25 years on – homosexual law reform in New Zealand

Homosexual law reform was what it was called, and it was also the name of the act of Parliament, but it was also an amendment to the Crimes Act 1961, sections 141 (indecency between males) and 142 (sodomy). To the lesbian and gay communities of the time – and the lesbian community played as much of a role in overturning the law as did the gay male community – those clauses criminalising male same-sex activity (female same-sex activity was not similarly criminalised) were themselves an offence.

They were also out of step with the spirit of the age. Politically minded adults in 1986 had been active over the preceding 20 years in the peace movement, the environmental movement, the anti-racism movement, the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement itself. Such people didn’t need to be convinced that the law needed to be changed.

People march in support of homosexual law reform

People march in support of homosexual law reform

The election of a Labour government in July 1984, with a leadership a generation younger than that of the outgoing government – 43-year-old David Lange replaced 63-year-old Robert Muldoon as prime minister – made the time auspicious.

The United Kingdom had decriminalised in 1967, Canada in 1969 and many US and Australian states and territories in the 1970s and early 1980s. And it was possible to point to many countries which had a long history of tolerance – Japan, France, Italy and the Netherlands, for example.

On the other side of the ledger there was the ‘let sleeping dogs lie argument’. Gay men in the late 1970s and early 1980s did not conduct their lives expecting at any minute to be arrested. I know this because I was one of them. The real stress, everyone understood, came not from fear of the police, but in dealings with family, friends and workmates, and for lesbians as much as for gay men. ‘Coming out’ stories were the stock in trade of getting to know another gay person and the questions were always the same: ‘Does your family know?’, ‘How many of your friends know?’, ‘Does anyone at your work know?’

So what would happen if law reform became a real possibility? It didn’t take long to find out. As soon as MP Fran Wilde announced her intention of introducing the bill into Parliament – in March 1985 – a tsunami of invective, outrage and anger filled the airwaves, the letters to the editor pages, and the mail bags of members of Parliament.

In an irony, which has since become familiar but at the time was not, it was the opponents of law reform, disgusted though they claimed to be about the whole notion of male-to-male sex, who seemed unable to talk of anything else. Homosexual men were not people; they were sex machines, and predatory, proselytising ones at that. To the observer it was puzzling that an activity that was so appalling could nonetheless be so seductive that the slenderest of exposures to it could lead a youth astray. Now we have a name for this mindset – homophobia – then we did not, or only just.

The onset of AIDS, a barely understood and terrifying disease at that time, added fuel to the fire. Not only were gay men indecent, they were bearers of contagion – never mind that they were also its victims.

In retrospect, the outpouring was cathartic. After that first wave of anger and hatred debate started to take place and slowly the middle ground shifted.

What middle ground? Lesbians and gay men did not need to be convinced that change was justified or overdue; the most vocal of their adversaries would never be convinced. It was those in the middle, who had never reflected on the matter, but who were probably prejudiced in an unthinking way, who shifted.

This is not to underplay the heroic efforts of the law reform campaigners, who demonstrated, lobbied and argued month after month. Without them there would have been no change at all. But someone had to be convinced and it was this middle ground that was.

In a fashion very much similar to the debate over the South African rugby tour four years earlier – but at even greater speed – dinner tables, kitchens, staff rooms, even classrooms were witness to heated arguments.

From my own recollection the vanguard in these arguments, which happened in my family as in so many others, was taken by women. It was women who ‘called out’ their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, all of whom generally felt more awkward and even more vulnerable with the issue. I don’t recollect there being lots of discussions amongst fellows at pubs, but when those men returned home and made the mistake of voicing a prejudice – ‘We don’t want a bunch of fags thinking they can drink with us’ – then the sparks flew.

This is of course not to say that all women were liberal and all men were conservative, but there was a gender dynamic in the debate. And maybe no surprise in that. After all law reform was in part about the right to love – men – and most women turned out to grasp that better than most men.

I was in Parliament the night the bill passed (the decriminalisation part; the human rights part had to wait another seven years) in July 1986, some 16 months, several million spoken words, hundreds of thousands of written words and hundreds of kilometres walked on demonstrations and protests, since that announcement by Fran Wilde in March 1985. The atmosphere was electric and the voting, as is well known, close. MPs were aware that the public mood had shifted – but how far, they wondered.

Many of those who voted against decriminalisation were not opposed to it (most indeed would have probably accepted an 18 years old limit - Wilde and her supporters rightly held out for 16). But they were spooked by the venom of the opposition and the likely effect at the next election of being seen to favour ‘immorality’.

That said, the night of 9 July 1986 was also a demonstration of the best side of democratic politics - accomplishing change through a blend of reason, passion and commitment.

New Zealand is a much different – and better – place for lesbians and gay men in 2011 than it was in 1986, and that means it has to be better for everyone else – if I don’t have rights, you lose out too. There are still struggles to be fought for lesbian and gay, not to mention bisexual and transgender rights, particularly in high schools and some churches. And many other struggles doubtless, where principles must dive into politics and take on prejudice.

The struggle for homosexual law reform, March 1985 to July 1986, which triggered social transformation as well as political change, is a reminder that it can be worth the effort.

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