In August 1988, a newly formed group pressing for law reform in Tasmania set up a stall at a popular outdoor market in Hobart.
The group wanted to gather petition signatures and distribute information about decriminalising homosexuality.
It seemed a modest gesture, but it eventually led to arguably the largest act of gay civil disobedience in Australian history.
After one complaint about the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group’s stall in Salamanca Market, Hobart City Council banned it.
The city authorities ordered anyone staffing or supporting the stall, or found in possession of a gay law reform petition or a poster, to be arrested.
Over the next seven Saturday mornings, 130 people took up that challenge.
There were large protests across Australia and by December the council had relented.
Yesterday In a moving ceremony in the Hobart Town Hall the Council apologised.
Lord Mayor Rob Valentine, an audience of 200 former arrestees, LGBT community members and civic leaders including State Premier David Bartlett, coincided with the 20th anniversary of the the arrests and the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
To rousing applause, the Lord Mayor said:
“The Hobart City Council apologises for prohibiting the gay law reform stall at Salamanca Market in 1988 and for the resulting arrests and bans.
“We are sorry for the pain and trauma caused to all involved, including GLBTI people, their family members, friends and supporters and those Council officers who were required to carry out the Council decision.
“We are also sorry that the actions we took may have encouraged ill-will and discrimination towards GLBTI people in the broader community.
“We resolve that actions such as these will never happen again.”
The Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group’s spokesperson Rodney Croome said after the ceremony:
“20 years ago, as we sat in police cells for the ‘crime’ of being ourselves, we could not possibly have imagined something like this.
“People everywhere who suffer human rights abuses should take this apology as a sign that no matter how bad things seem there is always hope of a better future.”
Prior to the apology a Council-sponsored photo exhibition of the arrests was opened at the Salamanca Arts Centre by former arrestee, Richard Hale.