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Law Reform exhibition: What Are You Afraid Of?

Tue 27 Jun 2006 In: Events

The campaign for homosexual law reform was an arduous and acrimonious two-and-a-half year battle for the hearts and minds of everyday New Zealanders. Thousands of gays and lesbians faced off against ‘concerned citizens'; and God's own soldiers – the Salvation Army – made an unexpected and shocking entry into the fray, whipping up a conservative backlash intent on maligning homosexuals and our ‘filthy' practices. This occurred just twenty years ago, yet quite a few of us were still in nappies or at the very least, pre-pubescent. These days, we take it for granted that our sexual practices are beyond the purview of the state; that we're not locked up for the crime of sodomy or ‘unnatural sexual connection', whatever that may be. But the memories of that struggle in the early 1980s are formative for many in our community. One such man is David Hindley, who attended rally after rally, meetings of both pro- and anti-reform groups, and witnessed the passage of Homosexual Law Reform on July 9th 1986 from the best seat in the house – Parliament's gallery. He snapped thousands of images – including the faces of the indignant, the jubilant and the confused. He was the man on the spot, and his photographs are being resurrected for this year's 20th anniversary celebrations. Hindley has selected forty images for the upcoming exhibition, aptly titled, “What are you afraid of?” opening in Wellington on July 9 and in Auckland on July 15. “One of the key things about the exhibition is to show it wasn't just a Parliamentary campaign,” says Hindley. “It's easy to say, well, at the end of the day, Fran Wilde introduced the bill and fought for it, and it was up to MPs to vote on it… But, in fact, a huge amount of work was done by the lesbian and gay communities, and we can really pat ourselves on the back for that.” For Hindley and other activists, it was essential that gays and lesbians maintained a high profile in the eyes the public. “It was important to the community to see lots of gay men and lesbians standing up for themselves. [The general public] could actually look us in the eye, see who we were, what we looked liked, and listen to what we were saying.” Numerous rallies were held throughout the country. These “were an opportunity for people to get out and mix with other gays and lesbians and draw support.” But each step of the way, they were met by the opposing forces of the ‘religious right', representing what they viewed as the ‘moral majority'. THE ADDAMS FAMILY AND NAZI IMAGERY Hindley talks us through some of the images, many of which depict this confrontation. He points out the Topp Twins entertaining a pro-reform group; the progressive theologian and Presbyterian Lloyd Gearing; and the late Sonia Davies, prominent in the Labour and union movements. In the other camp are some rather sour-looking ‘concerned citizens'. “This is Keith Hay, of Keith Hay Homes, one of the opponents,” Hindley explains, and “this is Reverend Louis Sheldon, an American they flew across to help with the anti-reform campaign.” A smile crosses his face. “There's another one – he looks like something from the Addams Family.” Some of the shots capture embarrassing moments for the bill's opponents. “This is John Lusk, one of the activists trying to ‘borrow' the helmet of a Salvation Army officer.” And here's a “newspaper photograph from the Salvation Army's annual conference they had in Wellington.” The picture depicts another of God's soldiers – he's conducting a band, with his hand held high, but the swastika banners brought along by activists add an unintended complexion. “A lot of people in the Salvation Army were really embarrassed by what was going on,” says Hindley. The Salvation Army features quite a bit in the exhibition. There are photos of gays and lesbians protesting outside the Sallies' church services. “Here's Peter Nolan, a reporter with GayBC talking to an elderly lady… It was quite strange because while people at the top of the Salvation Army were saying these nasty things… when we picketed outside a service, we found all these charming elderly people would turn up and you realise that they were quite bemused, quite embarrassed.” THOSE ALMOST EMPTY BOXES In fact, the detractors “certainly shot themselves in the foot with a lot of people, in the same way more recently that the Destiny Church did, putting people in black shirts and marching them down the street.” And it's easy to see why. When the Salvation Army delivered their ‘petition' against law reform to Parliament, it resembled a “Hitler Youth rally,” says Hindley, pointing at the images of smartly dressed young men with stony faces, carrying New Zealand flags. “It was quite an eerie thing.” He goes on: “The gays and lesbians protesting at this were held back behind barricades. There were about 300 or 400 of us. The police said anyone crossing this line would be arrested, and there were about 24 arrests that day.” The photos show boxes of petitions being brought up the steps of Parliament. “Even though they were big document boxes, they only had like a few petition pages in the bottom of them. But it was a big show event.” The media loved it, and covered rally after rally, meeting after meeting. “The campaign was an absolute gift to the media,” says Hindley, “because there were so many outrageous characters.” Among these was National MP Norman Jones. He was “larger than life” and made some outlandish statements with regards to homosexuality and, in particular, AIDS. He “said some things in the media, to the effect of, ‘I hope [AIDS patients] die sooner because that will act in our favour.'” Jones too, is immortalised in black and white, as one of the chief instigators of the notorious public meetings of ‘concerned citizens.' There's a series of four photos from a now infamous meeting, convened in Lower Hutt by opponents of law reform. It was organised by Patricia Bartlett, “a big anti-reform campaigner” with her Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. She “brought along anti-reform MPs like Norm Jones, and Geoff Braybrook. Half the audience were there because they didn't like the bill, and half the audience were gay and lesbian who were supporting the bill.” About half way through, the meeting descended into chaos, recalls Hindley. The action shots show Bill Logan of the Gay Task Force trying to address the meeting, while being shouted down by opponents. Eventually the organisers said, “You can only speak here if you come up with half of the hall-hire costs… Of course, that was a challenge, which the gays and lesbians just grabbed, and everyone was fishing in their pockets for money. We quickly came up with [the cash], and there it is on the floor, all counted out!” he exclaims, pointing at the shot, clearly still jubilant. Bill Logan and lesbian activist Alison Laurie could then get up to speak. “It was a strategic error” for the anti-gay campaigners, and one of the images succinctly captures the moment. “This guy stood up while Bill was speaking and just put his hands over his ears.” For Hindley, this image is priceless, representing the attitude of those opposed to reform. “They just didn't want to hear the truth.” It was a huge victory for the gay and lesbian activists, and they continued to crash public meetings. “We just went along and disrupted them, demanding the right to speak and challenging the horrible things they were saying. After a while they just stopped advertising public meetings.” A SENSE OF FUN Not all the images depict divisiveness and confrontation. In fact, “one of the fun things about going through these photographs is looking at the outfits people wore in the 80s,” muses Hindley. “There are lots of home-knitted jerseys!” Many gay men were certainly snappy dressers back, in their tight shirts and obscenely revealing pants. But lesbian activist Tighe Instone stole the show with her “ladies who lunch” look. “She would dress up for different events,” says Hindley. With outfits such as “fox fur and big horn-rimmed glasses… she bought a lot of fun to the campaign.” Hindley points out Instone at a Wellington Town Hall meeting. There's activist Derek Arnold addressing the crowd from the floor with Instone engrossed in her own mini-battle with a wearying opponent. Des Smith, founder of Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays (HUG), is strutting his stuff around town, pasting up pro-reform posters. Most activists did this at night, but not Des, says Hindley, chuckling. “Des is one of those fearless people.” Smith's image in the exhibition represents an aspect to the campaign not often reflected upon – the countless straight people who devoted their time and effort to generate support for reform, and the countless gays and lesbians (including Des!) who came out to themselves, and in support of their community. “People thought, ‘I can't stay in the closet; I can't not do anything,'” says Hindley. And in spite of the media coverage and the good chance of being sprung on television by relatives or colleagues, “a lot of people just took the step and did that… it was a huge growth phase for a lot of people individually and for the community as a whole.” One of the more haunting images shows a Holocaust memorial service, held by the gay and lesbian communities to pay their respects to the thousands of gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis in World War Two. This was a very significant event, says Hindley. “Prominent people from the Jewish community came along – acknowledging that gays and lesbians were killed as well as Jews.” That two historically oppressed peoples could join together to draw support from each other exemplified the sense of fairness and equality among most New Zealanders. And this sense of what was right and just finally swung public opinion firmly in favour of homosexual law reform. The bill was passed, the ‘moral majority' became a misnomer, and most MPs supportive of reform were returned with increased majorities in the next general election. One of those MPs was Trevor Mallard, who was “just a young MP from Hamilton” without the profile he has now, says Hindley, pointing to a fresh-faced lad, celebrating the successful vote together with Ruth Dyson. The images depict sheer jubilation at Wellington's Victoria Club in the wee hours of the morning shortly after the bill passed by just five votes. “Fran came in later in the evening… the champagne was flowing.” Indeed, “there were parties all over the place that night.” “There was a great sense of relief because it had been a time of huge turmoil for lots of us,” says Hindley “There was lots of emotional stuff that went down at the time.” After the partying was over and the media interest waned, the activists returned to their regular jobs, the politicians turned to other issues, the public moved on, and the Salvation Army's leader fled the country. It was an amazing time for those most intimately involved and life changing for thousands of gays and lesbians who endured the years of public scrutiny of their private lives. “It was inconceivable that things would ever go backwards in that regard,” says Hindley. “We were out and loud and proud.” And we've remained so, twenty years on. Hindley's photographs chart a crucial stage of our journey as a community and remind us of the immense achievements possible when we unite against prejudice and misunderstanding. After all, what were they really afraid of? We're not that scary. What are you afraid of? Wellington: Sunday, July 9 to Wednesday 12 at Turnbull House Auckland: Saturday, July 15 to Saturday 22, Aotea Centre. Hosted by the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ). David Parrish - 27th June 2006    

Credit: David Parrish

First published: Tuesday, 27th June 2006 - 12:00pm

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