A 78er reflects on Mardi Gras

In February 2020, Diane Minnis was an enthusiastic participant in the 42nd Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. She was also one of the people who took part in the events that launched the Mardi Gras back in 1978.



‘In 1978 I was a 26-year-old public servant, involved in gay and lesbian groups in Sydney,’ Diane says. ‘We wanted to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York, so we organised a number of events, including a street festival in the evening.’

The organisers had a permit for the street festival, but when they got to the bottom of Oxford Street they were met by a squad of police who, according to Diane, ‘tried to get rid of us by taking the keys out of the truck’ that was carrying the sound system. The revellers decamped to Kings Cross, but found their path blocked by police who then ‘laid into’ them and arrested 53 people.

‘A big momentum came out of the first Mardi Gras that went on into the 1980s,’ Diane said. ‘There were protests against the trials of the people who were arrested, and more arrests. Law reform got a boost, and the Summary Offences Act, under which arrests were made, was repealed in 1979. And male homosexuality was finally legalised in 1984.’

A second Mardi Gras was held the following year, and thus a tradition was born. Diane says it’s an honour to be one of the original 78ers, who usually come second at the front of the parade after the First Nations float. They have also led the parade on major anniversaries.

‘It’s lovely to be recognised,’ she said. ‘The Mardi Gras is still a visible beacon that being LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer) is OK. Things aren’t too bad in Australia, but in a number of countries in our region it’s still 1978 or even worse!’

‘And there are still young people who are being bullied for being LGBTIQ in Australia too. I’m particularly concerned about the more conservative religious influence in some areas – LGBTIQ young people in those communities are particularly vulnerable.’

Diane says that the recent debate about gay marriage was very upsetting for her community. ‘A lot of the more fragile people took a real battering,’ she said. ‘And I imagine we’re in for another round of that with the Religious Freedom Bill.’

Still working now as a training and communications consultant, Diane is aware as an older lesbian that many in her community are also financially vulnerable. ‘If you are a single woman, and you’ve worked in a poorly paid caring profession for example, you may not have a lot of super.’

‘And there’s a big difference between owning a house and renting, particularly if you don’t have a job. I have several friends who are on unemployment benefits and living in rented accommodation, and they are having a lot of trouble.’

Isolation is also an issue, with many in the community moving out of town to find cheaper housing. ‘Social networks are more important if you don’t have children, which many lesbian women of my generation don’t,’ she said. ‘It was more difficult then, and women who left a heterosexual marriage often lost custody of their children.’

Asked what she thinks are the main differences for young gay people now, Diane says that overall society is more supportive. ‘And young people’s friendship groups are more mixed now, gay and straight,’ she said. ‘In my day we stuck more to our own tribes. So now there aren’t so many specifically LGBTIQ venues, as they all go to the same places.’

After all these years, Diane still enjoys regular meetings with her fellow 78ers and takes part in their events. Her recipe for a successful later life echoes similar ones we have discussed in the newsletter recently: keep your hand in at work, as you never know what will happen; keep active; and maintain your social networks to avoid isolation.
 

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