How Australia’s First Mardi Gras Fought for Gay and Lesbian Liberation
In 1968, Ken Davis became a socialist while still in high school — ten years later, he helped to lead the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney. As Davis explains, the struggle for gay rights in Australia formed part of a global fight for liberation.
- Interview by
- Jonno Revanche
Ken Davis was born in the wilds of Tamworth, in north-central New South Wales (NSW). Now based in Wollongong, he became a socialist at the age of fourteen, inspired by his mother’s communist politics and by Sydney’s radical social movements of the 1960s and ’70s.
Ken participated in the historic moratorium marches against the Vietnam War. While still in school, he joined the Socialist Youth Alliance, a Trotskyist group at the heart of the period’s radicalism. As a teenager, caught between conservative, Menzies-era Australia and burgeoning radical movements, Ken soon became aware of his sexuality — and the need to fight for gay and lesbian liberation. Later, he joined the movements against colonialism in Palestine and apartheid in South Africa.
Ken wasn’t just a participant in history — he was part of making it. In 1978, in an open and militant celebration of lesbian and gay liberation, Ken led hundreds in a parade past Sydney’s law courts. This march went down in history as the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Ken has participated in every annual Mardi Gras since. He now serves as the co-chair of the First Mardi Gras Committee, a collective of veterans from the 1978 march.
How did your experiences growing up inform your politics?
I moved to Sydney when I was two years old, and lived in Marsfield, then on the edge of the city. I was born in Tamworth, and my father seems to have been, at various times, in the New Guard, a fascist mass organization of the 1930s. He was quite old, and his political opinions were very conservative.
My mother’s family were aligned with the Communist Party. Although she wasn’t a member, she had relatives who were. Since then, I’ve learned that my mothers’ mother was Gamilaraay [an Aboriginal nation whose land extends from northern NSW to Queensland]. Also, part of my mother’s side of the family were Jews who converted to Catholicism and, eventually, to communism.
Although I had only just started high school in 1968, like a lot of the other students of my generation, I became interested in political events. The first major event I remember first was the Prague Spring, in 1968. A reformist leadership came to power in Czechoslovakia. It was a break in the Stalinist system and seemed to signal a new spring of humanist socialism.
Rosa Luxemburg had once argued the alternatives were socialism or barbarism. Well, I was convinced that capitalism and Stalinism were not only genocidal but ecocidal — and that the victory of genuine socialism was not inevitable.
A lot of communists worldwide supported the reforming Dubček regime. This was true in Australia as well, and the idea of “socialism with a human face” led to an opening up in the communist movement. I was only twelve when the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and restored a pro-Soviet, dictatorial regime.
You are quite involved in the Palestine solidarity movement today — did the events of 1968 inform your understanding of anti-imperialism?
In ’68 there was a global youth rebellion. Although I wasn’t very conscious, the spirit of internationalism was very strong for all of us. It was focused primarily on the Vietnam War.
Men would finish high school at eighteen, and then they’d be on the ballot to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam. Some people were conscripted straight after finishing high school — just four months later, they’d find themselves in Vietnam. So there was an immediacy to the issue. Some of our teachers were conscientious objectors, and the students were figuring out for themselves what to do. I went on the big moratorium march in 1970.
In 1972, although I was still in school, I joined the Socialist Youth Alliance. I didn’t join very consciously — I think I joined because their newspapers featured John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were flirting with Trotskyism at the time.
So there was significant crossover between socialism and youth culture?
Yeah, but once I became involved, there were quite a few other causes that motivated me. I went to my first Palestine demonstrations in 1972. But in that era of youth radicalization, we moved really quickly from one issue to another.
Whether it was the Vietnam War, the environment, or whatever, we were angry at the whole system. We also learned about the Aboriginal struggle for land rights and about how to take a political approach to the environment. It all became combined in one package of internationalism and Marxism.
There were also strong movements for the rights of high school students. We wanted to end corporal punishment, exams, and uniforms. We wanted the right to wear what we wanted and be involved in politics.
It wasn’t a case of students striking for the climate, as happens today. We thought the schools themselves were an oppressive construct. It wasn’t an attack on education but about understanding the schools almost in Althusserian or Gramscian terms, as ideological apparatuses of the state.
Some people say that every era is transitional — but by comparison, my teenage years felt somnolent.
It’s part of the times. The radicalism of ’68 had us reading daily newspapers, left newspapers included. We’d come together to listen to the radio or watch TV. For many, it was their first time — for the most part, I didn’t have a TV at home. Today, the methods of communication are very different, with things like social media.
We also did politics in a collective way. There was a lot more social connection back then. Many more people were members of political parties just as people still participated in religions, sports clubs, and so on. People had a much more solid experience of collective life. This helps explain demonstrations — they weren’t just about exerting power but to experience being in the street collectively.
So by the time you finished high school you were well and truly politically educated. How did this tie in with your sexuality?
I became involved in gay pride while I was in school. Really early on, people like Joan Baez and others identified as bisexual. So that seemed to be the only way to do it. This was before the gay or lesbian liberation movements had won visibility. You couldn’t realistically come out as gay — and I’m using the words of the time — if you were living with your family in a deeply Christian, Anglo area, or at school.
When the gay and lesbian movement reached a certain critical mass in 1973, the demonstrations were quite violent, thanks to police repression. But there were other students and teachers from my school at those demonstrations.
One crucial factor was the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), the construction workers’ union. Macquarie University is near where I went to school. The Communist Party editor of the Macquarie student paper published a really vicious, gay-baiting attack on a student council candidate, Jeff Hayler.
I don’t know why he did it, but there was an enormous backlash. Hayler won the election. And because Hayler was a member of the Socialist Youth Alliance, they received a big boost in popularity.
Also at Macquarie University, Jeremy Fischer, who I know, was expelled from residential college because he was gay. The student council approached the BLF and said: “We want you to put a temporary ban on construction to fight for Jeremy’s rights.” Because the union was very democratic, they put it to the workers. The workers agreed to support us on the grounds that it was a question of democratic rights — someone shouldn’t be thrown out of college because they were gay.
Remember, these were builders’ laborers. In those days, they were not highly paid at all, and the industry had terrible occupational health and safety standards. The BLF was one of the first unions to open up to fighting for the rights of women and indigenous people and for other causes.
It’s a particularly powerful history, especially in the face of common assumptions that blue-collar workers are unaware of, or don’t care about, “extracurricular” issues like gay rights.
It was the experience of struggle that really taught the BLF’s members. The BLF was able to bring part of the working-class movement together with the indigenous movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, and the movement against prisons and police powers. All of a sudden, all of those issues weren’t separate anymore — they were part of the same fight.
After the BLF imposed “pink bans” on Macquarie University to defend Fischer, what did you do?
After school, I went to Sydney University. I studied part-time while working as a postal worker. The real basis for the gay liberation movement had been at Macquarie, Sydney, and the University of New South Wales.
What we really learned in the movement was the politics of building alliances between movements and of leading mass actions. We also tried to organize creative actions and to use humor. In the women’s movement in particular, we had to do a lot of consciousness-raising. I guess we learned that from Maoism. We spent a lot of time talking through internalized heterosexism.
It wasn’t easy to identify as gay in Australia then. And the terms were different. We were called poofters, homosexuals, camp, or whatever. “Gay” was a common term among people who had been in contact with American troops during the war, like in Kings Cross in Sydney, or in Brisbane. But being gay wasn’t an Australian identity.
We understood it was a constructed identity in the sense that being “gay” wasn’t exclusively about homosexuality but was about homosexuality becoming a determining part of your life. It meant that you recognized that homosexuality was oppressed, and you wanted to struggle collectively and publicly against that oppression. This meant refusing to see being gay as an individual pathology, and instead viewing it in collective terms, as a serious political concern.
The 1970s were not great, because [after the dismissal of Labor PM Gough Whitlam] Malcolm Fraser won the election. Nowadays, people think Fraser is okay. But at the time that wasn’t how we felt. Firstly, the economy went bad. Suddenly, there was unemployment and a ruling class offensive against the union movement. To some extent, the working class was in retreat.
At the time, the Sydney gay movement was a bit puritanical. A network known as “the Syndicate” owned the gay venues. The state government had a relationship with the Syndicate. In Sydney, everything is negotiated between organized crime, the Catholic Church, the police and the Liberal and Labor parties, and some unions.
You need to know this background to understand why the first Mardi Gras parade created a crisis. Suddenly, it disrupted the power relations between the gay and lesbian commercial scene — the Syndicate — and the police, the Church, and so on. In fact, the first Mardi Gras parade in 1978 indicated that the movement was starting to grow after years of being quite defensive, during which it was unable to hold big rallies.
How did this lead to the first Mardi Gras?
There was a big group of lesbians and gays in the Socialist Workers Party [the parent party to the Socialist Youth Alliance]. One of them, Alison Britain, was a dual American-Australian citizen. She had a relationship with someone in the San Francisco Bay Area who was organizing a campaign against the Briggs Initiative.
The Briggs Initiative was a referendum proposing to fire anyone working for the California teaching system who supported gay rights. Their campaign wrote to us saying they were encouraging international solidarity actions. They wanted to hold a march on June 23, the anniversary of the first Gay Freedom Day, which became the annual Pride parade. The hope was that a million people would march worldwide.
We wanted a mass movement in support of gay rights — although I wanted something more like liberation. Harvey Milk and the Left were saying: “We want mass action, we want gay and lesbian visibility, and we want alliances.”
We decided to hold a forum in Paddington Town Hall with [prominent gay liberation activist] Dennis Altman and others. It was themed around the internationalism of the gay and lesbian movement and looked at Cuba and Chile in particular. After the forum, we decided to get a bit more daring and hold a street march the next morning.
I was also a member of Young Labor then. I was the secretary of NSW Young Labor, and my partner was president, although I was expelled in 1979 — that was obviously a big tragedy that I’ve never overcome [laughs].
Tell me about the morning march. Did you march with your boyfriend?
He had contracted hepatitis, so he was too sick to attend. Initially, I was reluctant because we had been really unsuccessful with marches. I thought the workload we’d need to pull off a successful march would be huge. But the march turned out to be a real success. About five hundred people showed up, which made it the largest gay and lesbian political event to that date.
The guys didn’t like the lesbians dressed in overalls, and the lesbians didn’t like the guys dressed in leather. And I was there, with a Jewish background, unhappy that someone had brought an enormous Israeli flag. Despite some fights, the morning march went ahead near George Street and the town hall. We demanded an end to police attacks on gays, women, and blacks; an end to discrimination at work; and the repeal of antigay laws.
So the morning march — despite the infighting — was successful?
Unbelievably so. I mean, the gay and lesbian movement had never led five hundred people in a street march in Australia before.
And how did this lead to the first Mardi Gras parade?
Three weeks before the march, we connected with a left-wing group of CAMP members, including Ron Austin, Lance Gowland, and Margaret and Jim Walker. They had seen the film Word Is Out, about the lives of gay people from the United States, and they liked the San Francisco Pride parade.
The CAMP members wanted to organize a nighttime street party in Sydney, starting on Oxford Street, where people could attend in costume, to avoid getting in trouble with family, school, or employers if they were recognized. They wanted it to be a nighttime festival; we talked about it as a carnival or street party. On the night and immediately after, it came to be known as Mardi Gras. We chose Oxford Street because there were several newer gay bars popular with young people who couldn’t afford other gay bars. By ten o’clock, we assembled for the Mardi Gras parade at night.
It was cold, and we were standing in bloody Taylor Square outside the court — and there was no one there. We had a truck with Lance Gowland on the back and a banner I’d painted supporting gay solidarity. We sung Meg Christian’s “Ode to a Gym Teacher” and “Glad to Be Gay” by Tom Robinson. In those days, we didn’t have a lot of music to choose from.
I was wearing a country and western polka-dot dress. Only maybe ten or fifteen percent of the other people were in costumes. I didn’t know if the parade was going to be viable.
But around eleven o’clock, we had a critical mass to start the march. And we had permission from the police. We’d never done it before — so we weren’t consciously assuming that there’d be problems.
Then the police shift changed, and the Darlinghurst Police who were starting their shift viewed it as a major problem to have out-of-control gays and lesbians in the middle of the night on Oxford Street. We had only planned to march down one lane of the road. But of course, that’s not how they interpreted it. They saw it as a threat to their power, a threat to their control of the night, and a threat to their relationship with the Syndicate.
Laws called “summary offenses” gave police the power to arrest lesbians for kissing in Hyde Park, men for dancing in clubs, for having sex in toilets or for looking like they might. Those laws gave police total power over public space. So the police hurried us down Oxford Street. Instead of dancing, we were running.
Then we arrived at Hyde Park. A big anticlimax, right? We thought we’d have a bit of a dance. Anyway, the police confiscated the fucking sound truck. On top of assaulting us, they arrested Lance and others — so, spontaneously, we set out for Kings Cross, where a lot of gay bars were.
That’s when it became a march of around fifteen hundred or two thousand people — it grew as we went through Oxford Street. People peeled off the street and out of the bars to join us. The police reaction encouraged that.
When we arrived at the El Alamein Fountain, we tried to make impromptu speeches. But by then, it was midnight and people were dispersing. As they did, the police started arresting people. They mainly targeted lesbians — and then lesbians fought back. They were freeing women who had been thrown in paddy wagons and saving others from being arrested.
Once the fighting started, it wasn’t just the lesbians and gay men fighting police. People by the side of the road thought: “Here’s my chance to throw a metal garbage can lid at a policeman.” One of the reasons for this animosity was that the Darlinghurst Police had a reputation for beating and raping sex workers and other people.
Later, we went to Darlinghurst Police Station, where they held Peter Murphy and other people who had been beaten up. They wouldn’t let our lawyers or doctors in. On Sunday, we had Lee Holloway and Sue Hawke doing media for us in Glebe.
Sue was a lesbian at the time and the daughter of future prime minister Bob Hawke. By Monday, we brought four hundred or five hundred people to the Liverpool Street courthouse. The authorities closed the court illegally and made seven more arrests.
How did the movement transform in the years after the first Mardi Gras?
After 1978, we won a number of important victories. In 1979, the NSW government repealed the summary offenses law. Between 1981 and 1982, the anti-discrimination laws were updated to cover homosexuality. We were the second legislature in the world to do that.
In 1985, we became the second country in the world to make it possible to recognize same-gender partners for immigration purposes. Mardi Gras was not directly responsible for that, but it set a precedent. It made gay and lesbian rights a mainstream political issue.
Holding a peaceful, second Mardi Gras was an extraordinary victory. When we held the third Mardi Gras, it had begun to transform. There was a shift away from gay and lesbian liberation, towards a politics of rights.
All of a sudden, something called the “gay and lesbian community” — which is really just a commercial subculture — came to be seen as the new collective subject representing gays and lesbians. There was a desire to see gay liberation generate a set of intelligible demands for equal rights — which is fair enough. But in that political transition, something was lost.
The right wing of the Communist Party worked with the Syndicate. They pushed to move the Mardi Gras to the same period as the Christian festival of the same name, between late February and early March. They saw a potential for gay businesses to make money. So, from 1981 Mardi Gras started to transition into a more commercial and sanitized event.
What did you focus on politically?
In the early ’80s, a lot of us focused on law reform — like campaigning to abolish the “buggery law.” Then, in 1982, people began getting sick with HIV-AIDS. It created a whole new ballgame.
I started working against the HIV epidemic in 1983. I was working for the government in the Department of Employment, in the disabilities support division. I was in the antecedent to the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), and I was chair of the union delegates group for our department.
HIV-AIDS had a huge impact. The employment and social security departments were big, with a gay and lesbian caucus of about eighty people. Within three years, twelve of those people had died from AIDS.
There was an initial problem in industries where a lot of gay people worked, such as telephone operators, or in sectors of the public service like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or Australia Post. Young people were falling catastrophically ill, and their families wouldn’t help them. There was no support system. It was the workers — the unions — that had to create basic support structures.
In terms of gay men in Sydney, we definitely didn’t “win.” There was a huge infection rate between 1982 and 1984, before people became scared and started using condoms. But it was a huge source of strength that when HIV hit, there was a highly organized, preexisting gay movement.
By then, the conflict between the independent bar owners, the gay and lesbian community, and the Syndicate had abated. We were also lucky that there was a federal Labor government.
When the authorities refused to address the crisis adequately in 1983, we fought back. That helped to force the government into a tripartite relationship with the affected community and the medical profession. That didn’t happen in a lot of other countries.
One other important factor helped mitigate the crisis. Already, programs supporting indigenous health or sex workers were doing a lot of good work to promote sexual health and condom use among independent sex workers, and especially among street and brothel workers. Unlike in other advanced capitalist countries, I don’t think there was ever a transmission from a sex worker to a client in Australia.
I decided at a certain point that AIDS services had become very self-indulgent, and the real issue was to stop the epidemic in other countries. So I started working with unions in South Africa on HIV before there was a caseload there.
I tried to share my experience with union and workplace organizing internationally. I went from working with the AIDS Council in NSW to the predecessor to Union Aid Abroad. Given my interest in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles it was a real privilege to be a part of the struggle in South Africa and Palestine. Those struggles were very different to what’s called decolonialism today.
What do you make of the revival of socialism happening today?
I’m not that sure about mainstream politics. I was incredibly interested in Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and I’m a member of the Greens. I don’t think you can abstain from these things.
But when you look at the last ten years, we saw the breakdown of the world financial system in 2008, which led to mass upsurges in thirty-two countries. There were anti-austerity movements in the Mediterranean and the Occupy movement in Western countries. Then there was the Arab Spring, which was incredible, and which continued in the rebellion in Sudan two years ago. And recently, we’ve seen mass uprisings in Chile, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar. That’s what really interests me.
Generally speaking, however, those upsurges haven’t produced long-term, sustainable gains. They haven’t created long-term leadership. At the same time, the upsurges after 2007 remind me of 1968.
If I can say something about gay liberation — I think people are worried about what the demands should be for gays, lesbians, and transgender people. But that’s a myopic way of looking at the issue. We’re confronted by the fact that increasingly, our schools, hospitals, and services are run by religious organizations that are funded with government money.
The problems faced by queer employees aren’t solved when their company puts rainbow flags on whatever the fuck they are doing. Instead of demanding symbolism, we’ve got to look at the big issues, like labor rights, migration, housing, healthcare, or who runs schools or welfare. Those are the key issues for queers — not whether your boss is openly homosexual.