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Mardi Gras marchers from 1978 reflect on decades of protest and celebration

Four of the first marchers in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras look back as Riot, a film based on their experiences, comes to television screens

‘We had no idea so many marchers would suffer’

-Peter de Waal

During the first Mardi Gras, before we reached King Cross, there was a sense of empowerment, of making a political statement, as well as fun, joy, frivolity, camaraderie as we moved down Oxford Street. When we came to Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, the police turned it into a riot.

We had no idea that so many of the marchers would suffer in various ways: job loss, forced comings-out, police bashings, family breakups.

The parade has since lost its political and satirical strength. It is too commercial – large with a lot of glamour. There are very few individual entries now. A positive aspect, though, is that our community’s diversity is really on display during the parade.

The extraordinary number of events during the whole Mardi Gras festival are wonderful, inspirational, and such a bonus.

Where to now?

How are we going to mobilise our community to oppose the “religious freedom” issues that arose during the marriage equality debates?

There are also pockets within western Sydney where our sisters and brothers are struggling with issues that we as a community encountered about 40 years ago.

We need to reach out to them. I believe that transgender and intersex people experience a variety of issues to be dealt with. No doubt there are sisters and brothers among those who are held in detention like criminals at Manus Island and Nauru.

Peter de Waal with Luke Mullins, the actor who plays him in Riot. Photograph: Mark Rogers/ABC

‘The community can make a difference’

-Steve Warren

Looking back at those momentous events on 24 June 1978 we never could have known where it would lead us. Thank goodness the actions all round on that night moved us forward to genuine law reform in our community’s favour!

Even though the climate has improved somewhat I can’t help but think that some of those who recently stood up for marriage equality also did so under tough circumstances, when public opinion was initially against us.

It shows that the community can make a difference. Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has become a beacon for positive change! We now need to get back to those important grassroots community ties to consolidate this further.

Where to now?

Many things have changed for the better in Australia but we still have areas of discrimination to overcome, including transphobia and reducing suicide rates and depression and anxiety in our LGBTQI community. We mustn’t forget how easy it is for rights to go backwards.

This is reflected all around us internationally. Too many countries still have severe, harsh barriers to sexuality. We must stand up for them too. Our work is not over yet. The revolution continues!

‘A celebration of our diversity, love and strength’

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