Article Title:The night everything changed for gay New Zealand men
Author or Credit:David Parrish
Published on:9th July 2006 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:1330
Text:As the clock inched past 10pm on 9 July 1986 Parliament was abuzz with anticipation. The Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which sought to decriminalise gay sex and, in effect, release thousands of gay New Zealanders from the censure of the state, was up for the final vote by the lawmakers of the day. Supporters of reform packed Parliament's Gallery and those in opposition were holed up in the Speaker's Gallery - you could cut the air with a knife. "Prior to the vote the Speaker warned the Gallery not to cause any disruption to the proceedings of Parliament," recalls Bruce Kilmister, who was a gay activist with the Auckland Gay Task Force. Supporters had been lobbying wavering MPs right up until the last minute, and no one was certain of success. Fran Wilde, the MP who sponsored the private member's bill now before the House, received minute-by-minute progress reports by her number's man, MP Trevor Mallard. "It was pretty knife-edge," recalls Wilde. "Even on the day we were going after every single vote we could get." That the bill had survived until the final vote was a small miracle in itself. Just a week prior, opponents had sought to scuttle it with a motion of closure at the bill's third reading. It was only the vote of National's George Gair that rescued the bill for further debate, surviving by the slimmest of margins, 43-42. Nine pro-reform MPs had been stuck out-of-Wellington, recalls David Hindley, activist and media advisor with the Wellington Gay Task Force. "There had been some pretty horrific winter storms in Wellington and some days the airport was closed." Wilde and the gay and lesbian activists had been tracking MPs for days, "working out whether or not they'd get back to Wellington," recalls Hindley. After surviving the motion of closure, it was clear that every single pro-reform MP was needed in the House for the bill to succeed. "If it had been stormy and three or four MPs couldn't get back for the vote, Law Reform could have been lost. It was that close," says Hindley. Thankfully, on the morning of the 9th Wellington was basking in sun. Crunch time had finally arrived. Do or die. The debate on homosexual law reform started later in the evening than it needed to, thanks to the filibustering of opposition MPs, including National's John Banks, who debated ad nauseum a simple 'rubber-stamp' Bill that sought to empower the Auckland Domain to be used for a Papal Mass later that year. Prime Minister David Lange was clearly frustrated with Banks' antics, pointedly asking him, "Are you for the Pope or against him?" Finally, the debate all had anticipated - some with dread, others with hope - was opened. National's elder statesman George Gair, gave his speech in support of reform, saying change was "long overdue" and calling for reconciliation. Banks mocked his stance, describing Gair's speech as "shallow humbug and weak rhetoric, of negligible substance." Gair sat with his head in his hands through the diatribe. Other sodomy-fixated MPs had their say, eight in total - the gays and lesbians in the gallery were forced to sit through the public vilification one more time. "We suspected we had it," recalls Hindley, "but all our fingers and toes and everything else were crossed." Catholic religious sisters prayed to a statue of the Virgin Mary on the front lawn, asking God to deliver New Zealand from the evils of homosexuality, and concerned Brethren women peered across the floor from under their headscarves. Members returned to the House. Up went the cry, "Lock the doors!" Mallard knew they had it. He held up five fingers to the supporters in the Gallery - it was 49-44. Sweet success. The Speaker announced the figures, and in spite of his warning, Parliament erupted. "An enormous cheer went up," says Hindley. Kilmister recalls "an incredible uproar of approval from the Gallery" drowning out the apocalyptic prophecies of sour anti-reform MPs. A single loud voice could be heard above everyone, calling down God's wrath upon the sodomites, and issuing a curse over Wilde for supporting such depravity. The Speaker ordered the bearded man removed, to which the Leader of the National Party, Robert Muldoon, reacted with, "Get the poofters out too!" But nothing could dampen the jubilation of the moment for Wilde, those MPs who had voted for reform, and the gay and lesbian activists, who quickly spilled out into the lobby, hugging and kissing, relieved it was all over. Wilde gave a television interview in the lobby, and, before long, news had spread. The bill's passage was announced to the nation on TV that night by Lindsay Perigo, who was ironically to publicly come out of the closet some years later. "He had a huge smile on his face," recalls Hindley. "And the celebrations began." Kilmister and other activists "retired to Fran's offices for an immediate celebration and received the congratulations of many visiting MPs and Ministers." Wellington's gay clubs, the Dorian Society and the Victoria Club prepared to receive revellers, and hundreds partied well into the wee hours of the morning. The bubbly flowed and activists patted each other on the back for a hard-fought campaign. "It was such a relief," recalls Wilde, who joined supporters at the clubs. "It had been a most terrible campaign." For the gay and lesbian activists, most of whom had devoted all their spare time and every last ounce of energy, while continuing to hold down full-time jobs, there was a huge sense of relief. It was an emotional time for all, says Hindley. "It had been a time of huge turmoil." For Wilde, the bigotry of the opponents made the victory sweeter still. She, along with the 49 MPs, scores of gay and lesbian activists, and thousands of ordinary New Zealanders had scored "a major victory against religious bigotry and prejudice... we had to knock back the push of the bigots." The defeat for opponents was totally demoralising. The Catholic sisters hurriedly packed up their icon, the dejected Brethren sped home, and most MPs who voted against reform were destined for political oblivion. 10.10pm, 9 July 1986 - the moment had come, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill had passed, and we were free, at last. (From interviews conducted by and the following sources: Hugh Young: "The Night the Bill was Passed"; and Laurie Guy: "Fighting All The Way," in Worlds in Collision: The Gay Debate in New Zealand, 1960-1986, Wellington: Victoria University Press) David Parrish - 9th July 2006    
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