Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made history this weekend. He was the first sitting Prime Minister to take part in the annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.
Sydney is covered in glitter and rainbows these days. The Australian port city is the Pride Capital of the world: the World Pride festival will be celebrated here this year. There are all kinds of Pride events until March 5, which attract more than half a million visitors. The highlight was the Sydney Mardi Gras parade on Saturday.
More than 12,000 people took part in the parade through the famous Oxford Street, cheered on by hundreds of thousands of spectators. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (Labour) also attended. Although his simple shirt and jeans made him look a bit out of place among all the glitter and rainbow colors, his participation is historic, in the 45-year history of the Sydney Mardi Gras.
“It is disappointing that I am only now the first prime minister in the parade,” he said. “Australians want to see government be there for everyone, no matter who you love or where you come from. Modern Australia is inclusive and diverse, and we celebrate that with Mardi Gras.”
This inclusiveness has not always been self-evident. “45 years ago people were thrown in jail for being gay or lesbian. That’s why it’s important to pay our respects to the 78ers now. We have to keep fighting for equality,” Albanese said.
The ’78’ers’ is the name for the gay rights activists who organized the first Mardi Gras in 1978. Today’s party is in stark contrast to that first time, says Ken Davis (66). “It is sometimes difficult to explain what the political, social and economic conditions were like for LGBTQ people in the 1970s,” he says.
“Men who had sex with each other could get 14 years in prison. By comparison, rape was only seven years in prison,” says Davis. “Basically, it meant the government just wouldn’t let us exist.”
Protest march and police brutality
There were many illegal gay pubs on Oxford Street. In these hidden cafes LGBT people could be themselves, away from the rest of society. But that all changed on June 24, 1978. In solidarity with gay rights activists in the United States, who had started the first Pride demonstrations a few years earlier after the Stonewall riots in New York, Davis and his friends decided to celebrate openly.
They obtained a permit from the council for a party on Oxford Street. But what started festively soon got out of hand. When the police tried to stop the procession, the group of several hundred people started a protest march. “We chanted: Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks,” Davis recalled.
At one point they were surrounded by the police. They had blocked the street on both sides, the activists were trapped. “I was terrified,” says Diane Minnis, 71. She was one of the few openly lesbian activists in Sydney at the time and had often taken part in demonstrations, but this was new. “I’ve never seen so much police brutality,” says Minnis.
Dozens of activists were arrested and beaten. Still, gay rights activists continued to take to the streets in the following months. Ultimately, all charges were dismissed. Successes were achieved: in 1982 discrimination on the labor market on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation was banned. Two years later, homosexuality was decriminalized. And finally, same-sex marriage was introduced in Australia in 2017.
The Mardi Gras parade became an annual event. Today it is celebrated in the Australian summer months, around the same time as Carnival. Davis worries that the party’s activist origins have faded into the background. “Private schools are still allowed to fire teachers for being gay. There’s still a lot to fight for.”