Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland


Senator MOORE (Queensland) (20:30): On a cold Saturday night in Sydney on 24 June 1978 a number of gay men, lesbians, transgender people and other people who just wanted to be involved marched into the pages of Australian social history. These people became known as the 78ers. This group of people on Sydney streets took part in what was going to be the first Mardi Gras celebration. This was a day to look at some of the issues that had occurred in America at the time, nine years after the first demonstration of gay rights in San Francisco. Most importantly, that day was to show solidarity with gay people in America who were fighting against one of those famous propositions that come up in American constitutional history, this proposition involving discrimination against gay people in schools. It is amazing how history reminds us of struggles in the past.

On that day in 1978 there was a spirit of celebration-it was actually a day of joy. People gathered together, there was music, there was celebration, there were people who were being involved in various musical activities. At night, after the day of marching and some political meetings, a few hundred brave souls met at Taylor Square in Sydney, many in colourful costumes, which is a tradition that continues around Mardi Gras. Their numbers swelled as people got together and they marched down the street. This was at a time when they already had a permit from the local authorities to have such an activity, so they marched down the street chanting and singing and making themselves known. Some of the contributors of the 78ers have talked about their memories of the activity and how it felt that they were making a statement and a clear acknowledgement about the fact that they were gay and proud and they had the right to be out not only in their community in Sydney but across Australia, also showing solidarity with comrades overseas.

This was a period when there was an outpouring of openness about gay rights, and this goes down in the realms of history-people had been taking on struggles about freedom from discrimination, people had been taking legal cases, and there was a statement that no longer should people be hidden, no longer should they feel discriminated against, but they had the right to speak out and be proud. From reading some of the memories of the 78ers that have turned out to talk about their experiences, that is what was happening on that night in 1978. A close friend of mine, Peter Murphy, a 78er, described the atmosphere that night. He talked about the fact that he could sense, as they moved down through the Hyde Park area, that the mood was changing. Already there had been some interaction with the police force, despite the fact, as I said, that they did have a permit for this march and this activity. Peter could see and feel that there was a change in the atmosphere. He said to other people that something was going on-they could sense there was a change. He could see 'a very large number of police vehicles heading into Kings Cross from Darlinghurst' and we began to suspect that we were walking into a trap.'

Peter broke away from the marchers to call a lawyer, because that is the kind of guy Peter is-he could sense something was up and he went to call a lawyer to say that they may need some help. Then he rejoined a very happy scene as the Kings Cross crowd cheered-there were people along the sides of the streets, a smaller crowd than we have now, but still people who were out for a good time at night could see that something was happening, a march of people with banners in, as I said, a very happy mood. There were people watching, people wanting to be involved to see what was happening. Peter said it was a very happy scene as the Kings Cross crowd cheered, and welcomed their throng as they walked up Darlinghurst Road to the El Alamein fountain. Those people who know Sydney will have a sense of what I am describing. Though I was not a 78er, I have walked the route to imagine the kind of atmosphere of that night. They got as far as the El Alamein fountain and at that time they could see that there were large numbers of police gathering on every side. At the fountain they stopped and, using a single microphone, they talked about what was going on and how to make the best of what was building up. There were several hundred at this time, and the group agreed to turn around, link arms, stay silent and walk out of Kings Cross to disperse.

Suddenly a siren went off and very bright lights from a police vehicle hit the front of the crowd and there began what turned out to be an extraordinarily ugly scene. Police moved in, struggles took place, people were bashed-all this is on record, and indeed there are some black-and-white photographs that show what happened-people were separated and a number of people resisted. I think there was in some sense a view that there may not have been resistance, that this was going to be an easy crowd and the police would be able to break them up easily and move them away. But people began to resist and that is when the violence built up and people were put into paddy wagons and taken to police cells.

A number of people have made statements about how there were severe bashings-people were separated and there were severe bashings in the police cells. People who were severely harmed by that experience were taken away and charged, and several had to get medical help after the incident.

This was an extraordinarily ugly scene, and worse was to come. The next day, spread across TheSydney Morning Herald, the Fairfax newspaper, were full photographs of the event including names and descriptions of people who were involved. Remember that we are talking about 1978, a time when there were very few privacy laws and when being known as someone who was gay could have very serious outcomes for your employment and people knowing about your reputation. We know that, in some cases, people's names were put into the newspapers whose families had not known that they were gay. As a result of the newspaper coverage, there have been documented some serious implications for many people, including lost employment, broken careers and broken family relationships. A number of the people who were there talk about the fact that some of their mates were named with the intent, indeed, of being shamed. That is something I deplore totally, but nonetheless, in the atmosphere of 1978, this is what occurred. We believe that mental health and suicide issues could be directly traced to the experiences that people had that night.

As I said, the 78ers have gone on to be part of our social history. What has happened now is way too late. There have been a series of apologies-and deserved apologies. Remember, it has been since 1978 until 2016, and a series of apologies have now taken place. The first was from the Sydney City Council, where an apology was put on record in 2015. The motion was moved by Christine Forster, the well-known sister of the previous Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott. She moved for an apology to the 1978ers, whose work and commitment and suffering-and I use that word directly-we believe has led to a series of changes in legislation and in confidence of people, not just in Sydney but across Australia and, I think, internationally, where the 78ers are known. The history of the 78ers is known and people have understood that they had rights and should not be discriminated against. So we led with an apology from the Sydney City Council.

Subsequently, only in recent times, the New South Wales parliament has passed a very impressive motion, which was moved by Mr Bruce Notley-Smith, the Liberal member for Coogee, and accepted unanimously, we believe, by the New South Wales parliament. It notes the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and also the work of the 78ers. It commends the tireless advocacy of the 78ers and their supporters and the upsurge of activism following the first mardi gras, which led to the 1979 repeal of the Summary Offences Act and decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1984 and contributed, I believe very strongly, to the effective community response to the HIV epidemic. The motion commends the work done by the 78ers in their advocacy around ensuring discrimination of this kind is not repeated and raising awareness of the events of 1978.

When this motion was brought to the floor of the Sydney parliament, there were many powerful speeches made by people across the political spectrum, and really I hope people take the opportunity to check out what members of parliament said about the 78ers on that moment of a very important apology. However, I want to quote another Queenslander-Peter Murphy, my mate, is a Queenslander, and this is another Queenslander-Mark Gillespie, also a 1978er, who said:

as an original 78er I welcome an apology by the NSW Parliament. But it needs to be a "living apology". A living apology is one where Parliament affirms the need for ongoing vigilance so that the human rights of LGBTIQ people are respected and protected in law.

It also has to affirm the need for ongoing social investment in educational programs that create a more inclusive NSW community where differences are respected and where the power of diversity is celebrated.

In terms of the apology, that was given, I believe, in a very true spirit by the New South Wales house. Many of the speeches that were made that day reaffirm exactly what Mark wanted-a commitment not just to acknowledge what happened in 1978 but to move forward to ensure there does not need to be any more 1978ers activity. People do not need to be discriminated against or have their rights violated or be personally violated through violence. That does not need to happen anymore in our community in New South Wales or in our communities anywhere in our country. That is what a living apology means. It means we acknowledge past, we move to the future and we ensure that lessons can be learned.

The third apology that has been received was from Fairfax Media and TheSydney Morning Herald, who printed that they apologised for what had passed. The Editor-in-Chief of TheSydney Morning Herald, Mr Darren Goodsir, said:

In 1978, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the names, addresses and professions of people arrested during public protests to advance gay rights. The paper at the time was following the custom and practice of the day.

We acknowledge and apologise for the hurt and suffering that reporting caused. It would never happen today.

I hope it would never happen today. However, another 1978er, a journalist, Chips Mackinolty, has indicated that, whilst he accepts that The Sydney Morning Herald apology has been done in good faith, he questions the statement that it was 'custom and practice of the day'. Chips himself was an activist of many causes from the 1970s through, I think, to this very day. He claims:

It was simply never the case that the SMH published, as a matter of 'standard procedure', the names of the hundreds of people a week arrested in Sydney

That just did not happen. There were many arrests; Chips himself was arrested at a number of political rallies. He says that it was special treatment for the 1978ers who were caught in such a strong public protest over gay rights, and he feels that the apology from The Sydney Morning Herald is not in fact a true representation of what happened. He believes that there needs to be acknowledgement that the fact that these people were involved in a battle for gay rights was the very reason that their privacy was ignored and their names were published. He says it is good to have the acknowledgement of and the apology for the hurt and suffering that was caused, but we should not pretend that the publishing of the names of people arrested in the media was a standard practice; in fact, it was not. So we will continue to have this discussion about what is appropriate and what actually cuts across the rights of people who identify as being lesbian, gay, transgender or intersex.

One huge apology continues to be lacking-and this has come out in the discussions around the apology from the Parliament in Sydney and that from TheSydney Morning Herald-in that one of the factors of that night in June 1978 was clear police violence against the people present who were demonstrating. The apology that has not been received is from the New South Wales police. It is still one of the unanswered questions: what led to that? It certainly was not led by the government; that has been clear ever since. The New South Wales Parliament of the day had no particular agenda against gay rights.

This was an expression of power, an expression of fear and an expression of sheer violence by police, against a peaceful group-a peaceful group who had gathered to protest for rights, who were singing and chanting. In fact, after the group were taken and imprisoned, a number of people then went to the watch house and protested outside the watch house. Was this a violent group? Did they storm the watch house-because, by this time, there were very great numbers of them because they had seen people being taken away? No. This was a crowd who were concerned, upset and angry. Possibly because they were of the day, they gathered and they sang We shall overcome, which is not an expression of violence; it is an expression of peaceful solidarity. And I know, from talking with Peter and from what he has told me about other 78ers, that the people in that watch house-people who had, in some cases, been beaten-could hear the singing going on in the streets of Sydney. It was an expression of solidarity and not violence.

The 78ers and those of us who care about what they did and what they stand for continue to ask for a further apology. We want an apology to the 78ers from the New South Wales police.

As I said, that group of people from 1978 has become part of our social history. This weekend, the 38th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will take place. Its theme this year is 'momentum':

to stand up and be counted, to turn your passion into purpose and become unstoppable.

Leading the march this year will be the 78ers who are still with us. Too many are not with us any longer; as I said, their lives were deeply impacted by what happened that night. But the remaining 78ers will be there. They will be involved in the rainbow flag handover. Rather than several hundred people, this year it is anticipated there will be 12,000 participants and 170 floats on the streets of Sydney-the same streets where those people gathered in 1978. Unlike 1978, there will be people cheering from the side. Unlike 1978, there will be police marching in the Mardi Gras, as they have done for many years. We will remember the 78ers and we will share their joy. Indeed, we will say: stand up and be counted, turn your passion into purpose and become unstoppable.