Rising in the Era of #resistance – Mardi Gras then and now

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Written By Geoff Jaeger

It’s timely that Disney’s ABC Studios has just produced the series When We Rise, which features Australian actors Rachel Griffiths and Guy Pearce. This eight-hour series documents the LGBTQIA+ liberation movement in America, crossing over with several other resistance movements from the late 60s and early 70s. Almost 50 years later, with Sydney’s Mardi Gras celebration just around the corner, we’re again being called to #resist on numerous fronts.

In New York, it was the Stonewall Riots of 1969. In Sydney, it was the anniversary of those same riots in 1978. The rise of Australia’s LGBTQIA+ activism was greeted with brutality by the representatives of a then very ignorant society, one that couldn’t – or didn’t want to –understand.

Long before the floats, fantasies and pride of today’s march along Oxford Street, the ‘78ers’ marched in defiance. Without the throngs of cheering onlookers to spur them on, they had the courage to publicly say they’d had enough. At the end of their march on 23 June, however, there was no party. Instead, as one of the marchers and organisers, Ken Davis recalls:

“You could hear them in Darlinghurst police station being beaten up and crying out from pain. The night had gone from nerve-wracking to exhilarating to traumatic all in the space of a few hours. The police attack made us more determined to run Mardi Gras the next year.”

History repeating

Definitely, in 2017 many things have changed. However, homosexuals – to use that ‘endearing’ 20thC term – are still not recognised equally under the law in Australia. We still have a federal government that believes everyone else should decide whether or not LGBTQI people have the same rights as they do.

In a world where we continue to struggle with issues of colour, religion and gender, this is perhaps no surprise. Recent events in the U.S. highlight a resurgence in ignorance – a ‘grassroots’ desire for the way things were in the miraculous 1950s when ‘appliances ruled the world’. Well, at least the Frigidaire seemed to rule the kitchen, that room where the good wife was duty-bound to spend her day when not at the store or the hairdresser. 


It’s the same grassroots ignorance that allowed AIDs to become the crisis it was America, no small thanks to then President Ronald Reagan. Thankfully, in the 1980s, we were a little more progressive, in fact a leader in our response:

Australia…was exceptional in that there was some unity across the political spectrum, led by then health minister Neil Blewett who realised that HIV could not be addressed without the direct input of those most affected by it…”   Check out a great ABC documentary on the Australian response to the AIDS epidemic.

April 5th this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Grim Reaper Advertisement across Australian television. If you’ve never seen it, as Molly would say – ‘click the link’, or something like that… It’s perhaps not surprising we were so proactive back in the 1980s. When Number 96 began way back in 1972, it was the first TV show in the world to feature a regular LGBTQIA+ character, Don Finlayson, played by Lebanese Australian actor Joe Hasham.

“One of the architects of Australia’s response to HIV, Bill Bowtell’ is quoted as saying people were “stunned by the ad”… [it] created a great deal of demand for information. He believes Australia did much better at containing HIV… giving people frank and factual information about how to protect themselves.”

 Making progress

Treatment for HIV has changed radically over time, with Ending HIV by 2020 a serious prospect. Supported by the introduction of government trials of PREP, we’re at least still dealing with the health issues on a sensible level.

While you’re celebrating Mardi Gras, and just how far we’ve come, let’s never forget the collective history and struggle that’s gone before. In particular, those who stood up for us when others wouldn’t. It’s also a reminder that the fight for equality continues, one in which we all have a role to play. It’s high time we put Australia back in the lead, rather than watch it rapidly going backwards with ‘our’ stance on same gender marriage – Happy Mardi Gras!

When We Rise, will be released through SBS On Demand, 1st March and begins on SBS One, 11th March 2017.

You can tune in to SBS On Demand to watch the 2017 Mardi Gras parade live from 7pm or 8.30pm on Sunday, 5th March to see the full live-stream.