People at a protest march holding banners and loudspeakers

1978 Lesbian and Gay Rights Protests

Lesbian and Gay Rights Protests of 1978

Paving the way for today's Mardi Gras
 Diane Minnis

The NFSA celebrated Sydney WorldPride in February 2023 with a look back at news file footage from seminal lesbian and gay rights protests in Sydney, 1978. Guest contributor Diane Minnis, a co-chair of First Mardi Gras Inc., recalls her involvement in the 'Drop the Charges' campaign that followed the police attacks and arrests during the first Mardi Gras parade in June 1978. A few weeks later, 2,000 people marched in what was then the largest gay rights demonstration in Australian history.

The Largest Gay Rights march in Australia

Two thousand people took part in a demonstration on 15 July 1978. It was the largest gay rights march in Australia at that time. Looking back at footage of the demonstration, we were exuberant and chanted ‘Gay Rights Now’ and ‘Stop Police Attacks on Gays, Women and Blacks’. I was on the megaphone beside a ‘Lesbians Ignite’ banner. Our community and allies came together for a massive political and legal effort, though NSW police again arrested marchers – 14 in total. 

The Drop the Charges campaign was full-on, it was frenetic and there was amazing camaraderie working with a broad and committed group of people. We lobbied NSW politicians, worked with lawyers on the legal defence for those arrested, talked to the media and had meetings of 60 to 80 people every Thursday night in the CAMP rooms in Glebe Point Road and the Tin Sheds workshop at Sydney University. Many allies joined these demonstrations: unions, left groups, women’s organisations, progressive churches, ALP members, progressive people, heterosexuals and LGBTQIA+ people.

See edited file footage below from the Ten Network's Eyewitness News:

News file footage of gay rights protests in Sydney. Eyewitness News, 15 July 1978. Courtesy: Ten Network. NFSA title: 616088

'Get Your Laws Off OUr Bodies!'

The Fourth National Homosexual Conference was to be held at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney from 25 to 27 August 1978. When Fred Nile and his Festival of Light learned about this, they organised an anti-abortion and anti-homosexual rally in Hyde Park. The plenary of the conference on the Sunday proposed a march against Nile and his homophobic forces and there was no police permit.

We marched down Oxford Street on the footpath and saw rows of police across Taylor Square. The footage of the demonstration below shows us calmly marching along and chanting ‘Get Your Laws Off Our Bodies’ and ‘Not the Church, Not the State, Women Must Decide Our Fate’.

The police ordered us to disperse but gave us no opportunity to do so. They arrested 104 protesters who were trying to disperse at Taylor Square and Hyde Park. I was on the megaphone at the front of the march and, amazingly, I was not arrested. As people were grabbed by police around me, I was urging protesters to disperse and go back to Paddington Town Hall.  

See edited file footage below from the Ten Network's Eyewitness News:

News file footage of gay rights protests in Sydney. Eyewitness News, 27 August 1978. Courtesy: Ten Network. NFSA title: 616493

Click here to watch an extended clip of the 27 August 1978 protests (approximately 6 minutes).


The first Mardi Gras and subsequent Drop the Charges protests included:  

  • 24 June – 1,000 took part in the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras with 53 arrested and some participants badly beaten 

  • 26 June – 300 protested outside the closed court in Liverpool St with 7 arrested 

  • 15 July – 2,000 marched with 14 arrested

  • 27 August – 300 march from the 4th National Homosexual Conference at Paddington Town Hall to Taylor Square and Hyde Park with 104 arrested

A total of 178 protestors were arrested between June and August 1978.

charges dropped and Laws changed

Gay rights became a broader political issue. We were campaigning for our democratic right to protest and for fewer police powers – a big issue in NSW.  

With pro bono legal assistance from the Redfern Legal Centre and the Council for Civil Liberties, we fought the charges in court. The energy of united action carried through, resulting in most of the charges against 78ers being dropped in April 1979 after the court battles, where we proved that many arrests were unlawful.  

In May 1979, the Summary Offences Act 1970 (NSW) was repealed. The Act gave police very wide powers to arrest people. It was also used against Indigenous people, sex workers and demonstrators, and to stop displays of same sex affection and enable entrapment in beats.  

The Gay Solidarity Group was determined to continue this momentum with a second Mardi Gras, despite opposition from some gay groups, gay businesses and the new Sydney Star Observer newspaper.  

Three thousand people took part in the second Gay Mardi Gras on the bitterly cold Saturday night of 30 June 1979 – and there were no arrests! Because the parade was a peaceful success, a proud annual tradition was born.  

In hindsight, without the police attack on the first Mardi Gras, there may well not have been a second one. 

In 1982, grassroots action, along with research and lobbying, led to an amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), making it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their homosexuality in areas such as employment, education, provision of goods and services, accommodation and registered clubs. At the time, very few jurisdictions – interstate or overseas – had such laws. 

In 1984, the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) was amended to decriminalise sexual acts between consenting adult males. But it wasn’t until 2003 that the age of consent for homosexual sex was equalised with that for heterosexuals. New South Wales was the second-last state in Australia to reform its unequal age of consent law. 

It took us many years to achieve these basic human rights for the LGBTQIA+ community in NSW. The first Mardi Gras and Drop the Charges campaign showed us that such achievements were possible through united, creative (and often fun) political action. 

Diane Minnis is a Co-Chair of First Mardi Gras Inc. Diane was active in women’s, lesbian and gay groups including the Gay Trade Union Group and Pride History Group and has served on the Board of New Mardi Gras. Following a career in the public service, Diane works on projects in training and communications. 


View our online guide to LGBTQIA+ content from the NFSA collection.


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Main image: screenshot from Eyewitness News file footage of gay rights protests in Sydney, 27 August 1978. Courtesy: Ten Network. NFSA title: 616493