USyd is Burning

The proud history of LGBTQI+ activism at Sydney University stretches over nearly five decades.

Queer activist Julie McCrossin dressed as a nun in protest, being escorted from St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney in 1975.

In the lead-up to Mardi Gras, it’s important to remember that Mardi Gras began as a protest: a rejection of heteronormativity and discontent with the social status quo. The corporation of Mardi Gras today is antithetical to the legacy of queer activism. Queer activism isn’t about bedazzled ATMs or rainbow painted aircrafts. It’s about continuing the legacy of resistance that’s spanned for nearly half a century.

Historically, Sydney University has been a focal point of queer activism, both on a state and national level. It was home to some of the first people to publicly come out in this country: historian Garry Wotherspoon and playwright Nick Enright. And it was a place of action for the gay liberation movement, which urged lesbians and gay men to protest against criminalised homosexuality, workplace discrimination and the demonisation of homosexuality in mainstream discourse.

Simultaneously, there was a growing anti-gay movement, headed by former USyd student and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who won the SRC presidency in 1977 after running on an anti-gay platform. Although the counter movement gained some traction,  queer activism persisted throughout the 80s. Renowned activist Lex Watson pushed the USyd staff union to pass an anti-discrimination motion for gays and lesbians on campus, which paved the way for similar action in the NSW Trades & Labor Council, as well as law reform in NSW. These stories however, are only fragments of a much larger narrative of resistance.

A protest in 1974 for student teacher Penny Short, who lost her scholarship at Macquarie University after publishing a lesbian love poem in the student newspaper.

More recently, activists at Sydney University fought for marriage equality, as well as for the support and reinstatement of the Safe Schools program. An arduous battle was fought with the University of Sydney to sign on to marriage equality.  The battle was part of the wider Rainbow Campus campaign, which called for the university to publicly support marriage equality, recognise transgender students’ preferred names when conducting administrative work, implement Safe Schools training for all staff, install more gender neutral bathrooms, allow 24 hour access to LGBTQI+ spaces, and devote student club funds to LGBTQI+ programs. In 2017, the University agreed to sign on to all demands bar the public recognition of marriage equality. Most of the other demands have yet to be met as well. Vice Chancellor Michael Spence’s Anglican church notably donated $1 million to the ‘NO’ Campaign in October 2017. Despite multiple on-campus clashes  between’ ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ campaigners, which gained the attention of national and international media, marriage equality  can very much be considered one of the biggest wins the queer community and its allies have ever witnessed.

2018 is a fresh start with new goals for the queer community. University of Sydney Queer Officers Ray Prout and Jazz Breen said that it was time to move away from “bourgeois issues” and “pink capitalism.” More concretely, this means, recognising marriage equality as a win, but also as a campaign that has “held us back from doing almost anything else.” Prout and Breen encouraged people to “go to rallies, chat to people at social events, go to organising meetings, question our own beliefs about the world, and to listen to the people around us.” The strong history of queer activism is far from over, and we too can be the like the activists before us. So remember, whether you’re watching or marching in the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras, remember why we’re there, but also where we have to be.