Thursday, July 06, 2017

NZ begins to right a grievous wrong

Today the New Zealand Parliament took the first steps toward righting a very serious historic wrong by providing a way for gay men who were convicted for consensual adult sexual activity prior to 1986, when laws against it were finally repealed, to have that conviction expunged. Parliament also apologised to those gay men for those convictions and the serious wrong done to them. This is an important first step to righting a serious historic wrong.

Prior to enactment of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986, sex between males was illegal (sex between females was never illegal). As a result, many men—no one has any idea how many—were convicted for activity that would not be illegal today. This fact means that the convicted men would be obligated to reveal their conviction for any number of reasons, such as applying for some jobs or for visas to visit foreign countries. Having the law on the books also left gay men open to blackmail and extortion.

The bill, the Criminal Records (Expungement of Convictions for Historical Homosexual Offences) Bill, which passed its first reading today (video above), is long overdue. The government resisted action for years because they thought it was too difficult because the old law was over-broad and imprecise. In the days of the law, prosecutions almost never made a distinction between consensual sexual activity between adult men, which has been legal since 1986, and activity that would still be illegal, such as non-consensual sex (assault) and sex where one or both partner is below the legal age of consent (currently 16).

The government finally realised that the extreme injustice of the old law demanded remedy to erase the arrests, convictions, and imprisonments, and extreme pain and human damage that law was responsible for. So, men convicted for consensual sexual activity with another adult will be able to apply to have their convictions expunged. If the victim of the law has died, their partner or family can apply on their behalf. And, upon passage, the New Zealand Parliament will go on record as expressing its regret for all the harm the old law did.

Critics have said there should have been a blanket pardon, and it’s true that some men may have been convicted for activity that would still be a crime, however, there are documented cases where a white man was let off and his Māori partner was convicted of assault. Similarly, when both partners were under age, sometimes only one partner was prosecuted, with the white or higher class man escaping prosecution. So it’s not enough to just provide relief only to men convicted of consensual adult sexual activity. The process for judging applications for expungement must be flexible enough to right wrongful convictions that may seem, at first glance, to have been legitimate.

The other unresolved issue is compensation. A truly just end to this sorry story must mean that the surviving victims of the old law are compensated for their suffering and victimisation. Any such payment is by necessity a token, but it is a tangible symbol of the New Zealand Parliament expressing its regret for what happened, and it would give real strength to its much-delayed apology.

But even with those short-comings, this bill is an important and historic moment: It is a message from Parliament that New Zealand values LGBT people, that they are truly the equals of their heterosexual friends and family members. It is one of the last remaining legislative remedies needed to fulfill that promise. Better late than never.

One final note: Even as I say the bill needs to go farther than the government wants, I’m aware of how much farther this goes than some countries have been willing to go. For example, I don’t know that any US state has apologised for the harm done by their laws. In fact, some states still have such laws on their books, and that’s inexcusable. Far worse, in some counties gay men can STILL be put to death for being who they are.

Today was a very important day for New Zealand, and for LGBT people here and in the world. There’s so much more work needed around the world, absolutely, but here in New Zealand we’re working on finding a way forward. Well done to all those who helped move this forward.

The video above from the New Zealand Parliament is the entire debate on the First Reading. It’s just under an hour and a half, but it’s worth watching to see what it looks like when politicians speak on a matter relating to LGBT people without extremist politicians saying crazy things. American politicans could learn a LOT.

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