Gay activist alleges police intimidation at rally

Police and protestors at the Trans Day of Resistance Rally in Newtown on Saturday, 20 November, 2021. Photo: Zebedee Parkes: Social justice filmmaker & photographer/Facebook.


As a gay man in the 1970s, noted Sydney LGBTQI activist Gary Burns was afraid of NSW Police officers. Homosexuality was illegal, police routinely swept gay hate crimes under the proverbial carpet, and activists – including Burns – were regularly arrested and bashed by police.

“I’ve been bashed by police in the seventies at the Darlinghurst Police Station when I was a young fellow,” Burns told the Sentinel.

“They’d put telephone books on your stomach [when they punched you], and they did that because it left no bruises. They’d hose you down in the middle of winter and tell you to get lost without any charges. So I’m always mindful that I could find myself in a position where I could be tackled to the ground and handcuffed and arrested,” he said.

While things have improved significantly since those dark days, thanks largely to the activism of people like Burns, it appears there’s still some way to go – as Burns discovered when he happened across the Trans Day of Resistance Rally in Newtown on Saturday (20 November).

The well-known activist was not initially there to attend the rally but, instead, was on the hunt for some spices from a specific store in King Street.

“I saw all the police lined up as I walked around the corner and realised it was a rally for trans rights. I walked up to an inspector of police and asked, ‘Who is your rally commander?’ as I have a lot of dealings with police in my line of work. He pointed me to an officer, Martin Fileman,” Burns said.

“I went to walk towards him, because I realised Martin Fileman is the Superintendent of [Eastern Suburbs] Police Area Command (PAC), where I live, and I hadn’t met him before, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to go up and say hello.”

What happened next took Burns back to the “bad old days”, when police were hostile to LGBTQI people.

“Before I got near him, he yelled ‘Stop!’ and put his hands up,” Burns said.

“He started yelling at me at the top of his voice, ‘Don’t come any closer! Step back!’

“I stepped back in shock thinking, ‘What’s happened here?’ because he was so loud and aggressive.

“I was quite taken aback and frightened. I only went to introduce myself and he was aggressive and intimidating for absolutely no reason.”

Burns told the Sentinel that a short time later, another officer ordered him to move on and leave the area, despite the rally being a public protest in a public space.

LGBTQI activist Gary Burns, pictured, was shocked and upset by allegedly hostile police behaviour at the Trans Day of Resistance Rally in Newtown on Saturday. Photo: supplied.

Burns subsequently complained to the Eastern Suburbs PAC and spoke over the phone with a NSW Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officer (GLLO), Senior Constable Maria Flood. Her reaction further compounded his disappointment, he said, when Flood informed him she was unable to speak with him about the matter.

“Fileman is my boss. You’re talking to me about my boss … I can’t talk to you about my boss,” Flood is alleged to have said.

Flood offered no alternative means for Burns to make a complaint, Burns claimed, although he has since emailed several members of the police force about the matter – who have not replied.

“I know the police very well … What that means is they don’t know what to do,” he said.

There was a heavy police presence at the Trans Day of Resistance Rally in Newtown on Saturday, 20 November, 2021. Photo: Zebedee Parkes: social justice filmmaker & photographer/Facebook.

The Sentinel reached out to the NSW Police Media Unit for comment regarding the alleged incident.

“While Mr Burns may have sent emails to police contacts, we are not able to comment on personal correspondence,” a NSW Police spokesperson said.

“As with any planned protest or demonstration, police attended the rally to ensure there was a safe environment for participants and minimise any potential impacts on the community.”

Burns expressed his disappointment at how the matter was handled after trying to maintain positive relations with police as a longtime activist and LGBTQI community elder.

He has been a long-term supporter of police participation in the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade and has worked with police on issues such as gay hate crimes and policing at ‘beats’.

“My view is very simple. We need to work with the police and how are we going to work with the police if we’re treated like this?” Burns said.

Tileah Dobson is the news editor of the Sydney Sentinel.