The 78ers Legacy Fund: crowdfunding to celebrate Mardi Gras' 40th

27 June 2018

A University of Sydney crowdfunding initiative will honour the activists who took to Sydney's streets for the first Mardi Gras and helped transform gay and lesbian lives in Australia.

Gail Hewison at the first Mardi Gras in 1978

Gail Hewison (far left) just before her arrest at the first Mardi Gras in 1978. Photo: Mirror Australian Telegraph Publications

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the University of Sydney has established a crowdfunding project to support students working to advance equality, inclusion and diversity in the field of sexuality.

The 78ers Legacy Fund – named after the activists who took part in the first Mardi Gras in 1978 – will support bursaries, scholarships, research projects or community activities for students researching LGBTIQ+ issues.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Annamarie Jagose, said the use of the fund would depend on the amount raised. Possibilities under consideration include an undergraduate scholarship named after the 78ers, or support for postgraduate archival research.

"It's an honour to give thanks for everything the 78ers have done in making LGBTIQ+ lives more liveable," said Professor Jagose. "In many ways, we have achieved an enormous amount in those 40 years, but of course this is not the end of a political trajectory. There are all sorts of social inequities and injustices that still need to be addressed."

Gail Hewison

Gail Hewison today

The making of Mardi Gras

Gail Hewison was among those who took to Sydney's streets on the winter's night of the first Mardi Gras.

It was supposed to be a celebration for gay and lesbian activists after a day of protest and commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. A truck with speakers played music as it led hundreds of revellers down Oxford Street. They sang, they danced. They cried out for their community to come "out of the bars and into the streets".

But in 1978 it was dangerous enough to be gay in public that Gail and her friends left their identification at home. "There was always the possibility that you could be arrested, so you wanted to be able to give a false name if you needed to," she said. "But I don't think we ever dreamed that we could be arrested with the kind of violence the police used that night."

The mood began to change when the march reached Hyde Park, where police confiscated the truck. By the time they reached Darlinghurst Road, there were paddy wagons waiting.

"The police started charging through the crowd," said Gail. "It was pandemonium. People were screaming. Garbage bins were being thrown. I was grabbed by the hair, pulled off my feet, dragged across the road and thrown into a paddy wagon. It was very, very frightening."

Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal

Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2017.

Momentum for change

The community rallied to raise money for bail and find legal help for the 53 who had been arrested. Most of the charges were eventually dropped.

The police violence that night sparked a backlash that helped create momentum for change, though it happened slowly. It would be another six years before NSW decriminalised male homosexuality.

Peter de Waal and his partner, Peter "Bon" Bonsall-Boone had been among those at the first Mardi Gras, but managed to avoid arrest by hiding behind some garbage bins.

The pair went on to spend a lifetime together - they celebrated their 50th anniversary shortly before Bon died of cancer in 2017.

Through the decades of their relationship, Peter and Bon fought for their rights. They shared the first gay kiss on Australian television when they were interviewed by the ABC in 1972. They campaigned for their right to marry as the recent plebiscite approached.

The laws changed too late; Bon died a few months before the vote.

"The day the bill passed in the senate was probably the loneliest of my life," says Peter, now 79. "I had to switch off the TV because I was getting angry at the politicians. I went into the front room where I had Bon's ashes, lit a candle and had a cry.

"But I also felt it was extraordinary for our community."

Supporting another 40 years of progress

Both Gail and Peter welcome the University's fund in honour of their efforts as 78ers.

"I think it has tremendous potential to play a role in further advancing our community," said Peter.

Both highlight transgender rights as an important focus for future activism, along with challenging attitudes in parts of Sydney that voted against marriage equality.

"We have to keep going in the right direction," said Gail. "As long as there is still violence and discrimination against anyone who is expressing any diversity from the mainstream, there is still work to be done."

Donate to the 78ers Legacy Fund.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Senior Manager, Strategic Communications and Engagement

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