How did the ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’ exorcise the demons of Darlo?
The Colourful History of Oxford Street.
Originally a well-worn ‘muru’, or Aboriginal trail on Gadigal land, this street was cleared and converted for wheeled vehicles in the 19th century and officially named Oxford Street in 1875.
By the 1880s, the street had become among the most frequented in Sydney, and a popular spot for shopping, drinking, and entertainment. Like today, all this fun tended to leave a lot of mess, with hotel and shop owners frequently complaining about rubbish in the streets and gutters. Eventually the mass of trash, carts, and customers required the street to be extended and widened, and in 1908 the famous Taylor Square was born, rising from the ashes of the demolished Victoria Hotel.
Oxford Street continued to evolve throughout the 20th century, becoming a thoroughfare connecting the eastern suburbs to the inner city. From the 1960s onwards, the street gained an increasing number of bars, saunas, clubs, and other venues that welcomed the LGBTIQ community. Over time, Oxford Street would become the de-facto queer capital of Sydney, culminating in an event that would seal the deal forever.
The First Marchers
On the 24th of June 1978, at around 10pm, around 500 members and allies of Sydney’s LGBTIQ community came to gather in Taylor Square to stand against the discrimination and ostracisation of their community. The crowd was diverse, with people of all orientations wearing outfits ranging from strait-laced suits and ties to colourful and fabulous costumes. The group marched down Oxford Street to shouts of ‘out of the bars and into the streets!’, with no idea of what was in store for them further down the road.
When the protestors reached Kings Cross and began to head down Darlinghurst Road, the police were waiting for them. Blocking off the side streets and ordering the illegal march to disperse, the police began to make arrests. Violence broke out between the police and the marchers, as people threw bins, bottles and crates at police cars. The march had turned into a battle.
Fifty-three protestors were arrested and hauled off to Darlinghurst Police Station. The protest followed them, and a huge crowd stayed outside the station collecting bail and demanding the release of their fellow marchers. Numerous accounts from these Mardi Gras veterans, now known as “78’ers”, make mention of the violence in the cells that night. To top it off, the names, addresses and occupations of the arrestees were published in the Sydney Morning Herald, leading to many being fired from their jobs and ostracised by their friends and families.
Drag Nuns and Darlo Station
The notorious Darlinghurst Police Station had a checkered history that began long before the events of June 24th, 1978. In addition to being associated with incidents of brutality and homophobia, the station was believed to be a base for a number of corrupt individuals, to the point where officers had started to jokingly call it ‘Goldenhurst’ – referring to the potential to line one’s pockets while stationed there.
The closure of the Darlinghurst Police Station in 1987 was a cause for celebration for many, particularly the queer community. To mark the occasion, the activist group the ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’, came to say good riddance. Dressed in their signature drag-nun outfits they sang a mocking farewell as the officers packed their things. Sister Miriam Beth lay’em capped off the occasion by performing one of the group’s trademarks – a mock exorcism on the whole station.
City of Sydney 2022, Oxford Street: A History from Track to High Street. Accessed 17 February 2022 from: https://news.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/photos/oxford-street-darlinghurst-a-history-from-track-to-high-street?image-slug=a-well-trodden-path
Harris, G & Witte, J 2018, The First Sydney Mardi Gras: What Happened on the Night of 24-25 June 1978?. Accessed 17 Febrary 2022 from: https://kxacf.org.au/the-first-sydney-mardi-gras-what-happened-on-the-night-of-24-25-june-1978/#
Larriera, A 1987, ‘Gaiety as Darlo Copy Shut up Shop’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March 9, 1987, p.3. Accessed 18 Febrary 2022 from: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=iL5f5cZgq8MC&dat=19870309&printsec=frontpage&hl=en