30 years ago today, July 9, 1986, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Homosexual Reform Law Act by a vote of 49 Ayes to 44 Noes. It was a watershed moment in New Zealand’s progress, the moment the country took a giant leap forward. The video above has some images and audio from that time.
When New Zealand became a part of the British Empire in 1840, it became subject to British law, which included a death sentence for male homosexuality (sex between women was never illegal in New Zealand). In 1867, Britain reduced the penalty to life in prison, which I’ve read was thought a compassionate thing to do.
But in 1893, all sexual activity between men, even if it was consensual, was defined as “sexual assault”, punishable by life in prison, hard labour, and flogging.
The 1961 Crimes Act removed the penalty of life imprisonment, but all other penalties remained.
There were efforts to remove all criminal sanctions in the 1960s and 1970s, all of which went nowhere. In 1985, Labour MP Fran Wilde’s private member’s bill was drawn, and the battle joined.
The opponents of reform were all the usual suspects—social conservatives, rightwing religionists, conservative politicians who, whatever they really thought, were happy to exploit the issue for personal political gain. They people I know who lived through that time called it once of the darkest periods in New Zealand history, with opponents feeling free to express all sorts of vile anti-gay hatred openly.
One of the absolute worst was Norman Jones, a National Party MP for Invercargill, and a pretty nasty piece of work in general. In the video above, he can be heard screaming out at a meeting at the Wellington Town Hall in 1985, "Go back into the sewers where you come from...let all the normal people stand up ... we do not want homosexuality legalised. We don't want our children contaminated by those people." He concluded his spittle-flecked histrionics that night with, "You're looking into Hades, you're looking at the homosexuals, don't look too hard you might catch Aids."
Jones’ allies included rightwing “Christian” activists Keith Hay (who became wealthy form the home building company that still bears his name) and Peter Tait, who served one term as a National Party MP, among others, who formed the Coalition of Concerned Citizens to oppose Homosexual Law Reform.
The Salvation Army was also active in opposition to the bill, and helped opponents circulate petitions against it. To this day. LGBT New Zealanders have never forgiven the Salvation Army for their actions, despite the goup apologising for what they did, and hveing never interfered like that again (they took no active part in the debates on either the Civil Unions bill or the marriage equality bill, though they opposed both).
Opponents brought dozens of boxes of petitions to the steps of Parliament, with fresh-faced young people holding large New Zealand flags, creating a scene strongly reminiscent of Nuremberg rallies. It turned out that a large number of the boxes were actually virtually empty, and among the 800,000 or so signatures were tens of thousands by Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and others. Hundreds of pages of petitions were clearly all signed by the same person. It was not convincing.
As the bill made its way through Parliament, MPs tried to amend it to make the age of consent 18, when it was 16 for heterosexual sex (and lesbian sex, actually, since that had never been illegal). That attempt failed. The bill finally passed, received Royal Assent two days later, and became law on August 8, 1986.
Jones was dead of brain cancer some 17 months later. Hay died in 1997, age 79, and his son David, who at one point was Deputy Mayor of the former Auckland City, took up his dad’s anti-gay and rightwing “Christian” activism, famously jumping on floats in the former LGBT HERO parade to take photos of participants (I was living in Auckland when that happened), and always trying to prevent any City Council funding going to the LGBT communities as it did for other communities’ special events. Tait died in 1996.
The Coalition of Concerned Citizens tried to defeat the Labour Government in the 1987 General Election and failed (Labour lost only one electorate). The group, which was staunchly anti-communist and racist, as well as being virulently anti-gay, became an increasingly fringe extremist group and ceased to exist altogether in the late 1990s.
The passage of Homosexual Law Reform meant that for the first time in New Zealand history, gay men could live more openly. Civil rights protections wouldn't come until the Human Rights Act 1993. Even so, gay men no longer had to fear arrest for being who they were, because it was never just about sex: Reform meant gay men who fell in love could form a home together without fear of losing everything following an arrest and conviction.
Much has happened since Homosexual Law Reform—the Human Rights Act protections, Civil Unions, Marriage Equality—but there’s till much unfinished business.
The biggest bit of unfinished business for Homosexual Law Reform itself is that convictions of men prosecuted under the old law have never been quashed. Justice Minister Amy Adams, the National Party MP for Selwyn, refuses to even look at the issue, calling it “too difficult”. I don’t know if she gives up so easily on everything demanding justice, but it seems evident her hand will need to be forced.
Despite what Amy thinks, it’s not “too difficult”. The first step is for Parliament to formally apologise to those convicted of consensual homosexual acts before legalisation in 1986. That should be a no-brainer. For the rest, the government can set up a commission to review all the convictions, working in reverse order from 1986 and working backward. Some of them could easily be quashed right away.
Amy herself brought up the issue of pre-1986 convictions for child molesting. One of the problems is that since it was illegal for men to have sex with each other, technically there wasn't an age of consent (you can't give consent to commit a crime). So, many of those "child molesting" convictions could actually be between what would now be consenting adults. So, in at least some cases, pre-HLR prosecutors may have charged one consenting adult with "molesting" another consenting adult—though neither could be that until HLR took effect.
It gets more complicated: Add into the mix things like class and race, and it's probable that many of those convicted of "sex crimes" were, in fact, dealt with more harshly because they weren't white or well off, but their supposed "victim" was one or both. One of the easiest ways for prosecutors to do that was to claim one consensual partner actually raped the other consensual partner, or molested him. In those cases, one of the men could be convicted of assault or molestation when nothing could be farther from the truth.
So, Amy Adams is just being lazy and/or incompetent, making excuses for refusing to ensure justice is done for the victims of a horrendous and inexcusable law. She must do better.
Historic legal issues aside, there’s the larger problem of dealing with remaining anti-gay prejudice and bigotry, and I saw (and challenged) some of that this week.
This week, the rainbow flag was raised over Parliament’s forecourt for the first time in history. I shared a friend’s photo on Facebook, and it was eventually included in this graphic the Labour Party posted to its Facebook Page:
For that screengrab, I deleted one irrelevant comment that was actually second in this block of comments, and I blurred the names and profile photos because they’re not the point here, their prejudice is.
The first comment above never received any “Likes” or comments, which is a good thing. The second, even more illiterate one, was from a guy who similarly decided it was a good idea to preach against gay people. He didn’t know what he was talking about, as is usually the case for such people, and how I eventually dealt with his comments is a topic for another day. But after several people stood up to him and called him out for his anti-gay bigotry, he eventually deleted his comment. The next one was from a guy living in Australia and a pretty rabid rightwinger, but at least he didn’t use religion as an excuse for his prejudice.
The thing about these comments is that they’re not unique. Labour’s posts get ones like them all the time, and not necessarily on posts about a LGBT-related issue, either. We even recently had hosts on a sports radio station make homophobic remarks on air. So, this is not done yet.
However, tonight Auckland’s Sky Tower was lit in rainbow colours to celebrate the anniversary. So was Auckland’s Town Hall. So was the Civic Theater. We saw Sky Tower as we drove home this evening, and I saw photos of the others that Auckland Councillor Cathy Casey posted on Facebook.
Today is a day to celebrate, even if some people don’t want us to, or want to re-criminalise us. Hell, it’s a day to celebrate BECAUSE some people don’t want us to or want to re-criminalise us! Bigotry always loses in the end—always. For LGBT people in New Zealand, anti-gay bigotry began to die 30 years ago today.