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The festivities for Pride Week will soon be in full swing, but many of us don’t know much about the historical background behind the celebration. This gives us the timely opportunity to learn more about NSW’s rich LGBTIQ history, including the history of Mardi Gras. Plus, next month the Newcastle Library will present the Serving in Silence exhibition to showcase the history of Australian LGBTIQ military service.
So let’s pay tribute to the pioneering members of the LGBTIQ community who ushered in an era of greater respect, understanding and resilience in the face of intolerance.
Revellers at the 2019 Mardi Gras party. Photo by Jeffrey Feng. More images can be found here.
An international movement takes flight
The Stonewall riots are often described as a pivotal event for the modern LGBTIQ rights movement in the United States (and the rest of the world). The riots were a series of spontaneous demonstrations against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village of Manhattan, New York City (NYC), beginning in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
Homosexuality was still illegal and police raids on gay bars were routine in the 60s. But this time, the raid erupted into protests to fight for the rights of citizens to be open about their sexual orientation. The riots brought together the LGBTIQ community and led to the formation of gay rights activist groups and organisations around the world.
Activists continued to honour the anniversary of the riots in the years to come. The first gay pride march took place in NYC on June 28, 1970, and covered 51 blocks from Christopher Street to Central Park.
Australian activism sparks legal reform
The very first Mardi Gras took place on June 24, 1978, following a morning protest march and commemoration of Stonewall. Organised by the Gay Solidarity Group, the festival was more about protest, calling for an end to the rampant discrimination against homosexual people, an end to police harassment and the repeal of all anti-homosexual laws. (Shockingly, homosexuality was only decriminalised in NSW in 1984.)
More than 500 people gathered on Oxford Street, but this quickly swelled to around 2,000 as revellers from bars and clubs joined the protest. The parade was broken up by the police, and 53 participants were arrested. Although most charges were eventually dropped, the names of those arrested were published in The Sydney Morning Herald, which resulted in many losing their jobs. The harsh police response solidified the protest as a nationally significant event and stimulated gay rights and legal reform campaigns in Australia.
The Mardi Gras tradition begins
The second Mardi Gras attracted about 3,000 people and had the theme Power in the Darkness (kicking off the tradition of an annual theme). The same year saw the Labor government repealing legislative acts which had allowed the arrests the previous year. In the following years, the event shifted to the summer months and the name ‘Sydney Gay Mardi Gras’ was adopted in 1981.
After the discovery of HIV and AIDS, media furore placed pressure on the Mardi Gras Committee, but the Parade continued with the theme Fighting for our Lives in 1985.
Preserving LGBTIQ history
Sydney’s Pride History Group (PHG) aims to get everyone in the community to be more engaged with Sydney’s queer history. Associate Professor Dr Shirleene Robinson from Macquarie University is Chair of PHG, a role which has been held by renowned LGBTIQ activists such as Lex Watson.
Some of PHG’s projects include the Pioneer Names Project, which aims to create a Wiki-style website focusing on LGBTIQ activists and groups. These include little-known names such as Frank Paysen, Sue Wills and Barry Checcinni (owner of legendary Sydney gay bar, the Beresford).
Lex Watson was a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights since the late 1960s. He was a founding member of CAMP (which stands for Campaign Against Moral Persecution), the first gay rights organisation in Australia, and was later the first president of the AIDS Council of NSW. He was also a founder of the Gay Rights Lobby and was instrumental in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality.
A CAMP Ink magazine cover.
CAMP: aiming to educate
CAMP, which was established in 1971, aimed to educate the general public about homosexuality and also improve the mental well-being of its community in an age of widespread intolerance. CAMP held the first gay rights protest in Australia in 1971 in support of an MP who supported homosexual law reform. Their further demonstrations took aim at discrimination from psychiatrists and the Church (amongst other groups).
CAMP published magazines from 1970-1977, which are all available to peruse online. They make for fascinating reading material and personally, I was surprised and saddened by the fact that many of the issues are still relevant today. The first volume of CAMP Ink contains an article on ‘aversion therapy’ (which we are familiar with today as ‘conversion therapy’). It describes the inhumane practice:
[A person] is driven there…to escape from the misery, the guilt, the shame that society’s conditioning has imposed on him or her. These attitudes are reinforced by the therapist’s classification of homosexuality as an “illness”…its development into a precise scientific and political weapon is a threat not only to homosexuals but to everyone who wants to remain an individual in society.
Words that still ring all too true.
As the 70s progressed, CAMP established a telephone help line and this became the organisation’s main focus. In 1990, it became the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service of NSW. It’s still around to this day, now called Twenty10.