SOME call him the ‘Godfather of Mardi Gras’ and with friends and the great and good of the local LGBTI community in tow, Ron Austin celebrated his 85th birthday in style last night.

At a special reception hosted by Lord Mayor Clover Moore inside Sydney Town Hall, Austin was toasted and lauded for his leading role in the gay rights movement of the 1970s and for helping bring about the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – an event that is now considered the largest annual LGBTI pride parade in the world.

Speaking at the reception, Moore paid tribute to Austin’s decades of activism fighting for gay and lesbian rights.

“We have you to thank for your imagination, your idea and your optimism,” the Lord Mayor said.

“In celebrating you we also honour your peers – the early gay and lesbian activists some of whom are here tonight. You took the risks, you staged the first protests, you started the campaign, you offered support to many other lesbians and gay men. Without them and you we would not have had a LGBTI community and Sydney would be a less accepting and open city.”

It was Austin in mid-1978 who while in a gathering with other gay activists came up with the idea for a street party or parade to be also held after a protest march that was planned for the day of June 24 to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. The parade started from Taylor Square and got larger as it made its way down Oxford Street with up to 2000 people joining in from some of the gay bars lining the district at the time, including the popular Patches.

At a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Australia, the participants would be met with violence at the hands of police when the parade made its way to Kings Cross. 53 people were eventually arrested.

Steve Warren, co-ordinator of the 78ers Mardi Gras group, who was present at the function, told the Star Observer that Austin was deservedly a key figure in the LGBTI community but little did they know in 1978 what a pivotal place in Australian history the Mardi Gras would eventually take.

“If it wasn’t for Ron’s simple idea to celebrate who we are and to get the ball rolling on the first Mardi Gras and Ron’s courageous stand with the support of fellow 78’ers (including fellow organisers Lance Gowland, Dr Jim Walker, Kym Skinner, Jeff Stanton & others) that GLBTQI people should be treated with dignity, equality and acceptance then we wouldn’t have had the platform for the many positive changes that have occurred for GLBTQI rights since that first Mardi Gras,” Warren said.

“At the time no-one knew that the works of many on GLBTQI rights prior to 1978 would have culminated in an event that brought it all to a head that the general community could no longer ignore. What the Mardi Gras is today as an internationally renowned event, as a continuing celebration of who we are, has undoubtedly raised the bar of public awareness of the rights and needs for our community. For that reason it should never be forgotten what the 78ers set off in motion, including the hard work of our community before and since ’78!”

Austin was also heavily involved with CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution), having joined the organisation in 1971 only a year after it was established. Credited as a mentor by many who know him, Austin was also instrumental in setting up what would be the precursor to the Gay and Lesbian Telephone Counselling Service in 1973.

Ben Cooper and Melody Gardiner, who helped set up the Equal Marriage Rights Australia Facebook page which now has over a quarter of a million followers, told the Star Observer today’s activists in the LGBTI community owed the likes of Austin plenty of credit.

“As a young LGBTI rights activist, active in the fight for marriage equality, the 78ers are people who I have long admired and have immense respect for. It’s because of people like Ron Austin that I now have the right to fight to change the remaining legislative inequalities and homophobic attitudes that persist in our society today,” Cooper said.

“We owe a lot to Ron, members of CAMP, the 78ers and the generations before us,” Gardiner added. “It’s awe-inspiring to reflect on how much change they have not just witnessed but actively brought about. They spoke out clearly and proudly at a time when they faced imprisonment, electro-shock therapy and worse. Throughout all this they found and created community, seeking each other out and bringing strangers in under their wings. They knew the meaning of community and I think my generation can learn a lot from that.”

Over a slice of chocolate birthday cake, Austin himself told the Star Observer that it was up to all LGBTI people to remind their peers and others in the community what an immense and important role gay and lesbians had played in Australian history and across global culture.

“We’re talking about all the way from Plato to Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare,” he said. “These are huge figures just in our Western culture and we should always be proud to say that I’m gay and willing to fight for it.”

Photo: Serkan Ozturk

 

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