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Protecting our past: The Lesbian and Gay Archive Pt1

Sun 14 May 2006 In: Community

Phil Parkinson As we rapidly approach the 20th anniversary of Homosexual Law reform in New Zealand on July 8th and look to times past, it crosses the mind to wonder if New Zealand's lesbian and gay histories are in safe hands. The answer is a resounding "yes." Our documents and newspapers, books and pamphlets, charting almost sixty years of struggle against repression, and providing insight into the thoughts, fears and dreams of lesbian and gay people, are stored at 13.5 degrees Celsius and relative humidity of 40% just a stone's throw from Parliament buildings in Wellington. Ironic really, because it's to our lawmakers in Parliament that much of our early writings were directed, as lesbian and gay New Zealanders drafted position papers, rebuttals and legislation itself, finally triumphing with the passage of homosexual law reform in 1986. So it is particularly sweet for the activists of yesteryear that those very stories denied the light of day for so long are now stored in perpetuity in a public/private partnership in New Zealand's Alexander Turnbull Library, the research arm of our National Library. That the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ) are housed in our national library is unique. Other lesbian and gay archives around the world struggle to protect their collections, the ravages of time, mildew and armies of insects destroy the past, rendering them inaccessible and forgotten. But state of the art archival storage facilities alone do not make LAGANZ what it is today. It's the curators and trustees that provide the expertise and sheer dedication to our archive, on a volunteer basis, some for over twenty-five years. For our collection does not belong to the state. Funded almost entirely by donations, the collection belongs to the lesbian and gay communities, represented by the LAGANZ Trust, for the facilitation of research and public education. The Trust aims to promote a greater "understanding of sexual orientation and identity, and in particular to combat prejudices against people stigmatised on account of their sexual orientation or identity." So this is no ordinary collection. It represents the voices of people once hidden from view, castigated as deviants and relegated to comedic disrespect, victims of marginalisation, misinformation and violence. As the culture wars of sex and desire waxed and waned over the years, LAGANZ and its predecessors were not just repositories for homosexual paraphernalia, but active agents in the struggle for freedom from discrimination for lesbian and gay New Zealanders. Still at the helm of LAGANZ after 25 years, Dr Phil Parkinson is testament to this struggle. Taking charge of the archives in 1981 he volunteered his time to provide scientific and bibliographic skills in the campaign for homosexual law reform. When Parkinson came out in 1979, New Zealanders on the whole didn't understand homosexuals, he says, due in large part to the invisibility of our communities. It was prudent to remain hidden. This was a time when anal intercourse was considered a crime of violence, charmingly referred to as 'sodomy' by our less affable lawmakers. Gay venues were attacked; men's saunas raided; homes searched and sheets forensically examined for evidence of homosexual activity. Violence against lesbian, gay and transgender people was frequent and usually went unreported. Who would report a gay bashing to the police when Parkinson's own research from the time identified the police themselves as perpetrators of the some of the worst incidences of anti-gay violence, both verbal and physical. The transformation of the state, from legal oppressor of homosexuals to joining in partnership with us to provide space for the storage of lesbian and gay archives, is dramatic, to say the least. And the history of LAGANZ mirrors the history of that revolution. The lesbian and gay archives was first established in 1978 under the auspices of the National Gay Rights Coalition, as the NGRC Resource Centre in Wellington. The NGRC was the earliest and largest national gay organisation, formed after the collapse of the Gay Liberation Movement that had unsuccessfully lobbied for law reform throughout the 1970s. The Centre was responsible for collecting the records of previous gay rights organisations and looking after the records of the NGRC. It also collected educational materials on issues of sexuality and identity and made these available to activists and researchers. Initially it operated from a private home, but in 1980 the Centre moved to the Wellington Gay Community Centre in downtown Boulcott Street. Shortly after Parkinson became the Resource Centre's administrator in 1981, the NGRC began to break up and the Centrewas reinvented as the Lesbian and Gay Rights Resource Centre (LGRRC). The LGRRC was a crucial element in the forthcoming campaign for homosexual law reform. It provided resources on human rights and the law, in addition to accumulating material on lesbian and gay sexuality, history and identity. In the early 1980s AIDS emerged internationally as a horrific threat to gay men's health, and from mid-1983 the LGRRC became the lead-organisation for the collection and dissemination of AIDS-related information as the epidemic hit New Zealand. It hosted the meeting at which the now legendary Bruce Burnett formed the AIDS Support Network, which later became the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. The role of the LGRRC in both law reform and the AIDS epidemic was pivotal in the fight to attain a more positive image for lesbians and gays in the eyes of the New Zealand public throughout the early 1980s. There was good reason to approach the two issues in tandem. Burnett and Parkinson were pragmatic: "How could the disease be prevented if those at risk were treated as criminals and pariahs?" New Zealand's earliest gay newspaper, Pink Triangle was published from the same building that housed the archives, generating an efficient synergy, as information could be collected and disseminated to the lesbian and gay community. The LGRRC provided documentation to the Human Rights Commission, responded to queries from the media and in 1983 published an early AIDS leaflet, ‘AIDS: Choices and Chances.' The landslide election of the Labour government of Prime Minister David Lange in July 1984 injected new impetus in the campaign to decriminalise sex between consenting New Zealand men. Wellington Central Labour MP Fran Wilde was keen to introduce a private member's bill to Parliament to enact that reform. "It all happened from there," recalls Parkinson, who was a member of the working group established to thrash out reform options, the Gay Task Force. "We had just six months to develop plans for bringing a bill into Parliament, and try to get it through." Media front-man for law reform, and coordinator of the Gay Task Force, Bill Logan, has high regard for Parkinson's contribution: "Every few days Phil would present a stack of documents with the instruction, ‘you must read these'. Phil made it very easy for me to remain abreast of the issues. His dedication was crucial to our success." Predictably, opposition to the campaign turned nasty. Visiting American anti-gay evangelists, the Salvation Army, prominent New Zealanders and numerous politicians swamped the media with a venomous backlash. Parkinson recalls anti-gay "rallies on the steps of Parliament, with lots of flags and earnest renditions of the national anthem," which attempted to sway public opinion and "save the nation from secular humanism;" to return New Zealand to a more God-fearing righteous path. Despite all the fascist posturings, pompous rhetoric and predictions of hell on earth, Parliament finally voted in the homosexual law reform legislation on July 8th, 1986. The thrill of approaching freedom and the jubilation of the moment were shattered and the vulnerability of the archives was exposed when, barely two months after law reform passed, arsonists torched the LGRRC. Next Sunday: Part 2: The New Zealand National Library comes to the rescue and the archives find a secure and permanent home. Editor's note: Throughout the coming weeks, GayNZ.com is acknowledging and celebrating the difference made in the lives of glbt New Zealanders by the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill on July 8, 1986. In specially commissioned features we are exploring life before and after reform, and the contributions of those who made such a difference to our lives. We'll recall the homophobes who opposed our freedom and the heroes who finally convinced Parliament to set us free. We'll take you into the public and private lives of glbt folk with stories to tell and records to set, er.. straight. If you have a story to tell or a perspective to share, contact us through the link button below. Your contribution is warmly welcomed.     David K Parrish - 14th May 2006

Credit: David K Parrish

First published: Sunday, 14th May 2006 - 12:00pm

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