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July 2, 1986: Parliament on decision night

Sat 2 Jul 2011 In: Politics and Religion

Wednesday July 2, 1986. It's a tense night in Parliament and around the country with much at stake. For a year and a half glbt New Zealanders have been engaged in the struggle of their lives, fighting not only for their own freedom but also for every future generation of homosexuals. Sixteen months earlier, in March 1985, Wellington Central Labour MP Fran Wilde had introduced to Parliament her private member's bill which aimed to decriminalise sexual activity between consenting males 16 years and over and to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Parliament voted 51 to 24 to at least start the ball rolling by passing the bill to a select committee to begin hearing the arguments for and against. Significantly, charismatic Prime Minister David Lange, riding a wave of popularity unheard of for a politician in recent history, said that had he been in the country for this opening vote he too would have been in favour of it. Fran Wilde Suddenly the bill was in play and the very real prospect of change thrilled those who stood to benefit from it and appalled those who despised homosexuals and everything that we represent. For years both sides had been preparing for this day and now the gloves were off. Religious conservatives and homophobic politicians immediately started campaigning against the Bill, including launching within two weeks of its introduction a massively promoted petition which would become immensely controversial. Their stated aim was to get one million signatures... this in a country with a population in 1986 of slightly less than 3.5 million. By the end of June the organisers announced that the count was already at 750,000 and they continued to solicit signatures. At the same time the many gay rights organisations which had got the Bill to this stage ramped up their efforts to motivate gays and lesbians to publicly join the battle and to bring on board supportive straights. Fundraisers abounded including dances and dinners. The first Wellington Lesbian and Gay Fair helped bring together glbt people, uniting them in support for reform and raising funds for community work including promotion of the bill. Meetings were held, plans for debates and marches and actions and responses were formulated and carefully carried out. Phone networks ran hot, posters were printed, action plans were distributed. From week to week, month to month the pendulum of public debate was violently thrust left and right, for and against. Homosexual Law Reform was the hottest, most emotionally divisive subject on the public's mind since the Springbok Tour and the Vietnam War. Everyone it seemed had a point of view. There were few bystanders. AUGUST 1985 Public meetings and rallies were held throughout the country, with police frequently overseeing the tense confrontations and sometimes making arrests. By August even the the Ministry of Defence joined the fray, claiming legalisation of homosexuality would be “extremely likely to have a detrimental effect on the discipline and effectiveness of the armed forces.” But the select committee hearing the pros and cons of the bill was also told HIV and AIDS are taking a deadly toll of the nation's gay men and the passing of the bill will make it easier to reach out to men at risk of contracting the viciously deadly disease. A September conference of glbt proponents of the bill from around the country helped maintain momentum and focus for the fight for change and reinforced a modicum of cohesion between the sometimes fractious regional support groups such as the Gay Task Forces who are at the forefront of the battle. OCTOBER 1985 By October the anti-reform petition hit a claimed 835,000 signatures, slightly short of its goal but by far the biggest petition ever presented to Parliament in our nation's history. In the mid-November second reading Parliament voted 47 to 32 to let the bill continue through the process of public debate and parliamentary consideration. It was pretty much just a procedural and non-controversial vote, signifying not much. But shortly after Parliament resumed in March arch-foe Geoff Braybrooke MP attempted a diversion. He wanted the bill deflected from the house with a royal commission to investigate and report back – a classic way of slowing things down to a crawl. Braybooke even suggested a public referendum which would have added months of public “education” and logistical organisation to the bill's progress. He was firmly knocked back by his parliamentary colleagues, 51 votes to 23. THE AGE OF CONSENT ISSUE The bill was still alive but now it suffered a serious setback. The 16 years age of consent provision was troubling many MPs, even though that was already the age of consent for heterosexuals. The suggestion that it be raised to 18 for gay men began to gain momentum. Fran Wilde tried to make her fellow MPs see reason, rationalising that if it was already acceptable for 16-year old girls to decide whether or not to engage in sexual activity or to undertake the responsibility of marriage or motherhood then why should young men not be able to make these sorts of decisions. She was attacked from a surprising quarter. National MP Venn Young, the man who promoted similar legislation a decade earlier, countered that the age of consent for homosexuals should be even higher than 18. He wanted to see it set at 20! JOHN BANKS - ALREADY A FOE Already showing the colours which would make him a politician uniquely despised and ridiculed by the glbt communities for the next quarter century, John Banks, National MP for Whangarei, ranted that the Bill, if passed, will have “evil and insidious consequences for future generations” and will lead to the legalisation of incest! The Sallies vs the gays Church groups, particularly the previously respected Salvation Army as well as social and political conservatives, frantically ramped up the rhetoric, sending their best spokespeople out to tour the country and flooding the letters and comments sections of the print media and airwaves with strident warnings about the bill, trying to frighten the crap out of middle New Zealand. Some of these church-based organisations were clearly getting support, perhaps even financial backing, from meddling overseas-based ultra-conservative and fundamentalist organisations. The anti-reform claims became almost farcical. A pamphlet distributed by anti-gay campaigners supported by Auckland's Keith Hay, the wealthy patriarch of a strongly Christian and political family and father of Auckland local body politician and gay community nemesis David Hay, claimed women would not be safe from being sodomised by their husbands if the legislation passes. There were many other such scare-mongering and unsubstantiated claims made by any number of opponents of equality for homosexuals. GAY-BASHINGS SURGE Spurred on by the intense level of anti-gay hysteria washing over the country gay bashings surged markedly. Carloads of hoons were reported cruising city streets abusing people they thought were gay. Hardly a week went by without yet another gay man staggering away from a savage beating. But, just occasionally, unexpected voices of reason piped up. Farmer and ex-All Black prop Ken Gray joined HUG, Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays, a group started by sainted Wellington gay couple John Jolliffe and Des Smith as a vehicle for the hitherto silent heterosexual supporters. “I cannot believe people are trying to deny others the freedoms that they themselves take for granted,” Gray said. Robert Muldoon Increasingly irrelevant deposed National Party leader and ex-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon cynically said he might have supported decriminalisation of homosexuality had it not been for the “high profile” adopted by homosexual men and lesbians during the recent months of debate. Gay visibility was more offensive than homosexuality in his eyes. Margaret Sheilds, Labour MP for Kapiti, the district which would two decades later go on to elect openly gay Jenny Rowan as its mayor, responded to Muldoon that just because gay people had become loud and even “shrill” in the face of vitriolic homophobic opposition was no reason for parliamentarians to judge them badly. FREEDOM TO DISCRIMINATE But it gradually emerged that the anti-discrimination aspects of the bill were a step too far for too many organisations such as the uniformed services, religious groups, employers and the like. By the end of March the decriminalisation Part 1 of the bill was passed through its committee stages by 41 to 36, but four weeks later the anti-discrimination Part 2 was resoundingly tossed out, 49 to 31. This was a major slap in the face, but at least the decriminalisation part was still alive. It will mean that gays could be fired or denied accommodation or service or be denigrated for being gay but at least you still might not have the police and the courts having you up for the punishable crime for homo hankey pankey. The bill's proponents pragmatically focused on the positive but there were grave concerns and misgivings and intemperate debate within and between the glbt communities and organisations. Hauraki MP Graeme Lee, one of the leaders of the anti-reform movement, proclaimed his confidence that the bill will be defeated, but believes the final vote will be close. He seems happy for the age of consent to remain at 16 in the bill, feeling sure this will destroy its chances of success. Bill Logan of the Wellington Gay Task Force says the gay community will not accept any further weakening of the bill. Any age of consent higher than 16 would see those young men remain criminalised and unfairly left vulnerable to victimisation. WEDNESDAY EVENING JULY 2, 1986 The weather in the North Island in particular packs a sad with winds strong enough to delay and cancel flights and close skifields. Some MPs are unable to get to Wellington for tonight's final debate and vote, leaving both sides of the Law Reform issue under-represented in the house, the pro-reform side especially so. In the early evening the debate kicks off. Much doubt and rubbish is spouted by the anti-reformers, much pained and emotive pleading for fairness is voiced from the pro-reformers. As with all of the parliamentary debates, and even more so during the preceding public discourse, the level of creepy anti-gay rhetoric is disturbing. ( will illustrate this in a forthcoming feature.) As the evening wears on Fendalton MP Philip Burdon moves to have the legislation recommitted so the house can formally consider raising the age of consent to 18. He fails, 63 to 22. It's pretty clear the opponents want 16 to remain in the Bill to derail the whole thing, while the supporters don't want any toying with compromise. Fran Wilde tells the house that throughout the committee stages of the bill the opposition, frequently based on religious dogma, was colourless, stale, and repetitive to the point of being “plain boring.” She says that those few churches which had supported the bill, such as the Quakers, did so because they believed New Zealand should be run as a secular state with “all religious and ethical beliefs given equal weight in the eyes of the law.” Hauraki MP and ardent campaigner against the bill Graeme Lee claims that homosexuals are not born homosexual and that the Bill's supporters had no evidence to counter that. He reminds the house that a claimed 835,000 people have signed the petition against the bill. That petition, its promotion and contents were, however, a bone of contention, with many questions raised about how the signatures were gathered and who had signed it. Already it's not being taken too seriously and has even focused serious doubts on the motivation and tactics of the bill's opposition. STRATEGIES EMERGE With nine members absent from the house even some opponents of the bill now start to show a little reluctance to put it to the final vote, calculating that the absentees may make it more likely the bill will pass. Conversely, Wilde and her colleagues feel it will have a better chance of passing next Wednesday. George Gair Deputy National opposition leader and North Shore MP George Gair is one of those for whom the bill's age of consent of 16 is a serious sticking point but he otherwise seems to want the bill to succeed. A politician of high standing and much gravitas he is cashing in a big chunk of his political capital and many of his colleagues on the opposition benches aren't at all happy. But the clock is ticking and Parliament must adjourn at 11pm. Knowing that holding the vote over until the following Wednesday buys time for the age of consent be debated in the back corridors of political power and time maybe for a few more much-needed votes to be firmed up from still apparently uncommitted MPs - and for a full house to be mustered - the bill's proponents use delaying tactics as the night drags on. With just 14 minutes to go the Speaker, Dr. Gerard Wall, rules that he will hear just one more MP. It's Labour's Bob Tizard and as he quietly but firmly underlines his support for the bill he artfully stretches proceedings out to 10.56pm. The supportive MPs then try to raise points of order as a further delaying tactic to prevent a vote before the cut-off. But Wall sees through their attempts and silences them. With just moments to go the Speaker cuts to the chase and allows MPs to vote on whether to close the debate now and take the final binding vote deciding the future legal standing of homosexuals in New Zealand, or to defer the final reckoning until next Wednesday. Everyone senses it's probably balanced on a knife-edge. And now all eyes turn to Gair. Gair wants to vote for the Law Reform Bill and equality for gays but there's that damned age of consent thing. He feels perhaps a week's delay might give time for manouvering and lobbying to see it resolved to 18. He is prepared to "hang on as long as I can to effect a compromise.” The vote to delay or decide is more or less split along party lines, with the National party MPs largely wanting a vote now to deny the supporters a chance to re-group and Labour going for delay. Notable amongst the six Labour MPs who vote with the Nats against the deferral are arch bigot Geoff Braybrooke and the newly-minted Christian fundamentalist Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan who has claimed that passing the bill will see every young Maori man in the country lured into prostitution. Two Democratic/Social Credit party MPs also vote against deferral. Just two Nats opt to support the deferral. Katherine O'Regan, MP for rural Waipa, is no surprise, she had been outed lesbian MP Marilyn Waring's electorate secretary and was always a known bill supporter. The other is George Gair. Gair's vote does the trick. The vote is 43 to 42 in favour of delay. In the public gallery the bill's supporters, now also sensing that a final vote on the bill might have been premature, break into relieved applause. And Parliament adjourns for the night. After one and a half years of exhausting, tense and even dangerous debate and huge personal sacrifice there's still no decision. It's not a yes, and it's not a no. It's a wait and see by the narrowest possible margin. It's an unexpected seven day hiatus during which everything might fall apart or a miracle might happen. Seven more days for those at the coal face to work like buggery to try to sort the mess out. Seven more days of crossed fingers and, if the eighteen months of abuse from rabid Christian homophobes hasn't destroyed any belief in a higher power, of silent prayer for final deliverance. Watch this space. gratefully acknowledges and thanks the writers and reporters of Out! magazine, Pink Triangle, The NZ Herald and the Auckland Star, whose 1985/86 blow by blow coverage of the progress of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill has been essential to the preparation of the narrative of this feature article. Jay Bennie - 2nd July 2011    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 2nd July 2011 - 3:59pm

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