Before Mardi Gras

S. Murray-Smith
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Overland, 2018, Winter (231), pp. 10 - 19 (9)
Issue Date:
Full metadata record
June this year marked the fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The first parade, in 1978, was brutally attacked by police – a response that sparked a very public stoush over the rights of LGBTIQ people and the right to protest. The 78ers, as the first protesters are now known, won a stunning victory: most of the charges were dropped, and the right to demonstrate was secured in New South Wales. Yet, as the recent ABC historical drama Riot accurately depicts, Gay Liberation groups – the first wave of Australia’s LGBTIQ movement – had been active for nearly a decade before the first Mardi Gras. In fact, by the late 1970s, gay liberationists were facing a religious backlash against the impressive gains they had made. Revisiting this trailblazing period is timely given last year’s postal vote on same-sex marriage. The Yes campaign’s singular focus on marriage equality in the face of conservative attacks on trans people and the Safe Schools program represented a cautious, small-target approach to social change – and it stands in stark contrast to the revolutionary aspirations of Gay Liberation. Whereas the Yes campaign was anxious to assure conservatives that it would not challenge gender roles, the gay liberationists of the early 1970s openly critiqued the nuclear family and other oppressive institutions. Emboldened by their belief in a world beyond capitalism, Gay Liberation went on the offensive, demanding nothing short of radical social change. Much scholarship on Australian LGBTIQ politics affords the gains made by Gay Liberation in the early 1970s to the liberalism and lobbying of later decades. According to Australian historian Robert Aldrich, ‘Realpolitik was more effective than the liberationist theorising of the early 1970s or the queer theory of the early 1990s, even though the intellectual engagements of Gay Liberation provided a vital basis for later achievements’. He goes on to say that ‘many who took part in the [Gay Liberation] debates were would-be revolutionaries whose views were often utopian’, in contrast to the ‘worthy-minded participants’ of later decades who ‘tackled important personal and social issues in a new fashion’. In Living out Loud, Graham Willett argues that legal reforms proved wrong the liberationists’ belief that capitalism could not deliver, saying, ‘institutions and structures have proved very much more adaptable than expected’. When I interviewed Willett in 2008, he argued, ‘I don’t see any evidence that traditional radicalism has any evidence about how to get [liberation]’. Feminist readings of the movement tend to focus on the tensions between gay men and lesbian women that emerged within the movement, and queer theory has arguably led to a trend away from analysing the role of mass social movements to an emphasis on more diffuse struggles and personal identity. Yet all of this seems to miss just how groundbreaking Gay Liberation was. Spurred on by the emergence of a new radical left, gay liberationists scorned liberal discourses of tolerance and piecemeal reform. The movement developed a formidable critique of gender roles and the nuclear family, and rejected the notion that those embedded within capitalism were capable of changing the system. It was this radicalism that brought about real material changes in LGBTIQ lives. Before moving on to the story of Gay Liberation, a quick note on terminology. Much ‘LGBTIQ history’ in Australia is really just gay and/or lesbian history, and rarely draws out the struggles of trans, intersex and gender diverse people. In some cases, this is because of differences in how people named and identified themselves throughout history; in others, it is because of the historian’s blind spot or ignorance. However, as we will see, a critique of gender roles and an emphasis on absolute freedom of identity and expression were central to Gay Liberation’s critique of society, and has much to offer discussions about trans liberation today.
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