade down Oxford Street to Hyde Park, where there would be the usual speeches. However, as the parade drew close to Whitlam Square, the police stopped the parade, confiscated the lead truck with the public address system, and told the marchers to disperse.

The crowd did not take kindly to this police intervention, which was hardly surprising given the strained relations between the two groups. By mutual consent among the marchers, they began to make their way along College Street to William Street, and up to Kings Cross, the traditional home for outré Sydneysiders. In the face of this intransigence, police radioed for reinforcements, making plans to lock the marchers in between two police lines in Darlinghurst Road at the Cross.

But the marchers gathered supporters along the way, and the police misjudged the mood of the growing crowd. Kings Cross erupted, and in the ensuing melée many more onlookers joined in, hurling garbage bins, bottles and cans at the police. What had started as a parade to commemorate a riot in New York nine years earlier became a full-scale riot in Sydney

Sydneysiders were somewhat taken aback at the turn of events, not that they were unaware of the thuggish behaviour of the police. As The Australian reported the next day:

At 10.30 pm Australia’s first homosexual Mardi Gras was in full swing, with about 1000 people singing and dancing down Sydney’s Oxford Street, caught up in the excitement of a jubilant crowd.

One hour later, the mardi gras had become a two-hour spree of screaming, bashing and arrests.

In one incident, police took off their identification numbers and waded into a crowd of homosexuals.

Fifty-three people were arrested during the pitched battle between police and marchers, these latter joined by onlookers who had little cause to love or respect the state’s police.

What happened next exacerbated the situation. When those arrested appeared at the city’s Central Court of Petty Sessions a few days later, a huge contingent of police blocked access into the chamber. Despite the magistrate’s decision that the court be opened to the public, the police forcibly restricted access, effectively closing the court. This led to further clashes, with another seven people arrested.

TV news cameras captured these images, which flashed across the world, and once again drew attention to the role of the New South Wales police, embarrassing the state Labor government of Premier Neville Wran, a lawyer who had claimed to be a staunch upholder of civil rights.

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See my earlier posts World AIDS Day and my circle… (2011), The Dowager Empress’s wake (2011) and Requiem for a Dowager Empress (2010).

Ian Smith’s Wake, Midnight Shift, Oxford Street 2011

I should add that while I was working at the University of Sydney in 1978 and living in Glebe, I did not personally witness the events of 24 June. Come to think of it, by about that time I may have started living in North Wollongong and commuting to my job in Sydney before returning to work at Wollongong High in 1979. Indeed I was! I just checked: R G Menzies died 18 May 1978 and that I recall seeing on TV in Wollongong.

Related: So that was Mardi Gras! Thanks, SBS2!

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