Reception for Ron Austin

(6pm, Thursday 27 February 2014, Lord Mayor's Reception Room)

Hello, everyone and welcome to Town Hall for our reception to honour Ron Austin.

There's a saying that great oaks from little acorns grow. That's certainly true of the extravaganza that is now Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the largest night time celebration of GLBTI pride in the world.

Most people know that the first Mardi Gras was held in 1978 and that it ended in a riot in Kings Cross. Far fewer people know how that first Mardi Gras happened.

As with most things, someone had to have the idea. That someone was Ron Austin.

Ron grew up in Maitland. When he was 16 he entered a monastery, and five years later returned to the family milk business and went to art school in Newcastle.

He moved to Sydney, and became involved with the movement for after school care for school kids in Sydney.

Ron also knew he was gay. Like many gay men, it was not easy for him as a young adult. There were no positive role models. If homosexuals appeared in films or plays, they were usually figures of fun, or met a tragic end. There were no easy places to meet, apart from a few discreet bars or the "beats".

Consensual male homosexual sex was still illegal. Gay men could still be arrested and gaoled for "soliciting" or "inciting other men to have sex with them.

Frequently the other men were undercover police. Gay men "doing the beats" were frequently soft targets for bashers and robbers, as well as the police. People were ostracised by others, and often lost their jobs if they were revealed to be gay or lesbian. There were no anti-discrimination laws.

In 1970, Ron heard about a new group being formed in Balmain. That group was CAMP Campaign Against Moral Persecution. It was Australia's first gay and lesbian rights group.

But advocacy was not its only focus. It was also an educational group and a self-help group.

One of its early activities was starting Phone-a-Friend, which evolved into the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service.

Ron became a volunteer phone counsellor. Talking to other lesbians and gay men about their experience convinced him that political action was needed to change laws and change attitudes.

He became involved in CAMP's Action group, the political group within CAMP. He took part in demonstrations against the sacking of a fellow activist, and against aversion therapy, the shock therapy that some psychiatrists believed could cure homosexuals.

He was also involved in preparing CAMP's submission to the 1970s Royal Commission into Human Relationships. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church tried to stop CAMP from giving evidence.

Ron was also part of a small group that attempted to educate the wider community about homosexuality. He gave talks to tertiary students, Apex, Rotary Clubs and other groups.

By 1978 he was starting to wonder what the protests and speak outs were achieving. The gay scene was starting to develop along Oxford Street as well as Kings Cross, with new bars and dance clubs attracting a younger gay crowd.

How to get them involved? Did everything have to be so serious? Could they have some fun as well, which might attract some of the dance club crowd?

In June 1978, Ron and his friends were part of the audience at Sydney's first gay film festival, held at the long gone Paris Theatre.

One film included footage of the San Franciso Freedom Day Parade. Ron was particularly taken with the colour and costumes, particularly one man dressed as a butterfly. He carried a placard which read "In a world full of caterpillars, it takes balls to be a butterfly".

Ron was inspired, and an idea formed. A few nights later, he shared his idea with friends. They should have a street party, in costumes that would attract people out of the bars.

"Oh, you mean like a Mardi Gras?" Marg McMahon, one of his fellow phone counsellors asked.

Around that time, another group of activists were planning for the International Day of Gay Solidarity on 24 June.

One of Ron's friends suggested that they go and talk to this group. They weren't enthusiastic. One person thought the idea was silly. Another said they were too busy to take on organising it.

Fortunately, the late Lance Gowland, another of Ron's friends said he would do it, so it was included in the Solidarity Day program.

The poster promoted the event as a "night time parade and fiesta".

A large crowd gathered at Taylor Square on the night of 24 June. A truck driven by Lance Gowland led the Parade. A banner which read 'Repeal all anti-homosexual laws and stop police harassment of homosexuals' decorated the truck that led the parade. A sound system blared out the song Glad to be gay. With Lance Gowland as driver, it was the first Mardi Gras float.

The crowd followed the truck onto the road, and walked, marched and even danced down Oxford Street and into history.

While Ron, his friends, and some other people were in costume, it really wasn't the fiesta Ron imagined. But the seeds were sown. Within two to three years, it was on its way to becoming the Mardi Gras it is today.

So Ron, when we all gather for the Parade on Saturday night, we have you to thank - for your imagination, your idea and your optimism.

And in celebrating you, we also honour your peers, the early gay and lesbian activists, some of whom are here tonight. You took the risks, staged the first protests, started the campaigns, and offered support to many other lesbians and gay men. Without them and you, we would have no GLBTI community, and Sydney would be a less accepting, open city.

Happy birthday, Ron and happy Mardi Gras.