By Liz Ross
During the 1970s a series of demonstrations, conferences, media appearances, gatherings, dances, and other events in Australia challenged injustice and discrimination based on sexuality.
Building a movement for gay liberation, these activities raised visibility, built personal and community confidence, and began to establish a series of social and workplace rights.
The history of this period, and the role that socialist, progressive and working class organisations played in it, are detailed in Liz Ross’s book Revolution Is For Us: The Left and Gay Liberation in Australia.
The following excerpts highlight just two of many pivotal events that set the platform for contemporary campaigning by Australian LGBTIQ+ movements: union bans which targeted discriminatory behaviour, and the organising efforts which gave rise to the 1978 Mardi Gras protest and defended civil rights in its aftermath.
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Discrimination at work was an ever-present issue. A first for working class solidarity were bans, now known as “Pink Bans”, put on by the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in support of two gay students.
In June 1973, student and Gay Lib club treasurer Jeremy Fisher was expelled from a Church of England residential college at Macquarie University. Told by the college head Alan Cole that homosexuality was a perversion, he had to agree to “be chaste” and accept treatment or he’d be out. Fisher refused and took his case, somewhat hesitantly, to a couple office bearers in the student union. Rod Webb, editor of the student newspaper Arena, a member of the Socialist Workers League (SWL) and Jeff Hayler, Chair of the Students Representative Council (SRC), took up his case straight away. They organised some on-campus rallies and as Fisher recalls they immediately went to work, ringing their contacts across Sydney. The ABC interviewed him and showed the footage on that night’s news.
Suddenly the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) had green-banned construction at the college over me.
Buildings were being put up apace at Macquarie, including the residences that Fisher was staying at. The union had gone to its members and put the request for support to them. They had voted that if Jeremy Fisher wasn’t reinstated then building would stop, not only at the college but on other sites at the university.
At one point it looked like the whole deal would unravel, as Jeremy Fisher tells the story:
“The BLF assumed I wanted to go back until one day, back down in the Students’ Council basement, Bob Pringle, then part of the BLF’s leadership, asked me: “Why do you want to go back into that place?” “I don’t,” I said. “But we’re out on strike to put you back,” he said, a hint of anger in his eyes. “I thought because I’d been kicked out because I was gay,” I answered. Bob paused then said: “I guess you’re right. It’s the principle of the thing. They shouldn’t pick on a bloke because of his sexuality.”
Jack Mundey, NSW secretary of the union and a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), explained that “the homosexual movement had come to the Builders Labourers and said, you’re against the idea of workers not having a right, well [it’s the same for students not having rights].” Because the students and workers had joined forces against the Vietnam War and anti-apartheid, Mundey said, there was already a sense of solidarity between students and trade unionists. Not that every builders labourer was “a galloping conservationist or women’s libber or even supporter of the rights of gays”, Mundey pointed out, but the union encouraged people from the various campaigns and liberation movements to address members about discrimination.
Jeremy Fisher paid tribute.
It was a brave decision for a union to take. it wasn’t popular with members, though the principle that people should be free to express their sexuality was grudgingly accepted.
Later that year, again at Macquarie, teacher trainee Penny Short lost her scholarship for publishing an explicit lesbian poem. When the department refused to reinstate the scholarship, the Teachers Federation official Cathy MacDonald pledged the support of the union and the BLF threatened to stop work at Macquarie. Fellow student teachers who had a campaign going for better allowances and conditions backed her at one of their mass meetings and joined a demonstration outside the Education Department.
While gays in Brisbane marched for the first time on May Day 1973, Sydney’s May Day march of that year wasn’t a cause for celebration for Gay Liberation – but there was a successful zap called by Women’s Liberation. Women and gays refused to join the May Day procession in protest at the “Miss May Day” competition. At the end rallying point they handed out leaflets and demanded a say on the platform. When they were denied speaking rights they stormed the platform and started addressing the crowd. The crowd applauded, but the organisers accused them of being violent. Craig Johnston countered that the oppressed had the right to fight back, speaking of “Gay liberation tactics – open angry, defiant, proud militancy.”
Mardi Gras… It Was A Riot!
1975 had re-energised and re-mobilised gays to fight for their rights. There had been significant gains since then for students on campus, for workers through their unions and many were confident of future improvements.
While 1976 and 1977 kept the momentum going, it was 1978 that was the highlight, its impact on a par with the arrival of Gay Liberation.
On the positive side, there were important breakthroughs such as the first pro-gay resource book for school kids, Young, Gay and Proud and the adoption of an antidiscrimination policy by the country’s biggest employer, the federal public service. Gays and supporters marched on May Day in Melbourne with banners such as “The gay 10% is everywhere – unions must support their homosexual members”.
But darker forces were also at work. From the mid-1970s the Right was on the attack. The Whitlam government had been sacked in 1975 and replaced by a right-wing Liberal government determined to defeat workers’ organisations and undo many welfare and social benefits. There was widespread talk of a backlash against the gains won by gays and women and in the context of the ongoing attacks overseas and against workers in Australia, this was a legitimate concern.
Overseas, especially in the English-speaking world rights were under attack. 1977 had seen pro-gay statutes overturned in the US, in Canada Body Politic was facing charges in the courts. Morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse had been successful in prosecuting Gay News, the leading magazine in Britain. The US and British defeats were the first real failures of lesbian and gay campaigns since Stonewall. In Australia the Festival of Light (FoL), a conservative Christian group, arranged for Whitehouse to tour during 1978. The tour, however, ended up a flop after demonstrations met her every appearance.
Gay workers’ rights were under attack too when the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland banned Greg Weir from teaching. In NSW there was a marked increase in police harassment around the bars, including lesbian bars and the beats, possibly part of a police dispute with the Wran ALP government to increase powers.
At the same time homosexual law reform had stalled. Only in South Australia and the ACT was gay male sex semi-legal, anywhere else you could still be jailed. In NSW lesbians and gay men were incensed that Premier Neville Wran had reneged on promised law reform, bowing to pressure from the religious right.
In Canada Body Politic eventually won its case and in the US gays were campaigning, holding back some of the Right’s attacks with community and union-based campaigns. Warning against letting anti-homosexual groups grow, gay groups in Sydney called for a mobilization against Mary Whitehouse’s tour. By January 1978 the Social Freedom Action Coalition (later anti-FoL), was set up, mobilizing similar groups in the cities Whitehouse was planning to visit.
In one of the biggest shows of strength since the Right’s offensive in the US, San Francisco’s gay community mobilised 375,000 at the June 1977 Gay Pride Day Parade, then issued a call to the international lesbian and gay community for solidarity action the following year.
Socialist Workers Party members Ken Davis and Annie Taylor responded to the call and organised a meeting for May 20 to form a Gay Solidarity Group. The GSG planned a demonstration then by a public meeting. Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) executive member Ron Austin and Lance Gowland proposed further action, a night-time celebration or Mardi Gras. GSG backed the Mardi Gras proposal, with a caveat, Austin and Gowland would have to do the organizing as everyone else was too busy.
The response to every event on the day was beyond anyone’s expectations. It was fuelled by a frustration suggests Ken Davis, “that although the movements in other countries, notably the United States, were making advances and fighting, not much was happening here”. To begin the day, 500-strong, lesbians and gay men marched through the city, banners held high, demanding the repeal of homophobic laws and solidarity with struggles around the world. Then it was off to a public meeting on gay rights and finally the Mardi Gras.
It was well into the night of June 24, 1978 and Sydney’s gays were determined to finish off a day of political action with the Mardi Gras. “Sing if you’re glad to be gay” and “Ode to a gym teacher” belted out as the parade made its way down Oxford Street, Sydney’s “gay mile”. Building the numbers along the way, close to 2000 people sang and chanted “Out of the bars and into the streets, join us” as they headed for Hyde Park.
The trouble started at the park. Low level harassment at first, with the cops hassling Lance Gowland, the driver of the lead truck, as he read out messages of support. When he wouldn’t stop, they pulled him out of the truck, then confiscated it and the PA system. Angrier, arms linked, the parade headed for Kings Cross, all the time with the police pushing and closing off streets.
On reaching the El Alamein fountain, the mood was uglier. Unsure what would happen, the crowd started turning to go back along the parade route. And as they did suddenly the divvy vans appeared, police pouring out and laying into the crowd, kicking, punching and bundling people into the vans. The demonstrators fought back. 53 were arrested. One lesbian vividly recalls “I was just wild, ecstatic and screaming up and down the street, ‘Up the lezzos!’ I did get arrested for saying that.”
Joseph Chetcuti, one of the Mardi Gras revellers, recalls:
We had had enough of the state and the church telling us what to do with our bodies… a crowd of mostly gay men and lesbians stood up to the police. The Stonewall riots may well have been a watershed for the worldwide gay and lesbian rights movement but for Australia, the Mardi Gras of 1978 was our first very public act of resistance and a turning point in our struggle against oppression.
On Monday morning demonstrators gathered again as the 53 were brought before the courts. With the cops barricading the entrances few could get in, and as scuffles broke out another seven were arrested. “The police were trying to break our spirit.” They failed. Instead as one lesbian explained
I felt I belonged to something and I was going somewhere…I was beginning to get an understanding of what politics and power were all about.
There were solidarity demonstrations in other major cities and in Sydney 300 met on July 1 to organise the next protest. Two weeks after Mardi Gras 2000 demonstrators retraced the June 24 route, carrying banners such as “Lesbians Ignite!” Hundreds had been mobilised for the day including some from the trade unions and ALP branches. As the march, the biggest gay demonstration Australia had ever seen, reached the police station there was a clash and 13 more were arrested.
Six weeks later, Sydney hosted the Fourth National Homosexual Conference. Again lesbians and gays decided to march, this time with the added goal of confronting the anti-abortion Right to Life who were rallying in the city. The police made mass arrests again, adding to the sense of public outrage, further fuelling the “Drop the Charges” campaign.
By the end of 1979 the police had quietly dropped the charges, claiming they’d lost the files. The actions had won the “right to march” for everyone. The campaign had forced the NSW government to repeal the hated Summary Offences Act, the law police had used to try to stop earlier protests by gays and a wide range of other groups. As Ken Davis emphasises,
It was the single most important law reform for lots of us – gay, straight, indigenous.
- Revolution Is For Us: The Left and Gay Liberation in Australia is published by Interventions and can be purchased online here.
- Videos featuring up to 15 minutes of footage from GSG marches in 1978 and 1979 can be viewed via the National Sound and Film Archive here and here.
- A timeline of key moments and milestones in Australia’s GLBTIQA+ history can be found on the Australian Queer Archives website.
- What we can learn from the LGBTQ movement’s 50 years of achievement
- What we can learn from the Marriage Equality Campaign