Homosexual Law Reform (1986) decriminalised sexual relations between men aged 16 and over in New Zealand. No longer would men having consensual sex with each other be liable to prosecution and a term of imprisonment.
New Zealand took its cue from English social and legal traditions, in which sex between men was believed to be an 'unnatural offence' and a breach of moral and Christian codes – it was in fact still a crime for over a century 'not to be named among Christians'. Until 1961 the act of anal intercourse, carried a penalty of life imprisonment in New Zealand.
The late 60’s saw the first attempt to decriminalise homosexual acts, but the campaign quickly floundered. A letter to the campaigners from the Lord Cobham (former Governor General)best sums-up the conservative attitudes of the day “These people are mentally sick to as great an extent as, for example, people suffering from smallpox are sick. The whole problem of legalising this offence seems to me to hinge upon the extent to which the disease is contagious.”.
This societal phobia against gays continued through the 70’s when Colin Moyle was forced to resign from parliament in 1977 after Robert Muldoon – then Leader of the Opposition – alleged that Moyle had been picked up by the police while soliciting in a public place.
Even by the mid 80’ there were still large tracts of society who shared the belief homosexuality could be spread, & teens would be targeted by homosexuals.
Homosexual Law Reform was also a ‘poison chalice’ that no political party was willing to drink from, and the bill was introduced to the N.Z House of Representatives on 8 March 1985 as ‘a private members’ initiative by Fran Wilde, and voted-on by the ‘conscious’ of each MP, rather than party lines.
The bill had two parts. The first dealt with the decriminalisation of sexual offences between men as well as the decriminalisation of consensual heterosexual anal intercourse, while providing protection for minors of both sexes. The second would make it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the areas of employment, accommodation etc.
What was being fought for was not simply decriminalisation, but the social acceptance of homosexuality.
“I believe that the real aim [of the gay community] is to change society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and gain total acceptance of homosexual behaviours in all areas,” [ Opponent of Law Reform, Labour MP Geoff Braybrooke, Parliament 1986]
“Many thousands of people came out in their families,” “and that was part of a process of changing understanding of gayness in New Zealand society, which was more important than the law change” [Bill Logan, the public face of the Gay Task Force ]
At the time of the bill was being argued AIDS was a major issue, and anti-reform groups ‘saddled this horse’ claiming AIDS would be spread like a plague through-out the community. The Salvation Army were particularly vocal in raising this spectre, flying in campaigners from overseas to reinforce the paranoia a ‘powder keg’ that would explode, should homosexuality be legalised. Conservative Christian Groups, rallied under the banner of ‘Coalition of Concerned Citizens’ sought out support from the U.S.
One of these so-called experts was American ‘psychologist’ Dr Paul Cameron, who infamously is on record saying the early ‘80s stating, Gays are "worse than murderers," and his solution with AIDS was “all practicing homosexuals should be required to register and their movements should be tracked,". Charmed I’m sure.
Christian interest groups argued that the law would some how lead to more homosexuality and the nett result would eventually mean the collapse of the family unit.
Young boys would be put at risk. Homosexuality and paedophilia were constantly linked to build-up public hysteria. The Coalition of Concerned Citizens called this a Seduction Theory which they outlined in their literature, using the most unfortunate turn of phrase “‘Impressionable young people' will be sucked in to gay sex with older men”.
“I submit that the proposed Bill would be, if passed, a fountain of unmitigated evil.” [excerpt from a public submission at the time from Mr P A Bindoff]
“If a homosexual approaches me for a job I cannot discriminate against him on that ground. I believe I should have that right; I should be able to say: ‘I do not blame you for being homosexual; I am not heaping scorn and condemnation upon your head; I accept that you have the right to think as you will, but I do not want anything to do with you and I don’t want to employ you.” [Doug Graham, National Party in his submission, happy to descriminate on sexuality, but then in the next breath, putting his Treaty Negotiator ‘hat on’ then arguing for Maori compensation. Duplicitous moi?]
“I believe you’re here to stand for righteousness, and I believe you’re here tonight to stand for the God-ordained family unit.” “We’re asking Christians everywhere to really pray and seek the guidance of God about this” [ Barry Reed of the Moral Majority, on Radio NZ ]
“Sick, sad perverts, choosing abomination . . . they spread their filth over the world . . . hiding their degradation under the word Gay . . . a disgusting Bill which would legitimise buggery . . . voting in favour of filth, sodomy, fellatio, and other nameless horrors . .[ abridged, Len Assheton-Harbord, Nelson Evening Mail ]
A central part of the on-going debate was a huge nationwide ‘anti-gay’ petition, the brain-child of four MPs ( Geoff Braybrooke, Graeme Lee, Norman Jones, Allan Wallbank) opposing the legislation – which was rejected by Parliament's Petitions Committee due to the high number of irregularities (false names, duplicate signings etc) The petition itself was administered by those nice people at The Salvation Army & partly funded by businessmen like Keith ‘Homes’ Hay. The petition which gathered an estimated 350,000 signatures, did go to prove that opposition to the bill was strong.
The elaborate presentation of the petition to Parliament, dubbed 'The Nuremberg Rally' (24th Sept 1985) was stage-managed by American lobbyist Jack Swan, who had previously acted as a public-relations officer for the Catholic diocese of New York. Not only did this almost militaristic display of religious zeal outside Parliament (including the formation of a human cross) tend to scare away support from ‘middle New Zealand’ the whole exercise was lampooned , when the organisers claims they had 800,000 signatures were found to be ludicrously over-stated, petition boxes mostly empty.
“The overstatement involved in the presentation of the boxes and the overstatement of numbers do no credit to the petitioners,” [Junior MP Trevor Mallard]
The Homosexual Law Reform Bill took 14 months to move through the parliamentary process. Members of Parliament had rejected a proposed amendment that would raise the age of consent to 18, so it remained at 16 in the final legislation – the same age as for heterosexuals.
Prayer vigils were held outside Parliament as the date was voting came closer.
The final vote was held on 9 July 1986, and the bill was passed by 49 votes to 44.
Gays, lesbians and their supporters partied; church leaders up and down the country (a notable exception were The Presbyterians) predicted doom and gloom. For the first time in New Zealand legal history, homosexual men could enter into sexual relationships without fear of prosecution.
The depth of anger, manifested itself when in September of that year The Lesbian and Gay Rights Resource Centre in Wellington was vandalised and partially destroyed by arson.
It was a sad epilogue to a debate which had unleashed violent passions on both sides.
For the law reformers, it was still only a partial victory. The second part of the bill, which would have removed discrimination on the basis of sexuality, was rejected. Opponents argued that homosexuality was not a human rights issue and that discrimination was fair and acceptable. It wasn't until the Human Rights Act was passed in 1993 that it became illegal in New Zealand to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.
For a great many decent, fair-minded, ordinary New Zealanders watching this ‘religious hatred’ surrounding The Homosexual Law Reform bubble to the surface - was the last straw. They saw ‘the ugly side’ and primeval nature of religion in New Zealand & rejected its divisiveness. Christian perception did not mirror what they knew was the case in reality. Most Kiwis had ‘gays’ in their social circle, work-mates, neighbours over the fence & sometimes as a relative.
These were not the same group vilified by Churches in their propaganda.
For the first time in our countries history Christians themselves, found they were a minority on a major issue of morality, and saw themselves as ‘fighting the good fight’ against a godless secular society bent on destroying the countries very foundations.
The late Norman Jones (left), the National MP for Invercargill, one of the four behind the petition, most certainly saw the struggle in these heroic terms. “It’s a war,” he declared on Radio New Zealand in November 1985. “It’s a war [against] people who knowingly undertake sodomy and anal intercourse knowing that they’re going to infect the other partner [with AIDS]…. So far as I’m concerned, no quarter is being given and no quarter is being asked.”
This was The Springbok Tour issue revisited, only this time Churches were on the other side of the barricades & today many dissenters from 1986 would be embarrassed at their stand. Whilst marching against ‘the tour’ is seen by many as a badge of honour, a similar level of kudos could not be garnished with claims “ I protested against the bill”.
So what has changed since the bill was passed?
Certainly not the doom laden prophecies of the anti brigade.
AIDs trends in New Zealand followed those of other western countries, gay men and lesbians are accepted in the wider community for who they are, not their sexual preferences.
A survey of opinions was done only 18 months after the bill was passed, and the results showed a massive swing in public opinion, 80 per cent of Kiwi’s saying they wanted homosexual acts to remain decriminalised.
Many of the more moderate Christian Churches now accept Gays for ordination.
New Zealanders sense for fair-play has subsequently seen voters endorse the world’s first transgender Member of Parliament.
In many ways the Homosexual Law Reform was a water-shed, signalling the demise of religious influence in both New Zealand Law and Society.