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'Police Were Dragging People On The Road': 78er Remembers First Mardi Gras

Frank Howarth remembers the exhilaration of Sydney's first-ever Mardi Gras turning to sheer anxiety, as he watched bins fly through the air and police violently shove people into paddy wagons.

In 1978, Howarth was a university student, studying Geology at the Macquarie University.

He'd shown up to Sydney's CBD for something that would now seem quite innocuous --- to march for LGBT rights with his then-partner.

But at the time, homosexuality was illegal and being photographed by the media in broad daylight was not for the faint-hearted.

The 1978 march that was Sydney's first-ever Mardi Gras. Image: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Spirits were initially high as the group gathered for the organised protest on Saturday June 24 at Taylor's Square at 10pm.

They had Tom Robinson's 'Glad To Be Gay' blaring from speakers and some marchers were wearing capes, dresses and heavy makeup.

We just thought it was important to be part of it and that we needed to stand up.

"We weren't hard-line political activists but we thought it was really important to push on," Howarth told 10 daily.

The 78ers celebrating Mardi Gras. Image: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Things quickly took a turn for the worse as the parade branched out into Kings Cross.

My partner and I were both dodging flying garbage bins. I saw police dragging people into paddy wagons

"At first it was more of a feeling of exhilaration and then the anxiousness came when the police decided it needed to be shut down at all costs. After people dispersed and we went off to the police station, the anxiousness was replaced by anger."

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"We were living in a supposed democracy and supposedly the most liberal state in Australia and still, this had happened."

In the cells of Darlinghust Police Station, some of the 53 protesters who were arrested were brutally bashed.

The following day, The Sydney Morning Herald published the names and occupations of those arrested, jeopardising their employment and safety.

NSW Police pose for photographs with parade-goers at Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2014. Image: AAP

"It was malicious at best and a name-and-shame kind of thing. That to me was worse than what the police got up to," Howarth said.

"I felt most worried for people whose jobs depended on staying quiet about their sexuality."

"The people who were teachers at Catholic Schools, that was the worry. That they could lose their jobs."

Mardi Gras is now one of Sydney's biggest events, with thousands attending. Image: Getty

While Australia has since legalised same-sex marriage and protected gender orientation and sexuality under the Sex Discrimination Act, Howarth said LGBTIQ+ people are still in a "constant fight" for their rights.

"I think the biggest risk is that we step backward. The Religious Discrimination bill is a huge risk.

"It's particularly churches and conservative lobby groups that really want to pull things back."

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"It took an awfully long time to get to marriage equality. It was concerning that a very large majority wanted marriage equality and there were prime ministers stonewalling against any real action," he added.

"The rights we still have are fragile. Gender fluidity and gender identity in some ways is the current frontier."

"That's true with some parts of the gay and lesbian community as well. There is still a 'you're either part or us or you're not', which I think is really unfortunate," Howarth said.

Performers from the Tiffany's transvestite cabaret show from Pattaya in Thailand posing with New South Wales Police. Image: Getty

While some criticise Mardi Gras for being too commercially-driven or not political enough, Howarth said the parade is a joyous reminder the queer community is 'out and proud'.

"In the best sense, the parade is a really 'up yours' spectacle. We're here and we're not going to be quiet."

"[The fact that] the police are part of it is a wonderful thing. It's a visible symbol of transformation and how far we've come."

Contact Eden at egillespie@networkten.com.au