By Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

From 1978 to today, this is our Mardi Gras story.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 1978-2022 Timeline

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Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s most famous and well-loved events, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to Sydney to join in the celebrations. It all began on a chilly winter's night in 1978, when the police descended on a street festival bravely celebrating gay rights when homosexuality was still illegal.

This timeline reveals over four decades of Mardi Gras passion, protests and pride - with each year’s heroic moments creating Australia's unique life-affirming kaleidoscope of LGBTQIA+ self-expression.

24 June 1978 Protest (1978-06-24) by Campaign magazine, courtesy Australian Lesbian & Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

SATURDAY 24 JUNE 1978

Sydney's newly-formed Gay Solidarity Group developed a day of events culminating in the first Mardi Gras street festival. They intended to raise local issues such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, mark the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York, protest the Australian visit of homophobic Festival of Light campaigner Mary Whitehouse, and promote the forthcoming 4th National Homosexual Conference.

1978 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1978) by Chris JonesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The first Mardi Gras march ended in violence, but the police crackdown fired up a community who would no longer be silent.

On Saturday 24 June 1978 at 10pm, 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.

"Out of the bars and into the streets!” they yelled. “Stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks!”

As more revellers joined in along the route, the police harassed the lead float. Then when the march stopped in Hyde Park, police confiscated the lead float truck and arrested the driver Lance Gowland.

Angered by this, 1,500 revellers diverted up William Street to Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, where the police swooped and violently arrested 53 men and women, many of whom were beaten in cells at Darlinghurst Police Station.

Peter Murphy remembering Sydney's First Mardi Gras (2016-09-07) by William BroughamSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Peter Murphy was 25 when the first Sydney Mardi Gras parade took place on 24 June 1978. He recalls the events of that night and how he was one of 53 people arrested.

Dennis Scott and Eddie Hackenberg in gay rights march (1978-07-15) by Geoff Friend, courtesy Geoff Friend and Australian Lesbian & Gay ArchivesSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Later that week, the Sydney Morning Herald printed the names, occupations and home addresses of those arrested, outing them and leading some to lose their jobs.

But the authorities' attempts to keep Sydney's gay and lesbian citizens in line backfired hugely. Mardi Gras had become a defining moment in the nation's gay rights history. Our people were out of the closets and into the streets.

1979 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1979) by Sydney University Fine Arts WorkshopSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1979 | POWER IN THE DARKNESS

For its second year, Mardi Gras expanded from a one-night march to a full-week festival which included a Gay Alternative Fair Day in Hyde Park, a collection of film screenings and the beginning of a great tradition – the fundraising dance party.

The first Mardi Gras dance party filled Balmain Town Hall at the beginning of the week’s festivities, generating the cash needed to fund the licenses and permits for the parade.

At the time, membership of the Mardi Gras Task Group was open to "any gay man or lesbian who supports the idea of a gay festival in the streets of Sydney either for political reasons or because they think it could be a lot of fun."

Gay Solidarity March (1979-06-20) by Robert FrenchSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

On the morning of 20 June 1979, the Gay Solidarity March set off from the Town Hall on George Street, marking the 10th anniversary of New York's Stonewall riots.

Mardi Gras march with pink triangle banner (1979-06-30) by Robert FrenchSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

1979's Mardi Gras organisers were prepared for another possible police confrontation. Planning included an emergency bail fund for anyone arrested for the still-illegal act of male homosexuality.

3,000 people attended on the night, and despite a large police presence, no one was arrested.

1980 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster (1980) by Prue BorthwickSydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras