Lance Gowland, the truck driver at the first Mardi Gras and subsequent founder of the organisation, died on Monday aged 72 after a long battle with cancer.

Community members remembered Gowland as the man who drove through the police line after officers cut short the planned protest route in 1978. He was the first arrested and the first bailed out by the crowd.

He was a driving force in keeping Mardi Gras going, Ron Austin said. He was a beautiful man, very outgoing, very forthright. He was so adamant about gay rights.

Gowland was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the original Mardi Gras organisation for his ongoing involvement in turning the historic clash at Kings Cross into a yearly celebration.

In a 2006 interview with the Pride History Group, Gowland said he had pushed for Mardi Gras to move away from the usual street march to become more celebratory and colourful. However, he lost his position on the organising committee in 1984.

Although Gowland withdrew from active involvement in gay politics after his time with Mardi Gras, he maintained his activism in other causes including communism and the treatment of refugees. In protest at the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution he sailed his yacht to Nauru with the Flotillas of Hope in 2004.

Gowland spent his final four months at St Vincent’s Hospice and died peacefully, surrounded by his three children, Geoff, Vanessa and Christopher.

After separating from his wife Norma in 1969 and joining the gay solidarity movement, he continued to visit his Down’s syndrome daughter in hospital every day, Austin said. He was a wonderful father, and he remained friends with Norma.

Gowland joined the CAMP NSW counselling service in 1972 and was involved in everything at that time. When the Gay Solidarity Group formed in 1973 he joined that too.

Austin said he remembered kissing and holding hands with Gowland at bus shelters as political statements.

We heard about the demonstrations and parades in New York and San Francisco. We had the idea of celebrating who we are, so Lance ran with the idea, Austin told Sydney Star Observer.

He got permission from police to use the street and got the truck, because we only had the one vehicle, and the rest is history.

The next year he really kept it on the street. It was his efforts and those of a few other people who kept Mardi Gras going.

New Mardi Gras sent flowers to Gowland’s bedside but declined to comment on his impact on the organisations.

His partner was Dr Jim Walker, who died several years ago of AIDS, and was best known for his work helping gay people through his Leichhardt clinic.

Gowland developed prostate cancer almost 10 years ago. His son Christopher returned from overseas and lived with him for the last four years. He moved into St Vincent’s Hospice four months ago when radiation treatment failed.

A memorial is being organised and will be advertised on the Sydney Star Observer website when details are available.

Poll: Should a memorial to the Mardi Gras 78ers be erected on Oxford St? Vote at www.starobserver.com.au

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