On a Saturday evening in 1978, hundreds of supporters of gay rights took to the streets of Sydney. They were inspired by international Gay Solidarity Celebrations, which spread globally following the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
It had been almost a decade since gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village of New York, fought against police discrimination and harassment, which resulted in a riot. The Stonewall Riots are often described as the catalyst for the gay rights movement across the United States and further abroad. On Saturday, June 24, 1978, Sydney was tarred by the same bloody brush. What began as a celebration at Taylor Square on Oxford Street turned into a violent police crackdown.
Nearly four decades later, the government of the Australian state of New South Wales apologised to gay rights activists involved in the violent 1978 parade for the first time.
Blocked by police
During the parade, demonstrators followed a single truck down the street, cheering and dancing to the music that played out of its sound system. As they moved down the street, revellers joined the parade.
What happened next changed the course of the gay rights movement in Australia. When the truck reached the city's central park, Hyde Park, where speeches were to take place, police pounced and shut down its music system and arrested the driver.
Supporters were not deterred. They continued their march along another major road of the city, William Street, and then into Darlinghurst Road. It led them straight into a police trap, where paddy wagons and officers waited for the protesters.
A bloody and violent clash between police and gay rights activists occurred, with 53 people arrested and many of them subjected to further ill treatment in custody. Homosexuality was a crime in New South Wales until 1984.
At the time, the Sydney Morning Herald published the full names, addresses and occupations of those arrested, which led to many people being outed as gay to those close to them and losing their homes and jobs.
It was a devastating moment for gay rights in Australia, but it also kicked off a chain of events that led to legislation changes, including the ability to protest without a permit, and ultimately, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Australia.
By 1979, the Mardi Gras parade took place with no incident. To this day, the gay pride parade is one of the biggest in the world and walks the same path that those early activists paved in 1978.
Finally, a public apology
New South Wales' newly stated regret followed an apology by the Sydney Morning Herald for its actions after the arrests. "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," Editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir wrote Wednesday. Many of the original group of 500 LGBT supporters, known as the "78ers," were present in NSW Parliament on Thursday as MPs apologised on behalf of the government. Liberal MP Bruce Notley-Smith presented the apology motion for "the harm and distress the events of 1978" had on the group and their families. He said:
"We recognise that you were ill-treated, you were mistreated, you were embarrassed and shamed, and it was wrong," Notley-Smith said.
"I hope it's not too late that you can accept an apology but also we want to recognise that for all of that pain that you went through, you brought about fundamental change in this society and fundamental change for the many gay and lesbian people like myself, who can be open and relaxed about ourselves.
"You were the game changers."
Loud cheers rang out in the public gallery.
Labor MP John Robertson added his message of thanks and called for the younger generation fighting for equality currently in Australia to not give up. "Thank you for what you did, thank you for standing up for what was right," he said. "To the younger people here, stand up and keep fighting, stand up and continue your activism because right will always win out."
Independent MP Alex Greenwich also praised the actions of the 78ers in their fight for gay rights in New South Wales. "We are all here because of your bravery, your courage, your sacrifice," he said.
The crowd gave a standing ovation