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Dykes on bikes at Mardi Gras

From protest to party

Anni Turnbull
Forty years of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

The year 2018 marks the 40th anniversary since the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which started as a gay rights protest parade. Now the parade and associated arts festival is a much anticipated and accepted part of Sydney’s annual festival line-up. It attracts thousands of international and national tourists.

Although some of the parade floats carry political messages, Mardi Gras is now more celebration than political protest.


Mardi Gras is now celebrated in early March but the original protest took place on June 24, 1978. On this day more than 500 activists took to Taylor Square in Darlinghurst in support and celebration of New York's Stonewall movement. The protest called for an end to discrimination and criminalisation of homosexual acts. This peaceful movement ended in violent mass arrests and public shaming at the hands of the police, government and media.

At the time, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the names, addresses and professions of people arrested. In some instances, protesters lost jobs and homes. For some individuals, the trauma ended in suicide.

The original protesters, known as the 78ers, received a formal apology in NSW Parliament on Thursday, 26 February 2016 over the discrimination they suffered at Sydney's first Mardi Gras in 1978.

“For the mistreatment you suffered that evening, I apologise and I say sorry, said Bruce Notley-Smith, the member for Coogee, as he moved the motion of apology in the NSW Legislative Assembly.

Caption Item 08: Peter 'Bon' Bonsall-Boone (left) and Peter de Waal, both in orange shirts, listening to Members of Parliament endorse the apology in the Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament House, Sydney, 25 February 2016 / photograph by Geoff Friend

A week later the NSW Police and the Sydney Morning Herald apologised for the violence and hurt they inflicted on the 1978 protestors.

The forty years since the original parade have seen a gradual yet significant shift in legal rights and social acceptance for the LGBTQI+ community.

The Library holds significant photographic, manuscript, poster, serial and oral history material relating to the history of the gay rights movement. This includes archives from organisations such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Lesbians on the Loose and Blackout.  The personal papers of activists Dorothy McRae McMahon, John Jenner, Stephen Auburn, Craig Johnston and Garry Wotherspoon have also been collected by the Library.

Anni Turnbull, Curator, Research and Discovery, State Library of NSW

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