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July 1st 1986: Something wonderful is about to happen!

Fri 1 Jul 2011 In: Politics and Religion

It's July 1st 1986. After years of patient, and not so patient, manoeuvering, politicking and organising, of countering hatred and lies, of reassuring the wavering and drawing on hidden reserves of courage, of demanding change, something wonderful is about to happen for the gay men, and lesbians, and transgenders and all the non-100% heterosexual people of New Zealand. It won't be the complete solution, more of a half way point. We're poised to sail over the steepest hump yet in the fight against the corrosive prejudice which permeates our lives. Since British law and justice codified acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in New Zealand it has been a criminal offence for men who love men, or who are attracted to men, to express that love in any physical way. Sometimes even just writing about it has been enough to bring down the wrath of bible-bashers, the medical fraternity and the law. Queen Victoria had refused to extend a law against same-sex coupling to include women, she couldn't conceive of the fair sex even wanting to do anything quite so repugnant. So lesbians escaped the worst of the legal ramifications, but not the medical interventions, the religious fury and the social ostracism. Sure, there was always a thread of decency running through your average New Zealander but you only found out if that was shared by your family, your friends, your neighbours, workmates and employers - or even complete strangers - by coming out to them, or being outed against your wishes. If things went badly you could be ostracised, fired, divorced, humiliated, bullied, attacked, medically castrated, or have your brain electrocuted. You could be coerced into heterosexual marriage to keep up appearances and live your life in a loveless union with even more to lose if the truth was revealed. Or you could suck it down deep inside and live the lie of heterosexuality that you might even wish would come true. You could yearn for a better, freer life that could only exist out of reach, somewhere over the rainbow. Or you could throw caution to the wind and come out and stay out and take the consequences, good or bad. It was a hell of a decision. And all the time society's signals were overwhelmingly against you. Straight was the required norm, homo was abnormal, a threat to society. And the chances were you knew only handful of people like yourself, maybe less. The isolation was almost impenetrable, especially outside the main centres or the more 'artistic' communities. You probably read about the act of stubborn love that consigned the most sparkling poet and dramatist of the Victorian age, Oscar Wilde, to moulder in prison despised and broken. Or those Parker and Hulme girls who were so lezzo that they killed Parker's mother. Or the poofter who was beaten to death in Hagley Park and his killers naturally walked free. Or the ones that shot themselves. Or how radio star Murray Forgie was publicly dragged through the courts for consensual sex and had his career destroyed. Or how men like you lusted after little boys and women like you were man-hating ball-breakers. You heard the word of God spat from the pulpit dripping with the homophobic acid of sin and vice and depravity and hellfire for eternity. You quietly endured the sniggering about nancy boys and pansies and fags in the schoolyard or the workplace. For decades it went on, here and abroad, until in 1969 a group of downtrodden homos at New York's shabby Stonewall bar fought back. The police and civic authorities called it The Stonewall Riots, but from the gay end of the thudding truncheons it was The Stonewall Uprising. Gays and lesbians and all the rich diversity of non-straight people in countries like New Zealand took note and took heart. They started to mobilise, to strategise, to stop just wishing for a land somewhere over the rainbow, or fleeing to the comparative anonymity of our own just as repressive trans-Tasman Oz, and started working to tweak New Zealand society sufficiently for us to truly be able to call it home. Free of fear and threats and lies and shame. The first step came in the 1970s when homosexuality was at last declared by the medical fraternity not to be a mental disorder. An aberration maybe, but surely no longer a thing that got you locked up in Kingseat or Lake Alice or Sunnyside or Cherry Farm or wherever it was they locked away those perverts. Then a brave politician, Venn Young, promoted a bill to decriminalise homosexuality. It failed but it shone a light on the situation faced by gays and created public debate. Lessons were learned. And some gays and lesbians and trannys became very brave and determined indeed. It was another step on the journey. Along the way Marilyn Waring MP was outed and... society didn't collapse! Hmmmm. The loosening of rigid moral codes which started in the 1960s began to inform the nation's movers and leaders. Gay Liberation surged ahead fuelled by indignation and a determination to be treated justly and equally in the eyes of the law and society. The media sensed a good story and fanned the flames, mostly on the side of decency, but not always. The rabidly oppressive always got their chance to publicly spout scorn and predictions of society's ruin. Damn, some of them were nasty pieces of work. Average New Zealanders march in support of Law Reform Academics amassed facts to fight ignorance and counter bigotry. Strategies emerged, marches were held, meetings were convened. So many, many meetings. And gay visibility started to demonstrate to thinking, fundamentally decent New Zealanders that we weren't the ogres we had been made out to be all their lives and for generations before. That streak of common decency filtered its way through the electorates until, in the 1980s, a good number of politicians, mostly socially liberal lefties but also a pleasing number of conservatives too, began to see the point. Many became our allies, most notably a young Fran Wilde of Wellington Central. And by July 1986 another bill, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill introduced by Wilde, was back before Parliament with a better chance of being passed. So, it's July 1st, 1986 and in more ways than one New Zealand is not the place it is now. David Lange is Prime Minister and Rogernomics is biting hard. ANZUS is declared dead and the aftermath of the Rainbow Warrior terrorist bombing is still playing out. Out of Africa and Down and Out in Beverly Hills are showing at the movies, 'Allo 'Allo and Dynasty are the two TV channels' prime time offerings tonight. Herbs are on tour, supported by Ardijah. Cath Tizard is Auckland's Mayor and the Aotea centre is barely more than a hole in the ground plagued by industrial strife. The George Courts building on Auckland's Karangahape Rd is still a department store. Kiwi off-spinner John Bracewell is making mincemeat of Aussie Allan Border on the cricket pitch and the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games ticket sales are slow. New Zealand skifields are experiencing an early and luxuriantly snowy season, though a fire has just devastated Coronet Peak. One Kiwi dollar is worth just 44 US cents and home mortgage interest rates are around 19%. We still have a solid if small manufacturing sector making shoes, clothing, home appliances and groceries. A Sharp microwave oven costs $939. Ribeye steak is $5.95 a kilo and the starting salary for a KFC assistant manager in Wellington is $18,000. A surprisingly prescient New Zealand is giving Prince Andrew and Fergie two single bed wool underlays as a wedding gift. AIDS is beginning to devastate our sexually active gay and bi men, ironically adding strength and urgency to the pro-law reform viewpoint. The mounting deaths emphasise that HIV education must be ramped up and you can't reach downtrodden, hiding, criminalised men. And bottles of Blue Nun and crates of DB Export are being readied. The streamers are on standby at Alfies and Staircase and Angles nightclubs, and the ultra-discreet Dorian societies' social rooms. The Bloomers girls have a special routine rehearsed and the Parliamentary whips are frantically working the numbers and the phones. Because tomorrow, Wednesday July 2nd, 1986, the third and final reading of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill is scheduled. This evening MPs not already in the Capital will pack their bags ready to fly back to Wellington. Tomorrow is to be decision day. And, although it will be a nail-biter right to the finish line, something quite wonderful is about to happen. Throughout July will present a series of features recalling the times, issues and people which came together 25 years ago in this epic and pivotal battle for legal and social equality for glbt folk in our own country. Tomorrow we will recount the events of July 2nd, 1968. Jay Bennie - 1st July 2011    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 1st July 2011 - 1:10am

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