Why Protesting Matters: How Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Started As a Protest

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 1978

In light of June being Pride Month and the current Black Lives Matter protests happening in the United States, Australia and across the world, it’s important to look back at Australia’s history of protesting. This way, we can learn the lessons of the past while also understanding how we can still use protesting as a tool for social change.

On Saturday, June 24 1978, a small group of people gathered in Darlinghurst, Sydney. These people formed the Gay Solidarity Group and had organised a day of events protesting against homophobia, demanding civil rights for the gay and lesbian community and commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riot that took place in New York, as reported by The Conversation.

The events included a march in the morning, a public meeting in the afternoon and a festival to take place in the evening. According to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras website, the festival saw “several hundred gay and lesbian people and their supporters — some in fancy dress and some simply rugged up against the cold — gathered at Taylor Square and followed a truck with a small music and sound system down Oxford Street to Hyde Park.”

These protestors were met with violence from police, with officers disrupting the lead float. After the driver of the float truck was arrested, the rest of the revellers — roughly 1,500 of them — changed course and walked up William Street to Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross. Here, police violently arrested 53 people, with many of them brutally beaten in cells at Darlinghurst Police Station.


“They acted as if they had a licence to inflict as much injury as they could and I feared there would be dead bodies everywhere if they had guns in those paddy wagons and were to open fire,” Mark Gillespie wrote of his experiences on that night in 1978 for The Conversation. “Despite that fear we did not run, we fought back, resisting arrest as the police wielded their heavy batons indiscriminately.”

What started as a peaceful protest ended in police brutality. These events are scarily similar to the protests that are currently taking place across the United States, which 42 years later, are also ending with arrests and police violence. In the U.S, protests have also descended into riots and looting. While this deserves its own discussion, it lives in an entirely different space to peaceful protesting.

The first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was a shocking experience for those involved. Following arrests and beatings, the Sydney Morning Herald printed the names, occupations and home addresses of those people who were arrested, resulting in job losses for many of them.

A year later in 1979, Mardi Gras transformed into a week-long festival that included film screenings, a Gay Alternative Fair Day in Hyde Park and a fundraising dance party.

Organisers of the second Mardi Gras were prepared for things to turn sour again and created an emergency bail fund for anyone arrested during the Gay Solidarity March, which took place on June 20, 1979. Despite male homosexuality still being illegal in the state and a strong police presence, no one from the 3,000 people strong march was arrested.

The next year, in 1980, the “Outrageously Gay Mardi Gras” march revisited the original route from 1978 and finished with a post-Parade party. In 1980, the event took place earlier in the year, with the chilly conditions of the original June date affecting the experience for participants.

Over 40 years later, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is an event attended by thousands and is celebrated by the community with brands and organisations like Fire and Rescue NSW, metal health charity R U OK? and NSW Ambulance taking part in the parade.


Protesting plays an important part in many countries and marches have often “inspired positive social change and the advancement of human rights, and they continue to help define and protect civic space in all parts of the world.”

As Right to Protest, an organisation that teaches people how to protest safely and effectively, points out, technology also offers a new medium for us to voice our opinions and lobby organisations and governments to make changes. The social media coverage of George Floyd’s murder by police offers in Minnesota quickly prompted in-person marches, as well as the sharing of resources virtually in order to tackle systemic racism on a national and global level.

On a local level, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras protest created much-needed change for the LGBTIQA+ community and it wasn’t the first time protesting had so much power.

In 1963, the March on Washington was attended by 250,000 people and was where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. This protest is credited with paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Germany, protesting began in October 1989 — called the Monday Demonstrations — and continued until the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. The power of the people is real and immense.

Former President of the United States, Barack Obama, urged Americans to keep protesting during a virtual town hall this week.

“We have seen in the last several weeks, last few months, the kinds of epic changes in events in our country that are as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.

“I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter in the Internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not an ‘either or’ — this is a ‘both and’ — to bring about real change we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable.”

As Australians begin to self-educate themselves on the struggles and racism faced by Indigenous peoples, we can’t let this momentum slip — especially when the coverage eventually fades and social media goes quiet. Read, listen and learn how to become an anti-racist ally and get out on the streets to peacefully protest the abhorrent treatment of Black human beings.

There are a bunch of protests happening around Australia this Saturday, June 6 — don’t miss out making your voice heard.

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