SALON78 returns to showcase the oral history of early LGBTQI movements

Sydney's early LGBTQI activists shown taking to the streets. Photo: Sallie Colechin.

The SALON78 forum returns for its third year amidst a newfound need to collect oral histories and enshrine the work of early LGBTQI activists, writes Mike Hitch.

‘The 78ers’ is a collective term for a group of LGBTQI activists who marched in the original Sydney Mardi Gras on 24 June, 1978. SALON78 – an annual forum which focuses on issues of interest to 78ers and their allies – first started in 2018.

To remain Covid-safe, this year’s SALON78 will proceed in an online format, which will be split into two sessions: the first taking place from 3pm-5pm on Sunday, 29 November and the second at 3pm-5pm on Sunday, 6 December.

Both sessions will be held via Zoom and will see audience members from across the globe participate in the discussions.

This year’s theme is ‘Fifty Years of Visibility – Pioneers and Connections before 1978’ and aims to platform the pioneers of Australia’s LGBTQI movement, who organised protests circa 1970, which led into Mardi Gras, and which have continued to this day in events such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Melbourne’s Midsumma.

Speaking to the Sentinel, Diane Minnis, an original 78er, and Co-Chair of First Mardi Gras Inc., a community association for 78ers, said this year’s SALON78 would focus on the work done by early activists to push Australia’s gay liberation movements.

“So many people think LGBTQI activism started with Mardi Gras. No, it happened in 1970.”

– Diane Minnis, activist and 78er

“We think it is important to celebrate the history of the political and cultural upsurge that happened after the first Mardi Gras,” she said.

“We had gay and lesbian demonstrations and activities and protests before then, but it was that first Mardi Gras that spurred events on towards changes in the law and the Anti-Discrimination Act.

“[But] this SALON78 really celebrates a big anniversary – 50 years of visibility and celebrates pioneers and connections before 1978. This was when the first actual organisations were formed including the Australasian Lesbian Group, and we’re also going to be hearing about CAMP Inc.

“We’re bringing things to light that people might not be aware of. So many people think LGBTQI activism started with Mardi Gras. No, it happened in 1970,” she said.

This year, SALON78 comes during an historical and tumultuous time for Australia’s LGBTQI community, amidst calls for NSW Police to be removed from Mardi Gras celebrations, and Mardi Gras announcing that the 2021 parade will be held at the Sydney Cricket Ground, departing from its traditional home on Oxford Street.

Marking 50 years of LGBTQI visibility in Australia, and three years since Australia’s infamous same-sex marriage plebiscite, Salon78 will cover work done mainly in 1969, 1970 and 1971. 

A demonstration on 8 October, 1971 outside the then Ash Street headquarters of the Liberal Party. “The demonstration was in opposition to an extreme right wing pre-selection candidate, Jim Cameron, who was up against Tom Hughes, who as Federal Attorney-General had floated the idea of Homosexual Law Reform.” – Diane Minnis. Photo: Phillip Potter.

Speakers at the first session will include Gabrielle Antolovich and Barry Charles to discuss CAMP Inc., as well as Australia’s women’s and gay liberation movements. Furthermore, academic and activist, Dennis Altman, will discuss US influences and Sydney’s early LGBTQI scene.

The second session will feature human rights activist and vice-president of Liberty Victoria, Jamie Gardiner, among others, and will delve into issues such as UK law reform and the impact of activism in Melbourne.

Minnis said both forum sessions would be recorded, and those speaking will help preserve the oral histories of early LGBTQI activists, especially as their stories are already being lost to time.

“We specifically want to have a clear recording of the history of what happened then. We’ve got people who aren’t well enough to speak or have passed away, so we think it’s timely now to get this on, get it recorded and get it out there,” she said..

Ken Davis, an early activist when he was a student at the University of Sydney – and Co-Chair, First Mardi Gras Inc. – told the Sentinel the forum would allow people to reflect on the present by analysing the past.

“The rights we won in the early ’70s and late ’70s are being wound back.”

– Ken Davis, activist and Mardi Gras 78er

“There’s been a lot of efforts to get testimonies from people involved in the early movements, but because it’s the 50th anniversary there’s a really good opportunity to hear from everyone,” he said.

“For me, if you reflect on the situation 50 years ago which gave birth to a lesbian and gay movement, there’s a whole lot of lessons for today. The world is being run by monsters. Nationalist, authoritarian, demagogic monsters,” Davis said, listing Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and various world leaders.

“Democratic rights are very much under threat, and that means the rights we won in the early ’70s and late ’70s are being wound back, just as the rights of women and ethnic minorities are.

“If these rights are being wound back, country after country, our mob is losing big time. So, it’s useful to look at the situation in the ’70s and ask, ‘What does this mean for now?'”

Davis, who came out in 1973, hopes as many people as possible can talk to show that the history of LGBTQI activism in Australia was created by an entire community – rather than just a handful of “great men”.

“We want a real variety of speakers because too often, our history is written as the contributions of a couple of great men, it tends to focus on one or two people,” he said.

“The best thing is to try to provide a diversity of voices and political opinions. Back then, the movement was really mixed, and there’s a limited amount of inspiration that you can get from one leader.”

The 2020 SALON78 forum will be held over two sessions: 3pm-5pm Sunday, 29 November and 3pm-5pm Sunday, 6 December. Registration is free and available via Eventbrite. For more information, email info@78ers.org.au or visit www.facebook.com/FirstMardiGrasInc.

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