Article Title:Fran Wilde: The MP who fronted the fight for our freedom
Category:Features
Author or Credit:David Parrish
Published on:7th July 2006 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
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Story ID:1327
Text:“I felt it was wrong for New Zealand... It was a huge black hole in our human rights legislation and it needed to be fixed for everybody – not only for gay people, but for non-gays too, because it was just wrong.” No one person is more closely associated with New Zealand's decriminalisation of homosexuality than the speaker of those words. Fran Wilde sponsored the private member's bill which, when passed on the evening of July 9, 1986, removed gay sex from the legal censure of the state. Wilde, a born-and-bred fifth generation Wellingtonian, came to politics with an agenda. She had been a parliamentary researcher, and had recently separated from her husband. A solo mum who wanted change. “We grew up in a fairly comfortable post-War environment where the country was doing very well economically, but was a very closed society.” “I've always had an agenda, and what drove me into politics was the awful state of New Zealand under (then Prime Minister Robert) Muldoon… we had a government that would not listen and there were issues that needed to be fixed.” So Wilde joined the Labour Party, part of a drive for “new younger candidates” with the overriding aim of changing the government. Wilde won what was then the safe National seat of Wellington Central in the 1981 general election, which she retained until her exit from Parliamentary politics in 1992. A close friend, Ian Scott, had run for election in Auckland's Eden electorate. “We always joked that we were the most marginal candidates, standing in unwinnable seats,” she recalls. “I was recently separated and he was gay, so we thought, ‘well, this is a real test of the voters!'” She laughs about it now, but suspects that Scott being gay was a factor in his non-election. “There was definitely an issue there.” “We didn't win the election that year but we knew Muldoon was on the ropes. People were demanding change. There'd been the Vietnam War, apartheid was a major issue with the Springbok rugby tour that year, and of course women's rights and the nuclear issue.” Wilde campaigned heavily on these issues, but when approached in 1981on homosexual law reform, she was somewhat taken aback. “I'll support you – of course I'll support law reform,” she told activists who approached her prior to her win. “I mean, it would have been very odd if I hadn't!” she exclaims. But when asked if she'd be prepared to sponsor a bill, she said, “Oh well, if it's necessary, I suppose so!” She laughs heartily about that moment. “I knew it was an issue that I'd support but it never occurred to me I'd end up sponsoring the bill.” A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT She never foresaw the extent of opposition to come, and initial attempts under the Muldoon government were never going to work, she says. From 1982 until 1984 Wilde started working on the issue and liasing with the gay and lesbian communities. The first draft was called the Equality Bill, which was never introduced into Parliament. She concentrated on Rape Law Reform, which women on both sides of the House “pushed very strongly.” “In the end, it was clear after the 1984 elections it was time to move on homosexual law reform.” Muldoon and his cronies were out and the 4th Labour government of David Lange swept to office in an historic electoral landslide. “The interesting thing is,” observes Wilde, “other issues, such as the anti-nuclear issue and apartheid were taken up as central Labour Party policy going into government, and certainly women had made gains… but I think gay rights were a bit too difficult for political parties to address.” “Clearly, it wasn't going to be done by the government, but because we had a Labour government, I thought there was a sporting chance we'd get the bill into the House.” There was support on the Labour benches and from some “liberals from the other side of the House,” but no one came forward to sponsor a bill. “Nobody wanted to do it,” she recalls. “Someone said, ‘I'll just introduce it, but I won't campaign for it,' which just wasn't going to work.” So Wilde stepped up to the plate, and in consultation with the gay and lesbian communities, she took it on. “It was clear that we were never going to get a bill like that through Parliament without considerable work and leadership from the MP who had introduced it. It just wouldn't have worked. My electorate was known as a liberal electorate – it was a young electorate with young professionals, and a big gay and lesbian community - who were more accepted there, I would have thought, compared to other parts of New Zealand.” This was helpful, says Wilde, as she needed to know that she “didn't have to cover her back – I thought this would be fine.” As events transpired, ‘fine' is not a word Wilde would attribute to the hard-fought and brutal campaign that dominated her life for the next sixteen months. COMMUNITY VOLUNTEERS TO THE FORE “I had no idea how dramatic the whole thing would be, how much time it would take and how it would take over my whole life.” Gay Auckland lawyers Don McMorland and Alan Ivory drafted the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which was introduced into Parliament on 7 March 1985, after six months of refinement and discussions with the gay and lesbian communities. “The day it was introduced, if we'd had a final vote that day, it would have been lost – we just didn't have the numbers. In those days, there was a kind of gentlemen's agreement that a private member's bill would get support to be introduced, as everyone knew it would never get any further.” The attitude was, “we'll humour her, but then we'll kill it off in the select committee.” But Wilde and her team pulled out all the stops, launching a campaign the likes of which New Zealand had never seen before. “We knew we had the period of time that it was in the House to run a public campaign to change the votes of MPs. We knew what we had to do for every single MP.” And unlike a minister who would have had the support of a small army of bureaucrats, “there was no government department or officials helping us – it was all volunteers.” “The crux of it was that MPs needed to understand that their voters would be okay with them voting for the bill. So while the primary target was MPs, to get to them we needed to get to their constituencies.” With the help of the Auckland and Wellington-based Gay Task Forces, supporters established a strategy for each electorate. MPs fell into four groups. There were those who solidly supported the bill, those who privately supported it, but were worried about voter backlash, and those who “were a bit anti but weren't entrenched.” The fourth group were “those who were just opposed. To be quite honest, we didn't bother much about working on their electorates because we knew we weren't going to change their minds. “It was personal with them.” So Wilde and her gay and lesbian network targeted the two ‘swinging groups'. “Who were the opinion leaders in their electorates, what were the groups that mattered?” “This was all about informing people. Every argument put up by the opposing group, I was prepared, and we positioned ourselves accordingly.” Public rallies, public and private meetings were organised all around the country. “The campaign involved lots and lots of people – the gay and lesbian communities, straight people, religious people, human rights groups and ordinary New Zealanders. It was a very big campaign. It needed to be. It had to be positioned as a human rights issue for all New Zealanders, not just something for ten per cent of the population. It needed to be positioned broadly, because we needed to get broad support for it.” Wilde makes special note of the gay and lesbian communities. “I worked very closely with them – the crux of the campaign was driven by gays and lesbians.” So what was it like working with a bunch of gays and lesbians? “Fine, no problem,” she responds flatly. “It didn't worry me.” “We were just people working together on an issue… I made some great friends and we tried to enjoy ourselves as much as possible, given what was happening. It was jolly good.” AWFUL, VILE... AND MAD Meanwhile, Wilde fronted the Parliamentary campaign. As the sponsor of the bill, it was necessary for her to be present every Wednesday night for the debate, for the sixteen months the bill was before the House. “Most bills would get through in a few hours, but this one was being dragged out by the opponents – always waiting for a chance to ditch it. It was just awful. I had to steel myself because, as the bill's sponsor, I had to listen to all this absolute shit. I couldn't leave, because I had to be there to run the numbers. Every Wednesday night all this stuff would just spew out of [opponents' mouths] – vile awful stuff, describing sex in great detail.” She had realised it wasn't going to be easy but the “visceral” response from MPs such as National's Norman Jones and John Banks, and Labour's Geoff Braybrooke, was hard to deal with. “They were completely nutty about it actually – just mad!” As Junior Labour Whip, Wilde looked after the ‘leave book'. “I was really dependant on those MPs who supported the bill and their generosity and goodwill to stay in the House every time the bill was being debated.” As for the opponents, Wilde and her team strategised to keep them out of the House. “The campaign organised for invitations [for opposing MPs] to come and speak on a Wednesday night, in Auckland or Dunedin – anywhere as long as it was somewhere well out of Wellington!” She chuckles over the ruse. “I don't know if they knew what was going on! But they'd be pretty stupid if they didn't!” The Bill initially included two parts – decriminalisation of sexual acts between consenting adults, and the extension of human rights law to preclude discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “It was pretty clear that, although both parts were important, it was essential that we move on decriminalisation, as we couldn't have got the human rights bit through without that. In the end some MPs, who knew they had to vote for decriminalisation – I mean, they had to because it was just wrong to have the law how it was, would have a dollar each way, voting against the human rights legislation.” She laughs about it now. “They would say: ‘Oh, that's going to far, we can't have human rights for gays! Goodness me! Panic! Too much! We don't want them to be criminal, but we can't enshrine rights in the law!' So they voted against part two of the bill.” As things transpired, it was another straight woman, National's Katherine O'Regan, who was always supportive of homosexual law reform, who ultimately championed the human rights aspect, and ensured the Human Rights Act was amended years later, under a National government, in 1993. SIXTEEN OR NOTHING The other major sticking point was the age of consent for gay male sex. Some MPs felt that by raising the age to 18 or even 20 would have made the bill more widely palatable for members on both sides of the House. Wilde certainly didn't share this view. “If a person of 16 was old enough to have sex, they're old enough to have sex. Full stop.” She had lengthy discussions around this issue with the gay and lesbian communities, and decided on an ‘all-or-nothing' approach. “The interesting thing was, the opponents in the House also understood this, so when we went through the committee stages, clause by clause, they actually supported 16 as the age of consent, as they thought that'd kill the bill – they thought nobody would vote for a bill with 16” – on par with heterosexual sex. “It was high stakes… some MPs who had been wavering were starting to understand that they absuloutely had to vote for the bill, even if it was 16, because it would have been so damaging for New Zealand to have the bill fail. I had to take a gamble that that's what they'd do – if they were faced with 16 or nothing, it would be 16, so that's what we did.” So pro- and anti-reform members voted to retain an age of consent equal with heterosexual sex, and Wilde's gamble paid off. It was a masterful tactical move. “Because, if it had been nothing, it would have been a disaster. It would have been a major victory for religious bigotry and prejudice, and it would have flowed right through to other areas as well. We had to knock back the push of the bigots.” And vile bigots they were too, Wilde clearly recalls, as if the events unfolded just yesterday. Opponents focused on the act of anal penetration, incessantly. “Sexual practices were not the issue, because, after all, sodomy isn't just practiced by homosexuals! But the bill did seek to legalise sodomy, and Norm Jones and others just talked endlessly about it. One time in Parliament, Wilde couldn't hold back and accused Jones of being obsessed with sodomy. “I am!” he exclaimed, “and it's a magnificent obsession!” “I remember one time, I was doing a radio interview with Norm Jones. We were sharing a microphone so we were sitting really close, and he was just awful. I asked him, ‘what would you do if your son was gay?' And he said, ‘I'd lock him up in a mental institution.' It was just so awful being with these people, in close contact like that.” The public campaign of the non-Parliamentary opponents was no less distasteful. Wilde was shocked when the Salvation Army announced it would administer the petition against law reform. “I was pretty brassed off actually. I thought they should be administering to the needy, not getting involved in political issues.” Wilde accepts that many within the Army weren't comfortable with the decision taken by their leadership. “We had a lot of church people, including Sallies, come up to us and apologise profusely.” The impact of the Salvation Army on the campaign has lingered with Wilde ever since. “They were very big – they put considerable resources into the petition, and I have never given them a cent since. I will not give any money to the Sallies on principle,” she stresses. “I know that may seem stupid now, but they caused such strife with that petition.” THE FASCIST FRENZY In the end, “the presentation of the petition was one of the defining moments of the campaign.” The Sallies and other ‘concerned citizens' delivered the petition to Parliament in a mass rally. “It was Wellington's Nuremberg Rally,” she says, referring to its notorious historical counterpart, whereby Adolf Hitler whipped up the German people in a frenzy of hate and nationalism. “All these kids in uniforms, singing hymns – and the national anthem, which really got up my nose. So I was out there, like a banshee, screaming, ‘don't let them do this!' When I saw myself on television, I thought, ‘God, that was terrible!'” But the rally backfired on the opponents. “It really frightened people. People were astonished and worried to see that kind of behaviour in New Zealand. They were quite stupid doing it… It was a gift to us in the end, because it was so over the top, it was absolutely awful.” Impressively large cardboard boxes were carried by ‘the faithful' up the steps of Parliament, and stacked into an impressive-looking wall behind the opponents' speakers... but many of those boxes contained only a few lonely sheets of paper. “And then of course, the fun part started. They would say, ‘there's 20,000 signatures for such-and-such an electorate in this box!' We had a great big team look at every single signature, and check them against the electoral roll. It was hilarious.” Apparently Karl Marx had risen from the grave to sign the petition, along with Mickey Mouse. “Lots were clearly just classrooms full of kids – the teacher had told them all to sign. A lot of people were forced to sign. Their employer had brought the petition in, and they just thought they had to for risk of losing their job.” Wilde still meets people to this day who say they were compelled to sign. “Sure, there were real signatures, but after people saw the rally, they thought, ‘wow, that's not what I signed up to.'” THE POWER OF VISIBILITY Against this backdrop of hatred and Nazi-style intimidation, Wilde pays tribute to the thousands of gays and lesbians who stood up for themselves, many coming out over the course of the campaign. To educate the wider community, it was necessary for gays and lesbians to be visible, she says. “That was a really big ask, because things were pretty nasty. Back then, being gay and being out were not easy, particularly in other parts of New Zealand. There was a stereotype that gay was ‘high camp' or being a ‘queen' or something like that, and that wasn't the case. There was a spectrum of people, as there is with any group. It was important for New Zealanders to know that the guy who worked next to them in the office, or their son, perhaps, or brother, or their kid's teacher, was actually gay. It had a huge impact when people started to come out, taking a high risk. Because if the bill hadn't have been passed they would have been in real trouble. Old guys came out,” she says, smiling. “Not just young activists. It was astonishing the reaction people had when they realised people were gay.” It was important for Wilde that the gays and lesbians didn't sink to the same depths of violence as their opponents. “I was very concerned that the gay and lesbian community would be seen as extremists. I was saying to MPs, ‘look, these people are just ordinary New Zealanders, who just happen to be gay. They're not monsters, they're not here to undermine Western civilisation or your society. They're ordinary Kiwis, and shouldn't they have the same rights as you?'” Wilde worried that an extremist campaign would “rebound on us, and frighten MPs. So street action was fine, but it had to be managed. I didn't want violence, I was happy to leave that to the other side. And they were very violent in their approach, with what they said, and I think that was a major contrast. You could see how we behaved and how they behaved… we were presenting it as a human rights issue… they were preaching hellfire and brimstone – really awful awful stuff.” DEATH THREATS AND SUSPICIOUS PARCELS Wilde was concerned the violence might have affected her children, all in primary school at that stage. “I was less concerned about their peers, but more concerned about a bomb through the window of the house. I lived in Thorndon, right next to Parliament. The police knew where I lived, so they kept an eye out. So I benefited from the fact that I was an MP, the police were helpful. I'm not sure they were quite so helpful to the gay community,” she exclaims, “but I was lucky. We had to train our office staff to detect letter bombs.” Wilde recalls the death threats or threats of violence, and would refer these to the police. “I had a few parcels delivered that the bomb squad had a good look at. It wasn't something you'd want to live with all the time. I was more concerned for my kids, and also for the young lass who opened the mail. I thought, well if anything happens, she's the one that's going to loose her hands in the letter bomb! It wasn't right that there was the threat of this happening. Some of the fundamentalists were crazy, really mad. We had to take them seriously.” And then there were the predictable aspersions cast over Wilde's own sexuality. “I got a lot of correspondence from the lunatic fringe, saying, ‘you filthy lesbian you,' and ‘I could fix you!' She laughs about it now. “A well-known business person, here in Wellington, who used to run a radio station, labelled me on air, ‘the member for lesbians.' When we heard this on the radio, we were pissing ourselves with laughter. It didn't worry me, because what I was wasn't the issue. The issue was that gay men were criminals. So if people wanted to think I was a lesbian, I didn't actually care to tell you the truth… I wasn't gay, but if I were, it wouldn't have been a problem. I didn't even bother to answer that… I still find people who assume that I'm lesbian because I supported the bill!” GETTING THE NUMBERS The campaign “was pretty knife-edge,” says Wilde. “The other side was lobbying furiously as well.” As to the first inkling of success? “I don't know, can't tell you that. I have no idea. We always knew it was going to be tight. It didn't matter if we thought we had the numbers on the night, we still had to work – there was no relaxing. Even on the day, we were going after every single vote we could get.” Wilde makes special mention of the support of Helen Clarke, Michael Cullen and Trevor Mallard, all prominent to this day in the halls of government. And National MP George Gair. “George was pretty helpful. He was an old liberal. He knew we had to get the bill through, but he argued for a higher age of consent. But he was onside. He was an elder statesman, and that was good.” As for National's Doug Graham, “he would have voted for it had we needed his vote. He looked at the numbers and voted against it, which I thought was a bit pathetic.” When Wilde heard of the successful vote, she was in Parliament's lobby. “It was such a relief! I mean, this had been a terrible campaign. We knew we had to get it through. AIDS was just starting to go through the community, and if we'd lost it would have been a disaster for our AIDS work. Other issues would have been brought into it. It would have been a bloody great step backwards if we'd lost, for all New Zealand, and for the gay and lesbian community it would have been devastating. You would have remained criminals, and a lot had come out of the closet. The fundamentalists would have had a major victory. As it was the campaign against the bill had cost them a lot of money. I think one church in Auckland prominent in the campaign even closed down, so that was great!” she states unapologetically. THE WORK IS NOT OVER But it's still not over, stresses Wilde. “In 20 years fundamentalism has grown again. We need to maintain vigilance. These issues don't just go away. There's always people in the community who are bigoted and ignorant and prejudiced, and others who don't know and are led by the bigots.” As for the Destiny Church marches on Parliament in opposition to the recent civil union legislation, Wilde despairs. “That was really scary. A lot of these young guys haven't seen anything like the march against homosexual law reform. They know nothing. They're just young guys – yeah, that's scary.” After being told of a proposed march against Green MP Sue Bradford's anti-smacking bill, Wilde is shocked. “They want the right to beat their children to death, do they?” But things have changed for the better in 20 years, Wilde agrees. “Now there are MPs and leaders all over the country who are openly gay. Any minority group will always have some prejudice against it, I think. So we have to keep working.” And that's exactly what Wilde has done. She went on to become one of Wellington's most popular mayors. She is proud of her campaign to build the city's stadium, and although “nowhere near as big or important as gay law reform,” she admits the skills she learned transferred well. She is now married, something that astonishes her. “Yeah, I'm married, believe it or not! Boringly married! We lived in sin while I was mayor and got married two weeks after I stopped being mayor,” she says, with a conspiratorial tone. “It was for no particular reason. We just got married at home, and [current Mayor] Kerry Prendergast married us.” Wilde was elected to the Wellington Regional Council. She explains, “there were things that needed to be done, back then [as MP and as mayor], and it's the same now. I put my nomination in ten minutes before they closed.” She wanted to ‘fix' the region's transport problems, “to take a look from the inside.” Still, the ‘fix-it' politician, she's pleased with the progress she has made. The kids have grown up, two in Europe and one in New Zealand, and Wilde has bought a house with her husband in the Wairarapa. “We renovated that. I've started gardening!” she exclaims, feigning shock. “God, that sounds so boring, doesn't it? But it's fabulous. The plants don't yell at me or abuse the shit out of me because they disagree! I've only got the weather to deal with and that's much easier than dealing with people!” But Wilde still deals with people. She's involved in promoting human rights throughout the Pacific, and serves on a number of boards, plus “some consulting work.” And she works with Wellington's International Festival of the Arts. “I love the Arts Festival – it's great.” The ‘member for lesbians' will be celebrating the success of the Homosexual Law Reform campaign with the gay and lesbian communities on Sunday's anniversary. “I'll be in Auckland on Saturday night for the event hosted by the mayor (Dick Hubbard). That's interesting,” she muses. “Just as well it's not John Banks!” And then back to Wellington for the exhibition of David Hindley's photographs and the Premier House event later that evening. Reflecting on the campaign for homosexual law reform, Wilde is rightly proud. “It was highly organised. It was a great campaign. I'm very proud of it as a campaign. It's a good model for a campaign on a political issue – how to change public opinion.” Wilde succinctly captures her career in the public sphere. “I've never had the motivation to end up the Prime Minister or anything for the sake of it. I've just always had an agenda… I just do stuff that needs to be done.” David Parrish - 7th July 2006    
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