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Wellington's "Fair For A Fair Law" turns 21

Fri 10 Mar 2006 In: Events

Wellington's Gay and Lesbian Fair started as an awareness-raising exercise during homosexual law reform in 1986, and has grown into a well-attended and permanent fixture on the city's calendar. The year was 1986. Oprah makes her TV talk-show debut. Halley's Comet passes our way, and the world sees bugger all. In New Zealand, gay men could still be thrown in prison for up to 14 years, AIDS was rearing its ugly head, and John Banks was still an arsehole. The Homosexual Law Reform Bill was being debated in Parliament, and MPs like Banks and Norm Jones were engaging in the grand American tradition of filibustering, a delaying tactic designed to block bills in Parliament by engaging in eternal talk (something which Banks has never had any problems doing). But unlike Jimmy Stewart in the classic film Mr Smith Goes To Washington, they weren't taking part in a filibuster for truth. It was a filibuster for death. "They started thinking that if they delayed this bill, AIDS would be so horrendous through New Zealand that no way would they ever let gay sex be legal," remembers Des Smith, one of the founders of Wellington's Gay and Lesbian Fair. "But it actually worked in reverse, because it added to the publicity and the visibility." The bill was eventually passed on July 9, 1986, having been introduced the previous year. It's passage was by no means certain, and the debate was vicious. In January of that year, Wellington's Gay Task Force held a strategy meeting. "One of the suggestions was a fair, a gay and lesbian fair. Myself, James Hislop and Pauline Simmons were elected to organise it, which we consequently did," says Smith. The fair was to have three main aims. "The number one thing was a chance for gays, lesbians and their friends and family to get together and have a fun day. That was the most important thing," Smith says. "Secondly, it's very important to have that visibility in the community, because that is our survival. If people know we're there, and know that we are people, then they're not going to be into the act of demonising us, as some church groups do. And the third thing was fundraising for different groups within the community." The first hurdle was finding a location. "We decided on Newtown School because it was a neutral zone. It wasn't like a church, or an area where we could feel threatened. Newtown was an area that had a high number of different ethnic groups, therefore it sort of had that feeling of an area that accepted differences." However, gay men were still technically illegal, and this venue was a school. Surely it wasn't all plain sailing? "Well, it was interesting. The person we approached to hire the hall was incredible – Elaine Lethbridge. She was incredibly supportive," Smith recalls. "We didn't know this at the time, but I learnt from her later that there were a lot of people opposing it. She stood up and said, you've got to give these people a go, and if it doesn't work out then we've made a mistake." Although Lethbridge did have to continue to fight on behalf of the fair in subsequent years after the arrival of a homophobic headmaster at the school, the success of the 1986 event was of such a level that most opposition fell away. "The first fair was just so successful that I decided we had to have another one," says Smith. The following year, Smith was unable to rally anyone else to help organise a second fair, so he ran it on his own. That was the year he met his partner, John Jolliff. By 2004, they had become affectionately known as the "gay granddads" and icons for the campaign for civil unions. The couple married last year in one of Wellington's most high-profile weddings of recent years, presided over by mayor Kerry Prendergast. But back in 1987, the couple had just met. Jolliff helped Smith run the Wellington fair for the next ten years. "On the tenth fair, John had the job of organising entertainment," says Smith. "Over the fairs previous we'd put some money aside at each, so on the tenth we had the most spectacular entertainment – stilt-walkers, people that were dressed in costumes like newspapers, the 'Duke' and 'Duchess' of Wellington wandering around...the tenth fair was quite a highlight." Over the years, the fair has grown in size. Initially it was just held in the school hall, but eventually it spilled outside into the grounds. The crowds grew as well. "The dominant people are gays and lesbians, but there's a huge following of other people that come every year. I remember Elaine saying that people would ring up the school and ask 'when is that gay fair going to be'?" he laughs. But the fair has never downplayed its political roots. Norm Jones, then National MP for Invercargill, was one of the most vociferous opponents to homosexual law reform. He told Parliament in 1985 that if the bill were passed, New Zealand would "become a Mecca for thousands of homosexuals" from all around the world. The country's teenagers would be "virgin territory...The Minister of Tourism will be able to advertise New Zealand to homosexuals throughout the world: 'Come to New Zealand for sun, for scenery, and safe sodomy.'"" In coping with rhetoric like that, the fair's organisers could resist the opportunity to use the two great weapons in any glbt person's arsenal – humour and irony. "Norm Jones had a wooden leg," Smith remembers. "One of the wonderful things that we had on the first fair was ‘pin the wooden leg on Norm Jones'. And that was hilarious, because it went everywhere but. They also had these wonderful gingerbread men – ginger Norm Joneses, and there was a leg missing," he laughs. The fair was also a rallying point for the Human Rights Act in 1993 and the Civil Union Act in 2004. "For civil unions, James from the Chocolate Cake Company made this most wonderful wedding cake, and that was cut by John and myself at the fair," says Smith. The Chocolate Cake Company will again provide a cake this year, to celebrate the fair's 21st anniversary. Although no longer at the forefront of organising the fair, Smith still has a stall every year. He started a gay gardening group a couple of years ago, and now runs a plant stall. During our interview he laughs about being domesticated – when I phone I have interrupted him and Jolliff from painting the house. It's a long way from 1986, when the thought of Des and John being able to legally name each other as next-of-kin seemed light years away. What effect will all this normality have on the future of the Wellington fair? Smith feels that despite the community's progress, it still has an important place. "If people want it to keep going, then they're going to have be involved in the running of it," he says. "It is a chance for all the glbt community and their friends to get together. At a dance party, it's very restricted as to who the audience are going to be. With the fair, you can bring along your parents and your kids. It's a different audience that it caters for. That visibility in the community...the fair still has a place. "Whether it'll keep going or not, I don't know. But having been an event in Wellington, I'm thrilled that it's gone to 21 years." Chris Banks - 10th March 2006    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Friday, 10th March 2006 - 12:00pm

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