Today is the 29th anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, which decriminalised sexual activity between males. These days, with a wave of gay marriage legalisation across the globe, and politicians keen to get on-side with the gay community and be seen boogieing with drag queens at community events, it’s startling to think that not 30 years ago, consensual sex between adult men was illegal in New Zealand, and undercover police entrapped men cruising for sex on ‘beats’ such as public toilets or parks. Sex between women was not illegal, but many lesbians also joined the campaign for law reform.
I listened to some of the remarkable audio in Radio New Zealand’s 20 years out! documentaries, made to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the act, and was reminded of the degree of vitriol employed by the bill’s opponents, as well as what now seems like the extreme reasonableness – timidity, even – of the gay activists’ demands. The recordings include National MP Norman ‘Normal’ Jones thundering that homosexuals should ‘go back into the sewers!’ and a 1970 clip of Brian Edwards asking ‘Gary’ (it was an era when few gay men were willing to be identified as such) if he’d sought treatment for being gay. (He had – he’d been to a psychiatrist, who told him that his attraction to men was too fixed to be changed.) Interviewed in 1978, Chris Piesse of Auckland University Gay Liberation expressed his hope for ‘a society in which people, anybody, can express their sexuality without being hassled and put down and ridiculed for it’. Rather sadly, he added, ‘It’s a very idealistic view, but I don’t think it’s impossible.’
Most prominent in opposition to the bill was the Coalition for Concerned Citizens, which in 1985 presented 91 boxes of their anti-law-reform petition to Parliament in an overblown, flag-laden ceremony that some compared to the Nuremberg Rally. Norm Jones banged on predictably about legalising sodomy, and the organisers claimed to have more than 800,000 signatures in their boxes (labelled ‘The people have spoken’). However, many of the signatures were later discredited, and the act passed the following year, by 49 votes to 44. The second part of the bill, which would have prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, was rejected; it was another seven years before the Human Rights Act was amended to include sexual orientation. The road towards equality has been long and slow – it was not until 2005 that same-sex couples were able to legally formalise their partnerships in a civil union, and only in 2013 that same-sex marriage was made legal in New Zealand.
So I’m taking a moment today to remember all those brave men and women who came out about their sexuality despite a society that ridiculed and vilified them, who were staunch and steadfast and worked so hard for repeal of a manifestly unjust law. Happy 29th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, everyone.