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Sydney’s Stonewall: how New York’s riots shaped LGBTI activism in Australia

Sydney’s Stonewall: how New York’s riots shaped LGBTI activism in Australia

Rioters protest at the Mardi Gras

The 1969 Stonewall riots received no mention in Australia’s media other than one small piece by a New York correspondent.

This is not surprising when you consider that the subject of homosexuality was considered somewhat distasteful by the mainstream media although was, of course, the source of sensational gossip by the yellow press, especially when reporting on court cases.

The stereotype of the homosexual man as a high-pitched voiced, limp-wristed quean prevailed. The idea of lesbian women was mostly beyond comprehension and, given the sexist nature of male society, if mentioned at all it was usually in a smutty context.

The passage in London of the 1967 Act that partially decriminalised gay male sexual behaviour in England and Wales was reported on in the Australian media with a mixture of bemusement, bewilderment and shock.

How could the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ have done such a thing! One State Attorney-General even vowed that ‘it would never happen here’.

‘Fuck it, Let’s do it’

It has to be remembered that there then were no ‘homophile’ organisations in Australia nor any publicly self-identified lesbian or homosexual man, though many, especially from the theatrical industry, were suspected of being so and were sniggered at.

All that changed with the media reports of the 1970 Gay Pride March in New York and elsewhere.

Christabel Poll and John Ware were two friends living in an apartment block in North Sydney. She was a public servant and he was a University student studying psychology.

Both had become frustrated with the manner in which homosexuals were portrayed in the media and at large, and for some time had talked about forming a small ‘society’ that could speak out and counter the stereotypes.

The report of the NY march was the trigger for them, and their partners, to decide, ‘Fuck it, Let’s do it’.

1978 Sydney Mardi Gras rioters protest
Solidarity with Stonewall in Sydney Photo: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

The media went mad

In September, John and Chris ‘came out’ in The Australian newspaper and announced the formation of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution or CAMP Inc.

They were very deliberate in avoiding the use of the American term ‘gay’ preferring camp, a term of self-identification of the closeted camp community in Sydney.

While there had previously been a branch of the US Daughters of Bilitis established in Melbourne, it was a closed society with a heterosexual woman as its spokesperson. CAMP Inc was the first open lesbian and gay group in the country.

In John’s words, ‘the media went mad’. They were inundated with letters of support and Chris and John realised that this was to be no small Society as they had envisaged.

CAMP led LGBTI activism in Australia

In fact, the formation of CAMP Inc marks the beginning of the following fifty years of LGBTQ activism in Sydney, and elsewhere in Australia.

Within a year, a network of similar organisations had been set up throughout the country. CAMP NSW, as it then became, was an activist and support group that held Australia’s first ever gay & lesbian political demonstration in October 1971.

But by then, however, a small ‘cell’ of younger, more radical activists had been established within CAMP. Their politics were formed by their involvement in the Anti-Vietnam War movement, their understanding of Women’s Liberation and the rhetoric coming out of gay liberation groups overseas.

In early 1972, Sydney Gay Liberation broke from CAMP NSW, and similar organisations were formed interstate. Thus was the beginning of the diverse political history of the LGBTQ movement in Australia.

The world-famous Sydney Mardi Gras

By 1978, much of the puff had gone from ‘the movement’ in Sydney.

The young radicals having left, CAMP NSW had turned itself into a counselling and support service, and CAMP groups had all but disappeared across Australia.

Then, in May that year, Sydney’s Gay Solidarity Group, something of a successor to earlier gay liberation groups, received a letter from the San Francisco Pride committee inviting activists in Sydney to hold events to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Stonewall.

Seminars and discussion groups were organised, a march was held on the morning of 24 June, and a parade, dubbed a ‘Mardi Gras’, was scheduled for the evening.

It was this Parade down Oxford Street that the local police in Sydney’s Darlinghurst district attacked. These police had a long history of corruption and control, some even taking bribes from Oxford Street bar owners who operated with questionable liquor licences.

Not for them then were the chants heard on the Parade of ‘Out of the Bars, into the Streets!’ which questioned their control of the street (and possibly for some threatened their supplementary incomes!).

Over 53 people were arrested, and incarcerated, some bashed and more arrests took place at subsequent demonstrations against police homophobic brutality in following weeks.

Mardi Gras 2016
The 78ers, the men and women who started the first Sydney Mardi Gras | Photo: Sydney Mardi Gras

Sydney’s Stonewall

That police attack was really Sydney’s ‘Stonewall’.

One outcome of that first Mardi Gras parade was a re-vitalised activism, and not just in Sydney.

Also, a stronger sense of ‘community’ developed that then supported the successful push for homosexual decriminalization, achieved in New South Wales in 1984, and provided a solid base for the subsequent response to the HIV epidemic.

Of course, the irony is that in attacking the parade, the police ‘politicised’ the Parade and helped ensure its perpetuation.

The 41st, now world famous, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade was held this year.

Stonewall 50 Voices

Gay Star News will be marking this 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world. They will focus on the diversity of our global LGBTI community. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.