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The kindness of strangers: Jim Peron writes

Sun 13 Mar 2005 In: True Stories

There is no way that someone can adequately express the horror that is inflicted on a person when the worst allegations possible are levelled on the floor of parliament. Winston Peters did that to me and he made my life a living hell. Last night I got some sleep for the first time since this started not much butsome. I've eaten a bit as well but my appetite hasn't returned yet. I'll call that the Winston Diet. The real horror of this is that I was contacted in December of last year and told that Winston had these allegations. A reporter to whom the allegations were given was investigating them. He called me before the final deadline on the article and informed me they killed the story. He gave me three reasons. One was that they couldn't substantiate anything. Two, it was not newsworthy. Three, they felt it would be defamatory. Right on all three counts. But in parliament a person is exempt from the laws of defamation. Winston Peters can say anything he wants about any Kiwi. They just can't say anything they want about him. The laws parliament passed don't apply to Parliament. Parliament today is one place where the law does not require honesty! Astounding. I've watched with shock as he twice used parliamentary privilege to attack me and yet he doesn't know me from Adam. He distorted facts or used completely invented claims to try and besmirch my name to save face for himself after his first attacks floundered so badly. He said I was a pedophile. Is there any accusation more horrifying? I don't think so. That story started because a part-time employee of mine was arrested for a relationship with a teenager. Almost from the moment he was arrested people had heard that I was arrested. But as Immigration Minister Paul Swain noted I have a police clearance showing that I had not been arrested and never convicted on any count whatsoever. To immigrate to New Zealand I was required to have such a clearance and for US citizens that means a clearance from the FBI! What is truly frightening is the knowledge that when such an accusation is flung that some people will always believe it and others will wonder. That is why scoundrels use gossip mongering to try and destroy people. It is lethal, long-term and destructive. For twenty years I've had to live with that gossip resurfacing here and there. All I can do is tell the truth and try to get back to my own life. One prominent journalist told me yesterday that my fault has been that I was "too honest˜. I've hidden nothing and won't hide anything. I've no reason to do so. At most I can be accused of being stupid. But that's not a crime. I can assure you, however, that if it ever does become a crime parliament will have to exempt itself once again otherwise half the MPs would get life sentences. I took over a bookstore years ago in San Francisco that was selling the newsletter of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (surely the worst name ever invented in the history of the world). One of the two owners saidhis one condition for transfer was that the newsletter remain in stock. I had never heard of this group and knew nothing about them. I looked it over. It was not obscene nor was it illegal. It was on sale in numerous bookstoresin the city. And it seemed to focus on debate about issues revolving aroundage of consent. I agreed to the terms - terms that were applied to me and to subsequent owners of the shop as well. I tried to bury the publication by increasing inventory in the magazine section so it didn't stick out like a sore thumb. I thought that reasonable. I never imagined that selling apublication was going to be interpreted in any way other than "that's a bookstore and they sell publications˜. Today I sell the Qur'an but I'm not a Muslim.... at least I've not been accused of being one on the floor of Parliament. In recent years has been condemned and attacked for selling the same publication. Amazon's response was that they are a bookseller and that people have a right to read any point of view. They said, as I myself assumed, that selling a publication is not an endorsement. I thought that was reasonable. But quite honestly it is not a publication I ever stocked after that time. In fact I've never seen another issue of it and can happily go to my grave without running across it again. The second "controversy˜ is where I really did make a mistake‹a mistake not a crime. The group that published that newsletter had been holding monthly meetings in the meeting space the bookstore had available. Lots of groups used it fairly regularly. I know of no one who requested use of the facilities who was turned down. I allowed that to continue. They'd sit around and debate issues. They insisted to me that they did not advocate violating the law just changing laws. I'm a strong believer in free speech and I was conflicted over this group. I tried to sort out that conflict as best I could. That the group had been meeting in the Gay Community Center, before the Centre closed down for lack of funds, seemed to imply that the name withstanding perhaps there was something more legitimate here than meets the eye. And the people at the meetings were a cross section: men, women, gay, straight, etc and they honestly did seem to spend most of their energies debating each other. But I grew uncomfortable with their presence. I probably should have grown more uncomfortable quicker. I can't change the past. I asked them to leave. They said they would look for a new venue. I thought that was the best way to get out of an uncomfortable position. It might surprise people to know that the group, under their own name, were given meeting space by the San Francisco Public Library. Yet no one has levelled accusations against the librarians‹that I know of. I have been the first to admit that was a mistake. But it was not a crime nor was it based on any maliciousness on my part. The final "big˜ issue is that someone who worked for me was arrested for having a relationship with a teenager. In California the age of consent is 18, two years higher than New Zealand. In the US the statutory age ranges from 14 years to 18 years at the highest depending on the state. This employee had never been convicted of any sort of sex offence that I knew about before he worked for me. He would open the shop in the morning and staff it until I came in. Some days I'd come in at 11 am other days at Noon depending on my schedule. He was, in fact, never formally hired by me. He was an independent contractor without set hours. He was arrested at the same time as a friend of his. The police arrested did this as he opened up the bookstore. They searched the bookstore to see if he had anything they considered evidence there. They did the same thing with the pawn shop where the other individual, who was also arrested, worked. To my knowledge neither the pawn shop owner or myself were implicated in any way. If we were no one told us, we were never arrested nor charged. I continued to own the bookstore for sometime after this individual's arrest with no further problems of any kind for myself. I found it odd that the media seemed to miss this key point. On the first day of his "j'accuse˜ tirade Mr. Peters implied that I was the pedophile. On the second day it seemed my crime was that I had employed someone charged with having sex with a teenager. That was a massive change in direction which seemed to go unnoticed. I was also most surprised to hear my bookstore described as a "porn©˜ shop. We are on a main street in Auckland. Tens of thousands of people pass by daily. We have massive glass windows with a relatively unobstructed view of the shop. Anyone can walk in off the streets and browse and NO ONE has previously described this shop that way. Bizarre. We do have a video rental section for sure. And out of hundreds of videos and DVDs we have a small selection of adult tapes for rent. That hardly makes us a porn shop. If it did then almost every dairy in New Zealand would be a porn shop as well! But I believe that the record on that is cleared up permanently now. Only seconds ago, while I was writing this, two agents of the Department of Internal Affairs dropped by to inspect us. It's nice to get "walk-in˜ trade like that! But I suspect it was no coincidence. I didn't think anyone took that accusation seriously but apparently someone took it seriously enough to look into it. Both men were rather pleasant about the whole thing. They looked around, inspected what we sell and gave us a clean bill of health. Of course with television crew after television crew in here yesterday I would have thought that all New Zealand could see for itself that this was no porn shop. In fact even Winston should have known that. Unbeknownst to him he has browsed our inventory. Last year he attended a dinner speech where we had several tables of book on display and for sale. He browsed the books for several minutes and picked up a catalogue. He opened it and noticed a spelling error which he proudly pointed out to me. I apologised for it and he left. No doubt he never realised that the person standing behind the book table that evening was the same person he was attacking in Parliament. I do not for a minute think he knew who I was or cared. Everything else seemed so minor in comparison that I even struggle with whether I should mention it. He claimed I had nefarious business contacts when I lived in South Africa. I sold books. In fact much of our inventory in Auckland came from the bookstore business there. I also printed a newspaper for the gay community called Esteem. It was sold in all the major bookstores in the country. Winston seemed to imply it might be pornographic. The adult shops in South Africa obviously never thought so as they were not selling it. It was the large bookstore chains that sold the publication. I would think that film of Paul Holmes scanning page after page of that publication would be enough to end that claim. It was implied I was deported from South Africa or had my visa cancelled. Untrue. I lived there for 12 years and routinely had my visa renewed every six months. On one occasion the renewal was refused. I asked for further investigation into it. A couple of weeks later, on orders of the Minister of Home Affairs, the visa was renewed. I was actually in the process of obtaining permanent residency when my partner and I decided we had to leave South Africa for our own safety. It is a sad thing for me to say because I will always love South Africa, the bush and the people. But crime is out of control My partner and I suffered twice at the hands of armed criminals intent our robbing our home. The first experience was so horrific it is hard to put into words. We were tied up and threatened. A gun was pushed against our skulls repeatedly and we were told we would die. One of the men beat me. They took money, jewellery, cell phones and the like and ran. We were told by people we were lucky since so many times victims of robberies are routinely murdered. We already had bars on the inside and the outside of our windows. We had security gates on the doors. We had a fence and remote controlled gate and a watchdog. The first attack took place anyway. We added security gates between the rooms of the house. There was one gate between the lounge and the hall, another between the hall and the kitchen. The bedroom door had a security gate and a normal door as well. We were in prison. We put up a security camera to watch the outside as well. When my partner would leave for work I would stand at the window making sure he got out safely. I would watch on the security camera until he pulled out of the driveway. At night he would call when he was at the gate and we'd reverse the process. That was daily life. One morning he left for work. I watched him walk past the window. He hit a small blind spot where I could not see him and where the camera could not film. I heard something but wasn't sure what. The next thing I know two men are pushing toward the house. His hands were handcuffed behind his back. The men had a gun against his head. I was still in the window. I was in a panic trying to decide what to do. I felt the first thing was to let them know they were seen. They would assume that armed response had been called or the police. I took my hand to slap the window. The adrenaline was so strong I put my whole arm through the glass cutting my wrist in the process. The glass shattered out. The man turned toward me and shot. I later found the bullet hole in the window frame inches from where I was standing. That was when we said that we had to get out of South Africa no matter what. After the first attack we had started looking for a new home. But our options were few. The fact remains that in most the world gay couples are not treated with equal dignity and rights as other couples. And many people want it that way. I could easily go back to the US but my partner could not come with. The US government says that officially we are not a couple. In South Africa the Constitutional Court had just rule that partners of gay South Africans had to be given the right to receive residency. We were one of the first couples in the country to go to Home Affairs and apply. But still the tension and fear of crime was so pervasive we knew we had to leave. But where? The fact was that only New Zealand of all English-speaking countries would allow us to immigrate together. By deduction alone New Zealand was the only option. We visited the country and loved it. And we applied here. In fact we applied twice. The first application was rejected. It was a flawed application and was filed under the wrong category. It was not an offence nor fraudulent just in the wrong bureaucratic category. The Immigration Appeal Board said we could refile it. We withdrew it and filed a new one to make sure we filed under the correct category. It was approved. It appears some accusations were made about that but I honestly don't understand them. We filed with my bookstore as the business I was opening. We opened the bookstore. It still is open today. I also work with a non-profit organisation. It appears that Winston has the two confused. He wanted to know how I was allowed into the country on a business visa if I'm running a non-profit organisation. Of course I'm also running a for profit bookstore which he obviously knew about since he slammed the bookstore as well. I, of course, have no idea what else he may charge. He has no legal limitations on what he says in parliament. And he's backed against a wall. The media coverage has, on a whole, been negative toward Mr. Peters. The situation for him turned bad immediately. As soon as he accused me he said that an MP had endorsed my application for residency. It was untrue but ACT Leader Rodney Hide knew Winston was referring to him. Winston no doubt thought Rodney would duck for cover and Winston would let the media spend the day trying to root out the culprit. Rodney had nothing to fear. He leapt to his feet and fronted up. Rodney had not done what Winston said. He had written to immigration regarding the first application and asked if the application had been processed correctly. It was no endorsement of me at all. It couldn't be. Up until that time we didn't know each other. Someone contacted Rodney and told him about my situation. He emailed me and offered to make an inquiry on it - not an endorsement. Again Winston got the facts wrong. But after my partner and I arrived and met Rodney we got to know him. I would have been hesitant to call Rodney a friend. He agreed to serve on the board of the non profit group I run. We talk now and then. It's not that we're drinking buddies (I don't drink making that hard). We see each other at conferences but don't socialise frequently and only talk on the phone now and then. He's a busy man and I wouldn't intrude. Rodney could have been a typical politician and run away. In fact in December when I learned that Winston had this material I told Mr. Hide I would understand if he disavowed himself from me. I had done nothing criminal. I was not a pedophile. I was stupid once some 20 some years ago but I did not breach any law except the law of common sense. And I saw no reason why Mr. Hide should be made to pay for my stupidity. His response was typical Rodney: "I'm a politician. I can take this. It's not me I'm worried about. It's you.˜ In this horrific drama there is such an incredible contrast of character. Rodney Hide is a remarkably decent human being. I told one friend today that if I am ever allowed to vote here I wouldn't care if Rodney ran on a platform in opposition to everything I believe I would vote for him. He didn't have to be decent. He could have been political. He put decency first and that, in politics, is such a rare and precious thing. But the real surprise came in from average Kiwis. People, total strangers, took the time to seek me out and email me or call me. On more than one occasion I was moved to tears by the kind words of strangers. This morning the phone rang. It was an elderly woman. Her voice quivered, perhaps from nerves, perhaps just from age. "We're just an elderly couple˜ she told me almost apologetically, "but we wanted to call you and say we're so sorry. We used to be New Zealand First members but not anymore.˜ I was very touched by her and thanked her. "I hope you're not thinking of leaving our country" she said. A business owner from down the block came in today. "You're exactly the kind of people we need in this country,” he said. "If you ever need refuge come see us and we'll take care of you. I mean I know there are gay bashers and the like.˜ Or take these various comments from people. All of them made an effort to locate an email address and that took work. These are just selected excerpts to show the response I've had: "Winston Peters' attack on you is disgraceful and contemptible and makes me ashamed to be a New Zealander. You are welcome here. He will get what he deserves. I am coming to buy a book from you. Kia manawanui.˜ PC "I had never heard of you or your bookshop until a few days ago, but you certainly talked well today on the radio. I just want to offer you a positive note amongst all your problems. Not everyone in New Zealand is such a bigot as Mr Peters. He will certainly never get my vote. I hope eventually you and your partner find some peace and can settle down to a good life here in NZ. My partner and myself run an accommodation business in the south island at Lake Tekapo. Although we are not gay ourselves we welcome gay couples here and if you ever need to get away from it all in a nice quiet place just mail me and we can arrange accommodation for you.˜ SH "Just heard your interview on Nat Radio with Linda Clark, and just wanted to say hang in there, and please be aware (as I am sure you are) that you will have a lot of sympathy and support around the country (most of us take absolutely no notice of Winston Peters -- beyond his entertainment value ;-)). You sound like a very intelligent, thoughtful and eloquent person - the kind of person we need more of in NZ! ;-) Cath from Chch "Anyway, decent thinking people aren't condemning you. And you've got a great defender in Rodney. He shows his class yet again.˜ GK "I didn't know you from Adam before this, so now I know of your website and physical address, perhaps next time I'm in Auckland I could visit your shop. good luck!˜ AB] "Only one person came out of this exchange with a tarnished reputation, both personally and on a business level, and it sure as heck wasn't you. If I was a member of NZ First, I would be apologising to both you and your partner for this disgraceful outburst...˜ TC "I know you must be awefully overloaded right now, but I just wanted to say that you have our support. Stay strong, and take care.˜ LK    Jim Peron - 13th March 2005

Credit: Jim Peron

First published: Sunday, 13th March 2005 - 12:00pm

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