Australia's 78ers receive official apology

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday March 2, 2016
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It's been 38 years coming, but participants of Sydney's first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade received an official apology from New South Wales members of parliament.

In a touching speech February 25 gay Coogee state Liberal MP Bruce Notley-Smith publicly apologized to the estimated 70 original participants, who are referred to as 78ers, who were present in the parliamentary chambers. June 24, 1978 is known as Australia's Stonewall rebellion.

"We recognize 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 recognize 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," he continued. "You were the game changers.

"For the mistreatment you suffered that evening, as a member of this parliament, who oversaw the events of that night, I apologize, and I say sorry," he said. "As a member of a parliament that dragged its feet on the decriminalization of homosexual acts I apologize."

The cross-party apology resonated throughout parliament, prompting members from the conservative and democratic parties to approach the podium to personally express their sympathies to the 78ers present and others who were watching from home.


Game changers

The winter of 1978 was volatile in Sydney. It was a time of social change. That fall members of the Gay Solidarity Group in Sydney received a letter from what was then called the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Committee, about commemorating the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York. The letter asked the Sydney gay group for support in solidarity for that year's election in California against the anti-gay Briggs initiative, which would have banned gays from teaching in the state's public schools. To show support, the Gay Solidarity Group decided to host their own nighttime parade in conjunction with the political events earlier in the day on June 24, 1978, said 78ers who communicated with the Bay Area Reporter.

The B.A.R. attempted to interview individuals from the SF Pride Committee and the campaign against the Briggs initiative who were aware of San Francisco's influence on Sydney's pride celebration in 1978, but the activists didn't recall the connection.

To keep with the festive spirit Marg McMann, an activist with the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, suggested that the parade be called Mardi Gras and encouraged people to dress up. McMann and Ron Austin, a fellow activist, believed a festive event would bring more people to the movement, said Peter Murphy, one of the original 78ers who spoke with the B.A.R. via Skype.

He is also one of the 10 members of the 78ers group that since 1998 has pushed the Australian government to apologize to the parade marchers.

The 62-year-old bisexual man was only 25 years old at the time. He volunteered by handing out fliers around the Darlinghurst neighborhood and up and down Oxford Street, which today is Sydney's gayborhood. He and others described the first 15 minutes of the parade that started around 10 p.m. as celebratory and fun with the initial 500 marchers chanting to the people in bars, cafes, nightclubs and restaurants to "come out" and join them. People came out of businesses and the crowd swelled upwards to an estimated 2,000, according to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras website.

However, the parade quickly turned violent as police surrounded and blocked the marchers in front of Hyde Park, where the parade was to culminate in an outdoor party. In spite of having a permit to host the parade police wouldn't allow the marchers into the park. To avoid the police, marchers spontaneously decided to reroute the parade to Kings Cross, a neighboring red light district, said Murphy.

Police swarmed the area, cutting off the marchers. Seeing the paddy wagons, Murphy sensed the trouble, and called an attorney. Police were already beating and rounding up people when he returned to the march. He was grabbed and shoved into a paddy wagon with three other people. They made several attempts to escape as they watched and heard people screaming as they were being beaten outside. Two of the people escaped the van and were replaced by two more. The police stopped placing people in to the van after the second or third escape attempt by the activists, said Murphy. He wasn't able to escape.

The 53 activists arrested that night were taken to Darlinghurst Police Station, which was notorious for being a violent place. The other three activists were removed from the van, but Murphy was singled out by the two policemen. They took him to a solitary room and began to severely beat him to the point where he was convulsing. They beat him so badly that he didn't recognize other activists when he was rejoined with them, he said.

"I will die here now," Murphy said he thought at the time. However, the second policeman told the first one to stop the brutal beating.

"I was in a cell by myself and very, very frightened. I could hear people outside the police station chanting and gathering outside calling for everyone to be released," he continued. "I was in terrible pain."

An attorney finally found him, but requests for medical attention and to be transported to the hospital were denied. Even a hospital denied Murphy medical attention once he was released, he said. He finally received medical attention and later attempted to bring charges against the police officer, but the case was dropped because by the time it was brought to court, he was out at sea working and couldn't appear in court. He didn't see the justice he sought.

Like the other 53 LGBT activists arrested that night, Murphy's name was listed on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald . The newspaper's editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir took the NSW parliament's lead and issued its own apology for listing the names of those arrested that night. However, the paper didn't apologize for the subsequently publishing the names of gay activists arrested at other demonstrations later that year.

Murphy still suffers from the trauma of the night and the years that it took to physically heal. Nearly 40 years later he broke down crying a couple of times as he told the B.A.R. his story.


The movement continues on

More arrests and police brutality occurred later that year, but the events of that June night brought about major change for Australia's LGBT community.

Many of the 78ers, including Murphy, said it's not over. The Sydney Police Department has yet to apologize and they still aren't certain about receiving retribution for the brutality of June 24, 1978, the activists said.

Australia still suffers from a severe case of homophobia, they said.

At the same time, last week Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for a review of the Safe Schools Coalition, which campaigns against bullying in schools, threatening to eliminate the program and Australia's movement to legalize same-sex marriage continues to be debated by politicians.

To sign the petition, visit


Italy legalizes same-sex unions

Italy's senate passed a same-sex union bill 173-71 February 25, but LGBT activists aren't celebrating.

Similar to other civil union laws, it grants same-sex couples many of the same rights as married couples, but adoption rights were sacrificed in order to get the bill passed, leaving LGBT Italians feeling betrayed by Premiere Matteo Renzi and his Democratic Party.

It was a betrayal felt even more deeply by LGBT families due to the Italian Constitutional Court declining to hear a same-sex adoption case by two American mothers, stating it was inadmissible.

One of the women is an Italian-American who has dual citizenship, and was attempting to gain the same for her family while living in Italy on sabbatical. She was only able to extend it to her 11-year old biological son, reported ABC News.

In spite of the disappointment, Renzi described the passage of the bill as "historic."


Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected].