This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University at Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.
Today I'm going to be looking at Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand and how this was achieved.
The New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society was formed in 1967 and it was dedicated to urging a change in the law regarding male homosexual acts. The Society presented a petition to Parliament urging Homosexual Law Reform, signed by 75 prominent people, in 1968, and in 1974 the National Member of Parliament for Egmont, Venn Young, put forward a private members' bill intending to amend the Crimes Act of 1961, which proposed the decriminalization of private homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 21 years.
Following the proposed Wall Amendment by Labour Member of Parliament for Porirua, Gerald Wall, the bill was defeated because Gerald Wall put forward an amendment which, although it supported the decriminalization it sought to criminalize all public comment made to persons under 20 which implied that homosexuality was normal. So fortunately the bill was defeated at its Second Reading in 1975. And the lesbian and gay organizations which had formed as a result of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, from about 1972, very strongly campaigned against the bill because of that amendment. But that was the first attempt that came about trying to create legislative change.
In 1977 something very important happened, which was that the National Gay Rights Coalition of New Zealand, the NGRC, which was an umbrella organization for lesbian and gay groups, formed, and that was a coalition of groups. At one stage there's something like 33 groups. The NGRC puts out a newspaper called The Pink Triangle, and it's hugely influential and is very committed not only to legal change but also into improving circumstances, creating social change and enabling lesbians and gay men to be out and to live their lives as they would like to do.
The NGRC is very interested in the Human Rights Commission Act, which was passed in 1977, and it included several grounds on which discrimination against people were outlawed, but it didn't include sexual orientation, and that was something which the NGRC became very interested in and remained so for a number of years.
It's interesting that in 1978, the year after the NGRC forms, they support Dr Ian Scott who stood in the Eden electorate, Auckland, as the Labour Party's first openly gay candidate. He wasn't successful. He's not the first person – openly gay candidate – standing for Parliament however, because as early as 1975 Robin Duff had stood in the General Election for the Values Party as the very first openly gay candidate. Neither of these candidates were, at that stage, successful.
Now, in 1979 another Labour Member of Parliament, Warren Freer, proposed amendments to the Crimes Act and also trying to decriminalize male homosexual acts. He wanted an age of consent of 20 years, and this was immediately opposed by the National Gay Rights Coalition because of the unequal age of consent with heterosexual acts. So already we can see a great change in consciousness; that it's not enough to have decriminalization if it isn't equal. If heterosexual sex acts are legal at the age of 16, well, so should homosexual acts be. We can't have a situation of inequality; it sends a bad message to society.
The more conservative groups within the NGRC are rather alarmed about this. Some of the men in the Dorian Society are concerned about it. They'd much rather see decriminalization at any age. But the British experience bothers people: that that went through with an unequal age of consent and there hasn't been any movement in it. So, the whole younger generation certainly do not want to see an unequal age of consent.
Warren Freer proposed a new amendment in 1980 with an age of consent of 18, and that was again opposed by the NGRC, and it was dropped. And that certainly created a split in the NGRC which really starts to collapse after then because of conflicts. Many of the conservative groups really think that 18 would have been fine, and they start to talk about the "all or nothing brigade" who torpedo any kind of legislative reform.
Then in 1983 Fran Wilde, who has just entered Parliament, she's the Labour Member of Parliament for Wellington, and she considers introducing a gender-neutral private members' bill decriminalizing male homosexual acts, and this is the so-called Equality Bill. She doesn't proceed because lesbians strongly oppose any such legislation on the grounds that if something went wrong with the age of consent then you'd end up with lesbians, perhaps between the ages of 18 and 20 or between whatever, finding themselves criminalized, and that it's too uncertain to consider that introducing a gender-neutral act would be any kind of a good idea because too many things could go wrong.
What's interesting about that is that lesbian groups lobby other women members of Parliament who immediately see that that would be a foolish idea, so they lobby Fran Wilde and that's dropped.
Once again, this campaign does create ill feeling between men, particularly gay men in Auckland who thought this would be a good idea and the more radical gay men in Wellington who support the lesbian groups in thinking that that isn't the way to go.
However, in 1984 Fran Wilde begins to have discussions with Gay Task Force members in Wellington to discuss what kind of act would be acceptable, would get a wide support for it, and there's a good deal of input into what this kind of bill ought to look like. The Auckland Gay Task Force and the Christchurch Gay Task Force are formed in November, 1984, and they too begin to have discussions with Fran Wilde.
Now, the election of the fourth Labour Government in 1984, which is when Fran Wilde comes to Parliament, brought about the establishment of the Ministry of Women's Affairs. And prior to setting up this new ministry, the government had held women's forums throughout the country which lesbians attended, and many women were alarmed by the presence of busloads of Christian fundamentalist women who carried Bibles and copies of the National Anthem, and who voted against abortion, lesbian rights and also against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the elimination of the discrimination against women. Lesbians suggested to the Gay Task Force that fundamentalists might campaign against Homosexual Law Reform, but most of the men thought that organizing against abortion or women's equality didn't indicate that fundamentalists would necessarily campaign against homosexuality.
And the Gay Task Force really was not particularly well organized at the time of the introduction of the bill. Greater effort had been put into the shape of the bill. It was going to be:
Part I – To decriminalize all homosexual acts between consenting males in private, with an
age of consent of 16 years; an equal age of consent.
And also Part 2 – To add sexual orientation as an amendment to the Human Rights
The bill was drawn up by Wellington Gay Task Force activist Ewen Painter at a community meeting with Fran Wilde, and it was based on various drafts by the Auckland and Wellington groups. Fran Wilde thought the bill would have a greater chance of success if strict secrecy was observed, and she didn't think the bill should be publicized. And she thought that it would just be a short Parliamentary campaign, perhaps of about three months, for what would be a private members' bill, and the Gay Task Force agreed to this.
And in retrospect it's difficult to know whether more damage was done because of the lack of preparation and involvement of groups throughout the country, or whether, if there had been an early organization then news of the bill might have reached the opponents, which would have enabled them to campaign against it. In retrospect you can't really know that. Whatever, the introduction of the bill on the 8th of March, 1985, was carried by 51 to 24 votes.
But opposition to it was immediately mobilized by various members of Parliament: Norm Jones, who was a National Member for Invercargill; Jeff Braybrooke, a Labour Member for Napier; Graham Lee, a National Member for Hauraki; and Allan Wallbank, Labour from Gisborne. Before the first week had ended these people had launched a nationwide petition against the bill with a fundamentalist Christian businessman, Sir Keith Hay, who claimed to be just a carpenter doing God's work, and Sir Peter Tait, from Napier, as chief petitioners.
On March 20th the Salvation Army announced that it would take the petition door to door. And this petition against Homosexual Law Reform, and using very strong scare-mongering tactics, was circulated through schools, workplaces, prisons, rest homes and churches, with stands being set up in the streets. It eventually claimed 835,000 signatures against the bill were collected, and the petition was presented to Parliament on the 24th of September, 1985.
And the campaign was really a very difficult one. It was very necessary. The Gay Task Force and various gay and lesbian organizations fought very hard. We were starting late to get the organization going. We organized street marches, we organized protests, in town halls we attended meetings of those against the bill, and so forth. We held pickets outside the Salvation Army.
We tried to create a campaign which created a lot of laughter because we felt that the situation was so stressful that unless you introduced certain laughter and things of that sort into it, light-hearted things such as, for example, taking balloons on the marches and doing a lot of singing and making a lot of jokes, that unless you did that you could actually be getting into a situation where street violence could have occurred, there might have been some bad clashes.
And certainly I think that that's a good model if you have that kind of opposition that are really nasty, very serious, and it gets to that kind of point. You have to be very careful as to how you determine what tactics you'll use against them because if you get a mob against you you're going to lose, so the best way is if you can mock your protagonists. And of course we have in our communities, in our lesbian and gay communities, a strong tradition of humor, as have many other oppressed communities. The Jewish community, for example, have always used humor. So, humor is one of the best tactics. We had a lot of comical songs that we sang: things about ripping up petitions and that sort of thing.
And in many respects, a lot of those actions made people feel better about themselves. It was very good morally for our own communities. Some people were getting very depressed, especially if some gay and lesbian people had, themselves, signed the petition because they didn't have an alternative when it was brought into their workplace unless they wanted to immediately come out. When the suggestion is: Oh well, unless you're a poofter, you know, you'll sign this. So people did sign and then felt terrible about it. There were suicides; people were depressed, so it was good to have a campaign which raised people's morale as well as actually creating a better kind of public opinion. That won a lot of public support.
And the other thing that was important were the mistakes made by the people against the bill, and that was that they brought in American advisors against the bill and they had something that looked a bit like the Nuremberg Rally at Parliament, where they carried the petition up in boxes and they all sang the National Anthem, and they'd actually brought John Swan and various people like this and paid them a lot of money to come from the United States and advise them to do this. And the average New Zealander, when they saw this happening on their television screens thought: God! We don't want anything to do with this. It looks like the Nuremberg Rally. So that worked very much against them, which worked in our favor.
The bill was considered by the Statutes Revision Committee, which received a lot of submissions, nearly 1,000 submissions, and by October, 1985, it reported back and the Second Reading of the bill began, starting from March, 1986, and it was eventually passed.
Part 2 of the bill was lost, which was the human rights part, and that was good that it was lost because so many amendments had been put forward to that that it would apply except for the police, except for teachers, and so on, that it wasn't worth having.
So, the good thing was that Part 1 of the bill was passed through all of its stages. The Third Reading was on the 9th of July, 1986, and finally on that date the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, Part 1, decriminalizing male homosexuality with an age of consent of 16, was passed by 49 to 44 votes. And almost all the National Members of Parliament voted against the bill, with an exception of George Gair who disagreed with the age of consent of 16 but said he thought change was inevitable, and he voted for the bill.
And on the 11th of July, the Homosexual Law Reform Act, 1986, was signed into law by the Governor General and it came into effect on the 8th of August, which ended all those years of the criminalization of male homosexual acts in Aotearoa / New Zealand.
Transcript by cyberscrivener.com