Riot recounts the birth of the Sydney Mardi Gras and the gay rights movement
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Riot recounts the birth of the Sydney Mardi Gras and the gay rights movement

There is a famous photo of Robyn Plaister. In the black-and-white image she is sprawled on the ground in front of a paddy wagon, one arm gripped by a group of young activists, the other dragged in the opposite direction by a uniformed cop.

Forty years on, Plaister can still remember the moment it was taken. "I remember a [camera] flash and thinking, oh no," she says.

Xavier Samuel (left) and Damon Herriman in Riot.

Xavier Samuel (left) and Damon Herriman in Riot.

Photo: Photo: MarkRogers

That violent winter's night in 1978 marked the beginning of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. When the police broke up the parade, they were brutal. Plaister saw them dragging women by their hair. She heard her friends screaming. That photo, which ran in the newspaper the following Monday, risked exposing her as a lesbian and put her job as a maths teacher at risk.

"I was teaching at an Anglican girls' school at the time and the principal called me in at the lunchtime break and asked why I was at the Mardi Gras," she told Fairfax Media decades later. "I didn't dare say much. I said I supported the principle. Luckily, perhaps, I was not asked about my sexuality."

ABC'S Riot recounts the birth of the Sydney Mardi Gras and the gay rights movement.

ABC'S Riot recounts the birth of the Sydney Mardi Gras and the gay rights movement.

Photo: Photo: MarkRogers
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On another winter's night last year, Plaister returned to the spot on Oxford Street where the parade began, to see scenes filmed for the ABC telemovie Riot. In the year of Mardi Gras' 40th anniversary, the film follows key figures of Australia's gay and lesbian rights movement during the 1970s.

There were two Robyn Plaisters on Riot's set that night: the real one, now in her sixties, and actress Jessica De Gouw, who was dressed as Plaister had been back in 1978, in an Afghan coat. "It was a bit surreal," says Plaister. "All these things were coming back to me."

The first Mardi Gras began joyously – a celebratory march through the streets after a day of protest and commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. The catch cry was "out of the bars and into the streets!" The costumes, for some, were a way of preserving anonymity.

Activist Lance Gowland, played by Damon Herriman in Riot, had obtained a permit to march down Oxford Street to Hyde Park. He drove a truck with speakers playing music.

Damon Herriman stars in Riot.

Damon Herriman stars in Riot.

Photo: Photo: MarkRogers

As hundreds of revellers joined in, the police grew more aggressive, hurrying them along. When the parade diverted up William Street to Darlinghurst Road, there was violence, chaos and 53 arrests. Fairfax newspapers, including The Sydney Morning Herald, published the names, addresses and occupations of those arrested – a move that saw many lose their jobs and their families, for which the paper has subsequently apologised.

Riot's story is recent history. Herriman and his fellow cast members feel the responsibility of portraying characters who helped shape Australia's gay rights movement – many of whom are still alive.

Damon Herriman plays activist Lance Gowland in Riot.

Damon Herriman plays activist Lance Gowland in Riot.

Photo: MARK ROGERS Photographer

Gowland died from cancer 10 years ago at the age of 72, but Herriman met his three children when they came to participate as extras in the Mardi Gras scene (before he came out, Gowland was married to Norma Gowland).

"Both his ex-wife and his kids have talked about what a great dad he was," says Herriman. "That's one of the beauties of the script. We not only get the story of Lance and the other members of the gay and lesbian community who were fighting for rights and heading towards the '78 Mardi Gras, we also see the personal lives of these characters."

The script is informed by interviews with surviving '78ers, recorded oral histories and books about the period. For screenwriter Greg Waters, the challenge was deciding what to leave out. "We're talking about a crazy, amazing, fabulous bunch of people and every one of them had a great story," he says. "Anarchists and feminists and liberationists and communists and spartacists and unionists and conservatives and nutjobs.

"We wanted to try to bring in the diversity and the fractiousness. There were lots of different groups with lots of different attitudes and they didn't always necessarily agree with each other. So the Mardi Gras was a bit of a triumph over division, really."

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

Waters belongs to a later generation of gay activists. Before his career as a writer, he worked in politics. He was a committee member of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and an openly gay councillor for South Sydney. Ask him what the legacy of the '78ers has meant for him and he pauses.

"Oh my god," he says. "It meant we had footsteps to follow in … We had people who'd lived through years of activism and protest, who had the experience of campaigning for law reform and throwing themselves against the walls of indifference in Parliament House. We were still confronting indifference, isolation, fear of exposure and political unwillingness to engage, but we had a template to follow."

As Riot was filming, Australia was hurtling towards the vote on marriage equality. The streets surrounding its location shoots were garlanded in rainbow "vote yes" flags. Prime-time TV ads urged voters to think of the children.

Like many others at the time, Waters was torn between hope that a yes vote would prevail and disgust at what he called "this pointless debate".

"We are making [Riot] firmly believing that by the time it goes to air, marriage equality will be passed," he said.

And so it went. But if the debate in the lead-up to the vote proved anything, it's that tolerance and respect cannot be taken for granted.

Waters says he did not create Riot with a political goal. He is wary of placing too much faith in television's ability to change hearts and minds. Besides, he says, "we'll probably be singing to the choir".

"But the more diverse stories we can get onto our screens, the better. And it's those stories that are specific and personal that make you realise that there's no longer a homogenous, white bread mainstream out there.

"You've got to tell stories that reach right to the hearts of people and represent contemporary Australia in all its diversity."

WHAT Riot

WHEN ABC, Sunday, 8.30pm

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