Australia: Sydney Mardi Gras: How a violent first march spurred change

On Saturday, Sydney's famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras marks its 40th anniversary - and its first celebration since Australia legalised same-sex marriage. Much has changed since violence marred the first parade, writes Sharon Verghis in Sydney. 

Homosexuality was still illegal in New South Wales (NSW) in 1978, and gay Australians grappled daily with unchecked homophobia.

It was part of Australia's historic social conservatism, Ms Rowe believes, and was reflected in everything from a culture of police brutality and gay bashings to abusive language and discrimination at work. Mark Gillespie, now a University of Sydney academic, was a marcher that day. Years later, he would recount in The Conversation that as a school teacher then "'coming out' posed a major risk for me - it could mean the loss of my job".

But on this day, there was a rare window of freedom. For Ms Rowe, "it felt like a political awakening - it was the first time I could say, I am a lesbian and I have a right to be here". The marchers had received police permission to walk from Oxford Street to Hyde Park, and the mood was festive. Drinkers, curious bystanders and the occasional drag queen, drawn out by their chants of "out of the bars and into the streets", swelled numbers to almost 1,000.

But things turned ugly when the group strayed out of the permission zone and police confiscated the lead float. Ms Rowe and the others marched on defiantly. She says "the horror started" when they reached a World War Two memorial fountain. "We got trapped. The police blocked off all the entrances and they started picking us off."

Batons thudded against bodies. "You heard people screaming, police were grabbing people, you could see people throwing things, it was just a cacophony of sounds, and the energy just totally changed," Ms Rowe says. Read more via the BBC