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Peter Wall on Homosexual Law Reform

Sat 16 Jul 2016 In: Our Communities View at Wayback View at NDHA

First of all, I would like to acknowledge the Tangata Whenua, the people of the land. As many of you know, I have lived in Australia for some years now, and I'm pleased to see that there too the acknowledgement of the first people is becoming an accepted practice. I'm proud to note that where New Zealand has led in this regard Australia is now following. (Not always closely, or consistently, but following...) Looking back, it's quite astonishing to think that just 30 years ago, gay men could be threatened with imprisonment for a simple act of affection that heterosexuals take for granted. But what is even more astonishing from our present day perspective is that a large and vocal group of people believed that was the way the law should be, and campaigned vigorously to keep it that way. It seems inconceivable now that anyone would propose introducing such a law - to ban homosexual acts under the threat of 5 or 7 years imprisonment - but in the 1980s a sizeable group of politicians and religious leaders fought tooth and nail to retain the existing law. And even after a lengthy campaign, when all of the issues were endlessly canvassed, 45% of the parliamentarians of the time, including almost all of the National Party MPs, voted to keep that law in place. So take yourself back in time, to an age when it political leaders thought it quite acceptable to express publicly views that we would now find repugnant, and consider how fortunate we were to find an MP prepared to challenge the accepted wisdom, that there were no votes in being nice to gays. Fran Wilde had the courage, the political smarts and above all, a clear understanding of the justice of our case, and we were very fortunate to find her. And in thanking Fran, I must also pay tribute to the team of helpers she assembled among her fellow parliamentarians, including a talented young backbencher named Helen Clark (she'll go far, that woman!) I guess that gives the lie to the then prevailing wisdom that support for gay rights was a career-limiting move. In among all the thanks (and I can't possibly remember everyone who deserves a mention so please forgive me if I don't even attempt to be comprehensive) I want to mention particularly our legal team of Don McMorland and Alan Ivory, who unfortunately can't be here tonight. And I want to pay tribute to 3 people who didn't live to see the 30-year anniversary of the Bill. Brett Sheppard and Tony Katavich, and Tony's partner John Kiddie, were among the hardest working, most dedicated members of the campaign for the Bill. They provided venues and services at no cost, they gave countless hours of their time, and they were an invaluable support to the campaign as a whole and me in particular. Thank you all three, and I'm so sad not to be able to say so to you in person. And of course grateful thanks are due to all of the many participants in the various aspects of the campaign, planned or unplanned. The campaign took far longer than we had expected at the outset. But one thing that became rapidly apparent to us was that whenever our opponents appeared on television, our opinion poll figures went up markedly. Former Mt Roskill mayor Keith Hay, and Invercargill MP Norm Jones, and many others that I have gladly erased from my memory, all expressed their opposition to the Bill in terms so repellent to the general population that New Zealand swung increasingly to our side. But while our opponents were unwittingly doing our work for us, the campaign was undoubtedly taking its toll on the members of the LGBT community. Hearing themselves described in the most disgusting language by men claiming the authority of the cloth, or of elected office, caused a mixture of anger and distress among our supporters that we were in retrospect ill-prepared to deal with. I'm well aware that at times we were criticised for not being sufficiently aggressive in our presentation of our arguments, when we knew, in fact, that the sheer nastiness of the anti-Bill campaigners was bringing more members of the public and media commentators over to our side than we could have won over by our own efforts. But in the end, what was achieved? Clearly, the threat of imprisonment - even if it was only infrequently pursued to the point of a prosecution - was a threat hanging over gay men's lives, and the lifting of that threat was a great achievement in itself. But the threat carried with it a stigma that affected all gay men - even those who managed to hide their activities from the prying eyes of the police. And young gay men, contemplating their future as a members of an outcast community, faced even more difficulty coming to terms with their sexuality than they do today. But the success of the law reform campaign also said a lot about New Zealand. When New Zealanders were exposed to a campaign of bile and vitriol they came out on the side of the innocent targets of that abuse. When they were asked to examine the fairness of a long held prejudice they came to the view that the prejudice was unjust. When they were confronted with the choice of what kind of society they wanted to be, they chose one that was open and decent and welcoming of diversity. And fortunately, enough of the politicians of the time caught that mood of fairness and justice and the law was changed, and New Zealand was changed forever. Kia Ora. - 16th July 2016    


First published: Saturday, 16th July 2016 - 7:07pm

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