Voices From 1978: meet the brave radicals of "Australia's Stonewall"

Loud, proud, passionate and inspirational queer voices

After the Mardi Gras arrests, a mass Drop the Charges campaign drew broad support.
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LGBTIQA+ people in Australia owe a lot to the group known as the 78ers. Ten years after the Stonewall rebellion, these bold pioneers launched the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras — which is now one of the biggest events on the annual Sydney calendar. Voices from 1978: The First Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, published earlier this year by The First Mardi Gras Inc, tells the extraordinary story of “Australia’s Stonewall.”

This is not the first recounting of what happened on 24 June 1978. That the NSW police broke up the first Mardi Gras parade, brutally assaulting some participants and arresting 53 people, is well known. Nor is it the first book to come from the movement’s grass roots. The first was, A History of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras by the late Graham Carberry, published by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (now the Australian Queer Archives) in 1995. Then in 2008, The Pride History Group released A New Day Dawning: The early years of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. What makes this new collection unique is the way it centres the voices of the 78ers themselves.

The slim 100-page volume is a beautifully illustrated collection that opens by characterising the movement in Australia before the first Mardi Gras and ends with the lasting legacy of the queer year that was 1978.

The lesbian and gay liberation movement of the late ‘70s was a radical, anti-capitalist movement. Many of those involved were Marxist, feminist or both. For me, who got involved in gay liberation

in 1979, the 78ers’ legacy looms large. They introduced me to Marxist feminist politics — ideas I hold to this day.

Two of the strongest themes in Voices are internationalism and the central role that socialists played in both initiating the events of 1978 and leading the fightback.

In a world where social media now circulate news in seconds, it is crucial to appreciate the importance of movement-based print media and personal connections prior to the internet. Publications, such as Body Politic from North America and Gay News from the UK, spread gay liberationist ideas — ignited in 1969 by Stonewall — far and wide. Activists also maintained intercontinental connections. It was one of these personal connections that led to an SOS from San Francisco making its way to Sydney.

The post-Stonewall movement in the U.S., and its bold focus on coming out, came up against a conservative backlash. A measure in California, known as the Briggs Initiative, aimed to ban anyone supporting gay rights from the California school system. It turned into a showdown between the movement versus the far right, which went international.

The book explains, “Alison Britton had been a Feminist, lesbian, socialist and Theosophist in Sydney before relocating to San Francisco. Active alongside socialists in the anti-Briggs campaign, in March 1978 she got the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day organisers to send a letter to her friends, Anne Talve and Ken Davis, supporters of the (Trotskyist) Socialist Youth Alliance in Sydney, asking for international solidarity action on 25 June.”

Armed with this solidarity appeal, Davis and Talve convened a series of meetings, which formed the Gay Solidarity Group. The group mapped out plans for a morning protest, an afternoon forum and an evening parade.

There’s much to be learnt from this collection, including how to mount an effective fightback. The events, which Voices characterises as “The Police Riot,” sparked incredible resistance in the form of the Drop the Charges campaign. We learn how hundreds attended a meeting a week later to debate the next steps.

Reflecting on this meeting, Robyn Grace said, “I spoke at the meeting to let others know exactly what we had suffered in the recent arrest and imprisonment. I wanted people to know and stand together against it happening again. We all wanted to stand together against it happening again. There was intense debate about the best way forward, but stronger than the differences of opinion was an overriding sense of solidarity, and a willingness to act. For the first time ever we were experiencing community support. The police had gone too far. There was a smell of change in the air — and hope. We might be able to do this.”

Reading about the energy, the passion and the solidarity of the Drop the Charges campaign is inspirational. More and more community organisations backed the struggle — left groups, unions, women’s organisations, progressive churches. Gay, lesbian and straight, people united defiantly against the police harassment. Important connections were made. The chant, “Stop police attacks on gays, workers, women and Blacks,” rang through the streets of Sydney. But still the arrests mounted, with 125 additional people arrested during the campaign.

Participant Robyn Kennedy remembers, “We had no fear. The fire of outrage was burning hot. We were tired of arrests, of hate, of discrimination, and of the society that wanted to keep us silent and hidden from sight. Hell no, we won’t go!”

This massive mobilisation in defence of the right to protest was ultimately successful. Most, but not all, of the chargers against the 78ers were dropped in 1979.

Voices from 1978 is a wonderful addition to Australian queer history. Its memorable quotes from the 78ers remind 21st century readers just what was at stake. It closes with these striking words: “We must dare to win.”

All of the books referenced in this review are available in the bookstore at Solidarity Salon, 113 Spring Street, Reservoir, Victoria, Australia.

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