Q&A: Julie McCrossin

Photo of Julie McCrossin.

Sydney’s first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras ended in shocking violence and multiple arrests. Julie McCrossin played a part in the events of that day and night in 1978. Forty years on, Julie will be speaking about The First Mardi Gras at Antidote, a new festival presented by the Sydney Opera House.

We talk to Julie to find out more about her upcoming talk at Antidote.

In June 24, 1978, more than 500 activists took to Taylor Square in Darlinghurst in support and celebration of New York’s Stonewall movement and to call for an end to criminalisation of homosexual acts and discrimination against homosexuals. The day began with a peaceful march and a public forum. It ended later that night in violence and shaming at the hands of the police, government and media and you were there to witness it. That makes you a ‘78er, can you tell us about it?

There’s one thing I want to clarify: I wasn’t one of the 53 people arrested that night at Kings Cross. That first Mardi Gras had three elements to it: there was a daytime march; there was a daytime forum; and there was the night “Mardi Gras” march up to Kings Cross. I was part of the daytime march. I didn’t go to Kings Cross, but later that night, when all the arrests happened, the word went out via telephone that lots of people had been arrested. So, I went to Darlinghurst Police Station later that night where the people who were arrested were taken. There was a huge demo that night outside the Police Station. And then, when the people arrested appeared in court on the Monday morning, there was another huge demo and there were more arrests. I remember that demonstration outside Liverpool Court very vividly. There was a wall of blue uniforms, in multiple rows, blocking the entrance to the court. So, I’m called a 78er because I was part of that sequence of events, but I didn’t go to the Cross.

There must have been so much happening on that day. Can you share with us your recollections?

The key thing to say is that there had been, for quite some time leading up to that day, a big debate within the gay activist groups, the gay liberation group and the many people who were going to demonstrations, about whether we should continue to protest, or try a new approach. There were a lot of arrests back in those days. It was an expensive, time-consuming and at times brutal experience to be part of those demonstrations.

This was before the NSW Police Royal Commission. Back then, there was a lot of corruption in the police. Kings Cross and Oxford Street were the areas where a lot of the gay bars were. Back then, because homosexuality was still a criminal act, the bars were part of the underworld. They were raided by police and men and women were arrested for being in them. It was a very, very different time. Back in the months leading up to that first Mardi Gras in ’78, there was a big debate about whether we should continue to demonstrate and get arrested, or whether we should have a complete change of tactics and “celebrate” and make it a “Mardi Gras”.

My memory is that it was still a question of hot debate, even on the day we held the first Mardi Gras. The first Mardi Gras was nothing like the event we know today. It was just one truck with one music source. If you see the photographs of that day and night, we all look like a pretty scruffy group of people from the 1970s. It was such a different thing. Many of the costumes were out of op-shops.

My most vivid memory is going to Darlinghurst Police Station that night when we heard there’d been 53 arrests and there’d been a lot of violence. The crowd that went to the Police Station at the top of Forbes Street was a huge group of people who were seriously worried about those who had been arrested and were now in the cop shop. People like Peter Murphy were badly beaten in the cells. My most vivid memory of the night is the fear and anxiety we felt for people in the cells at Darlinghurst Police Station. Friendly lawyers were going in and trying to bail people out as quickly as possible.

You will be giving a talk on  “The First Parade”, at Antidote, a new festival at Sydney Opera House. You have previously said that “Mardi Gras is an international model for how to achieve justice for a minority.” Can you share your thoughts on that model? 

I’ve got a couple of thoughts on what I’m going to talk about at Antidote, but let me answer your question first. With hindsight, I think that the idea that we should ‘celebrate’ rather than ‘protest’ was pure genius. And it was genius for two reasons. Firstly, it enabled a lot of gay, lesbian, and transgender people who were not political people, who just wanted to live an equal life, an opportunity to join us on the streets. It meant they could raise their voices to say ‘Treat us equally before the law and at work and in rental accommodation’. By making it a celebration, people who didn’t want to get arrested, who didn’t want a criminal record, who just didn’t want to take that kind of risk, were able to join us and have fun. So, we grew our numbers and grew our relationships beyond radical left protesters like myself. I was a radical left protester in the 1970s. I didn’t just go to gay liberation rallies. I went to Aboriginal Land Rights rallies. I went to women’s liberation rallies. I was active for prison reform for men and women. I was a university student and I was a political activist. Many of the original gay liberation people were activists. But, of course, the broader gay, lesbian, transgender population hadn’t necessarily gone to university. They were plumbers, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists and the full range of occupations. They wanted equal rights, but they didn’t necessarily want to risk getting arrested. By having a celebration, we grew our numbers.

The second reason I think the ‘celebration’ approach was brilliant is because it invited spectators and supporters, from across the broad population, to join us by watching the parade. The people who came to watch and clap helped change public opinion. I actually remember, in the early Mardi Gras years, when families started to bring their children to watch the parade before going home to dinner. This was before it became huge. It grew very gradually. It became more family-friendly and it became fun. I think that played a huge role in winning broad support for equality for gay and lesbian people.

These days there is a segment of the GLBTIQ community that argues the festival has forgotten its activist roots, what do you think about that idea?

To be honest with you, I’ve never agreed with that view. I’ve always believed that the more people who come out, either to march or to watch and clap, the better. I welcome government agencies like the health department, the police department, the ambulance services. I welcome corporate Australia. I believe that the primary reason corporate Australia has come and sponsored and marched is because gay, lesbian and transgender people within their organisations have lobbied for it to happen. There are a lot of gay, lesbian and transgender people who work for Qantas, for example, and they’re thrilled that Qantas supports Mardi Gras and their CEO is a positive advocate.

There are still many groups who are just joining Mardi Gras for the first time. It’s taken all this time for them to join. The Uniting Church is an example. They have marched three or four times now. I’ve marched with the Uniting Church and I attend South Sydney Uniting Church. I’m a Christian. The Uniting Church run many services for the elderly and for young people, and they have a whole gay and lesbian, transgender program to encourage and invite people from the rainbow communities to join their services as staff, or to come and receive their services. They actively welcome gay, lesbian and transgender people and use the rainbow flag in their materials to show us that we are welcome. I think that is wonderful.

Similarly, every year, new multicultural groups join Mardi Gras for the first time. There are still many countries in the world, in over 70 nations as I understand it, where it is still illegal to be a homosexual. In some of these countries the punishment includes terms of imprisonment and even the death penalty. We have immigrants from those communities in Australia. And every year, new immigrant communities, who are resident in Australia, join the march, and for them this is a momentous experience. It is just as significant for these emerging communities as it was for me back in the early ‘70s. It’s wonderful that we have a celebration that enables people to have the courage to join us and begin that long and painful process of gaining acceptance within their community.  We’re not just an international destination for people from other nations. It’s our immigrant communities, our resident immigrant communities, who are able to involve themselves in Mardi Gras as a way of gaining acceptance within their world.

For many people, the parade is certainly a transformative experience.

Yes. It’s still a big deal for some people to come out. I know it’s much more acceptable now. It’s wonderful that homosexuality is decriminalised. It is wonderful it is no longer considered a mental illness. It is wonderful that health, and the other government and non-government services, reach out to the ‘rainbow community’. And it’s wonderful the corporate world is running diversity programs and supporting Mardi Gras financially.

But the reality is, there is still a handful of high profile people in Australian life who are open about their sexuality. And that’s often because of concern about what their parents feel. And similarly, it is still, I believe, for 99 per cent of young people, a very significant event to tell their mother and father that they’re gay or lesbian or transgender. At the family level, it’s still a major event. So, I think we need Mardi Gras as much as we ever did.

The Parade is anchored in a broader program of cultural and social activities held over February-March including a two-week long Film Festival and boasts partnerships across a variety of cultural institutions such as Belvoir, Carriageworks, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.

In one way, the festival is made for the enjoyment of local audiences and to attract visitors to Sydney, but it also continues to promote a broader message of diversity and acceptance. Do you think it still upholds its ability to connect creatively?

Absolutely! I’d say two things. Firstly, it’s just fantastic for visitors and local Sydney people to be able to explore sexuality and gender identity in a myriad of really creative ways.

The truth is that gay, lesbian and transgender people have been significant contributors in the creative world for hundreds of years, back to the ancient world. The fact that it’s now done openly is great. Mardi Gras is not just a parade – it’s talks, it’s sport, it’s visual arts, it’s film, it’s creative arts of all kinds. It enriches the cultural life of our city.

Secondly, Mardi Gras is a beacon for human rights in southeast Asia. And we’re a beacon of human rights to those parts of the world, particularly the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, where it is still dangerous to live openly as a gay, lesbian or transgender person.

We’re also a beacon of human rights to people of faith, particularly the Islamic community, where it is still a life-threatening thing to be openly gay or to be found out. There are only a handful of openly gay Muslim people in Australia and they are very brave.

I believe that the cultural side of the festival enriches the brightness of the light of human rights, particularly to southeast Asia, but also beyond to the northern hemisphere. It’s desperately needed. What’s been happening in Chechnya is a human rights crisis. Men are being taken and tortured, and even being killed. Similarly, those images of men being thrown off buildings by ISIS in various communities are appalling. It is deadly homicidal violence. Even here in Australia, certainly, at the family level, if you talk to Muslims, men and women, they tell you they need to be very discreet. There is the threat of violence in families towards men and women who dare to be open about their sexuality. This is a human rights and a safety issue. This was what it was like for all of us in the 1960s and 70s. It is why the gay liberation movement began.

Thinking about the creative industries – how can creative practitioners embrace the social justice elements of the festival in their works?

Look, I think they’re doing it. I’m excited by the explosion of mainstream cultural partnerships with the gay, lesbian and transgender community around the Mardi Gras festival. I’m loving what they’re doing. I don’t believe the arts have to be didactic and explicitly political. I support the views of Virginia Woolf, the famous British writer. She was one of the first revolutionaries in terms of innovation in the form of the novel. She drew a sharp distinction between her creative novels and her political essays. Her most famous political essay is called A Room of One’s Own, which is all about the need of women to have access to an education, an income and a space to be creative. Virginia Woolf also wrote books like To The Lighthouse which initiated a revolution in the form of the novel. These works of fiction were not overtly political or feminist. Books like A Room of One’s Own were political essays advocating for equality. Her art was not overtly political.

I don’t want the arts to be didactic or to teach me something in an overt way. I want the arts to expand my vision and understanding of life.

This year Create NSW will fund six short films in the lead up to the 40th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras through its Generator: Emerging Filmmakers Fund. With your experience with the festival, what kind of ideas would you throw to emerging practitioners?

I don’t want to tell filmmakers what to do. I want to listen to their creative ideas and learn. I’ve got more to learn from their creativity and vision than I’ve got to tell them. I’m one of the judges for Australia’s LGBTI Awards in 2018. I won the inaugural media award this year, which was allocated by a public vote. I was very touched to receive it and I think it reflected the fact that I’ve been the co-host of the Mardi Gras on ABC, Network 10, SBS and Foxtel over the years.

Next year, several of the awards will be decided by a vote, and several of them will be awarded by a judging panel, and I’m on that panel. What I’m going to look for is creativity, innovation, compassion and excellence. And that’s what I would say to the filmmakers, use all of your creative skills to communicate to the whole of the Sydney society your vision of the world in relation to sexuality and gender. I want to watch, learn and have my own mind expanded.

While we are on the subject of diversity, what do you think other diverse groups could learn from Mardi Gras?

I will be talking about that at my Antidote talk in September. I just want to say three quick things right now. What is intriguing to me now about being there in the 70s, when the activism exploded, is the question, ‘Why did the zeitgeist change?’. Why was there this explosion of activism? Why were people suddenly willing, in large numbers, to get arrested? I met some of my best friends in the big, communal women’s cell at Liverpool Police Station when we were arrested. The police used to put 10 or 20 women in there at a time, in primitive conditions. Why did so many people risk a criminal record? Why were people suddenly willing to ‘come out’ to their families, their communities and the media?  I want to explore why it all happened, just at that moment, and to convey some of the joy and the pain of being there, and show some photographs about it.

I also want to give a snapshot of what it was like before the public activism started. I want to try to convey what the ‘60s were like when you knew you were gay: the experience of extreme fear and shame. It’s almost impossible for people to understand just how extraordinary it was. And thirdly, I want to talk about now. I want to share what gives me incredible joy, because the world has changed more than I could ever have imagined. But I also want to give a battle cry for the activism we must continue. There will be an international and a multicultural focus. I care about the boy and the girl who are from a Muslim family in southwest Sydney who are scared stiff to let anybody know what they are feeling inside. I care about the men in Chechnya and the victims of Isis.

What will the future of the festival be like and how will it keep its spirit?

The torch for me going forward, burning bright, is the torch for rainbow people in multicultural communities and for young people from faith communities, like the Sydney Anglicans and the Catholic Church, who still promulgate ancient prejudices which have no place in the modern world. I say that as a person of faith myself who has found a home in the Uniting Church where gay and lesbian people are generally welcome.

In future years, Mardi Gras will change. Just like it has always changed. Mardi Gras in 2025, I would predict, will be a very multicultural experience. It will adapt. The festivals will adapt. Just as Australia is becoming more globally orientated and international in its population, so Mardi Gras will adapt as well.

And what do you think other diverse groups can learn from Mardi Gras?

The importance of fun. The critical role of fun and comedy and celebration as a tool of social change. People come to Mardi Gras because it’s fun. It is inclusive and it is fun. You can bring about change by enjoying yourselfI think the role of celebration, of welcoming people and of having fun as a tool of human rights, is really important.

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Published: 31 August 2017