25 years of gay rights in New Zealand

TRAILBLAZERS: John Jolliff, left, and Des Smith were the first gay couple to legally tie the knot in a civil union.
ROSS GIBLIN/ The Dominion Post
TRAILBLAZERS: John Jolliff, left, and Des Smith were the first gay couple to legally tie the knot in a civil union.

In the 16 months it took from the time the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was introduced to Parliament until it was passed into law, the argument over decriminalising homosexual sex was rarely off the pages of newspapers.

Fran Wilde, the Labour MP who introduced the bill allowing consensual sex between males aged 16 and over, says she received death threats, pro-bill campaigners were abused, beaten up and spat on, and the presentation of an 800,000-signature petition against the bill turned the steps of Parliament into a scene from the Nuremberg Rallies.

There were slagging matches in Parliament. Staunch anti-bill campaigner and Hauraki MP Graeme Lee said the bill getting to select committee stage was "a dark day in the history of our nation". His colleague Norman Jones, then MP for Invercargill, argued against the bill by saying "if God had wanted to propagate the human race through the rear, he'd have put the womb down here".

STEP FORWARD: Supporters of a homosexual law reform petition with boxes of signed petitions on the steps of Parliament in September 1985.
STEP FORWARD: Supporters of a homosexual law reform petition with boxes of signed petitions on the steps of Parliament in September 1985.

Though the law prohibiting homosexual sex was rarely enforced, there was always the fear for gay men that it would be. If you went to a gay bar for example, there was a high possibility you could be hounded by police. Workers lived in fear that they might be sacked if their sexuality was revealed. And there was the spectre of potential imprisonment.

But acceptance of homosexuality was gaining ground in the early 1980s. Before the bill was passed, many homosexual men kept their sexuality a secret, but many found the course of the campaign a catalyst for coming out. Lesbianism was never illegal – it was sex between men, not women, that was a criminal act.

The atmosphere in Parliament on the night of July 9, 1986, was tense and pro-bill supporters were uncertain the legislation would go through. They packed the gallery. When the bill was passed by 49 votes to 44, there was jubilation. A lone opponent shouted that Parliament was wicked. When he was removed from Parliament, Sir Robert Muldoon barked that the Speaker should "remove the poofs too!" One bill supporter ran outside to the band of Catholic women who had held an anti-bill vigil on the grounds outside, and thanked them for their efforts.

The impact of the bill and the debate that surrounded it still resonates in New Zealand. It may have allowed homosexuals to legally form relationships, and made society more inclusive of the gay community, but stigma and discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex people still exists.

David Hindley was a 25-year-old journalist with TVNZ when the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was going through Parliament. When he showed up at a select committee hearing, a fellow journo sidled up to him and said, "I'm covering this story, what are you doing here?" Mr Hindley explained, "Actually, I'm in front of the camera today, not behind it."

He and his colleagues from the Gay Taskforce were presenting a submission to the select committee hearing on why the bill should go ahead. "Freedom from discrimination is a basic human right, and the irony is that 25 years ago we started the process to get there; we still haven't really achieved that. In very intimate areas like marriage and adoption there's still discrimination."

Though he doesn't want to get married or adopt children, he says it's important gay and lesbian people have the same rights as heterosexual people.

It took courage to be gay and out in the days before the bill was passed, Mr Hindley says. He was open about his sexuality, but knew others who kept it hidden for fear of losing their jobs.

He says the bill was about "trying to create an environment where people could live without fear; everyone should have the right to live without fear."

Today there are a lot more people "out", Mr Hindley says. "There's heightened sensitivity and visibility [of homosexuality]. You can watch on Breakfast Corin Dann and Petra Bagust talking to Tamati Coffey about his upcoming civil union, and that sort of thing is quite neat; it's a good role model for young people growing up. When I was growing up the only role model was Mr Humphries of Are You Being Served?"

The night the bill was passed, Bill Logan and his partner at the time Jerome were sitting in Parliament's public gallery along with hundreds of supporters. When the vote was read out, they turned to each other and kissed, while cheering and clapping went on around them. The campaign to get the bill through had consumed Mr Logan as the public face of the Gay Taskforce.

"I was elated in that I had put all of myself into this campaign for 16 months, so there was a sense of triumph, but also a sense that this is quite reversible. [I thought] it's not going to change the world; we still have to earn a living and face a world which has a certain amount of hostility."

Today, Mr Logan, a counsellor, lives with his partner, actor and director Rangimoana Taylor, in a penthouse flat crowded with books, art and an occasional rainbow flag.

While Mr Logan says it's certainly easier to be gay or lesbian these days, there are still hurdles. Even the most liberal of parents can take their son or daughter coming out very badly.

"On the whole we've achieved a pretty liberal public space, but I think that there's this private area where people are still scared of what life would be like, so parents don't always react well.

"The worst thing is people who are transgender. I've met several

people recently whose parents have kicked them out."

He's concerned for young people who are still being bullied in schools for their sexuality.

"High schools are horrible places for gay and lesbian [youth]; intersex and transgender particularly. The agents of most of the moral conservatism are the high school students, but they reflect something of the wider society. It's not just that they're young."

He thinks diversity clubs, giving gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex kids peers and support, could go some way to lessening discrimination in schools.

Mr Logan fears that in an economic recession, the first people to be given the chop would be members of the gay community, who might be seen as "unproductive", rather than those with families to support.

He says there's a need for cultural change. "The law reform wasn't important in itself, but was important, and the fight around it, to change people's thinking."

IN 2008, Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson gave his maiden speech to Parliament. He told fellow MPs: "I am lucky that I have largely grown up in a generation that is not fixated on issues such as sexual orientation. I am not – and neither should others be."

It's partly because of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill that he was able to say that, Mr Robertson believes. "I hope that voters will judge me on my performance as an MP, and the things that I believe in and the policies I promote. And the good news is that for the most part that has happened."

He was 14 when the debate over the bill was blazing. He says there's no doubt that passing the bill helped him get to grips with his sexuality as a young man and gives him a lot of freedom today.

"My generation, of people who grew up in the wake of that, were very conscious of it. I know for younger people coming through now it's probably not something they give much thought to; it was done and dusted. On the 25th anniversary it's a good time to remember the really hard work that people did."

Day to day, he says, his sexuality rarely comes up. "I live a very comfortable life in Wellington and I think New Zealanders are generally very tolerant people.

"There are still people who suffer discrimination and stigma. And there are still young people who are coming to terms with their sexuality; it's still a difficult time for many of them. It's better, but there are still challenges there."

He "wed" his partner, Alf, in a civil union in 2009. "We wanted to celebrate our relationship with our friends and family, as most people do. And that was the option that was available to us."

The living room at Des Smith and John Jolliff's place in suburban Ngaio was, during the campaign to get the Homosexual Law Reform Bill through Parliament, a hub of political activity.

On Monday nights, the Wellington branch of Hug – Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays – met there to strategise and talk. "There was paper everywhere," Mr Smith says. "This became just a big office. I was often in here at two in the morning, wrapping up parcels to send out."

For a year, Mr Smith was head of Wellington Hug, devoting himself to campaigning. He lived in the Ngaio house alone, and in the course of the campaign, came out as a gay man.

Then in his 40s, he says he was unsure about who he was, "like a lot of gay men then. I did live a double life; it was a bit of a struggle, but once you get on with life and living, it's a relief".

During the campaign he was spat at, vilified by church groups, and after a day of relentless abuse, contemplated suicide. In the year after the law was passed, he met Mr Jolliff. The pair were involved in getting anti-discrimination legislation through Parliament in 1993, and in 2005 were the first same-sex couple in New Zealand to have their relationship legally acknowledged with a civil union.

Mr Jolliff says there is still a way to go before same-sex couples have equality with heterosexual couples.

Father of two and grandfather of four, he says: "I've never understood why gay couples [are perceived to] jeopardise the safety of the child they're bringing up. People seem to infer that if you bring up a child, it's going to be gay because it's in a gay household. It takes a heterosexual couple to bring up a gay child."

Are things better for the gay community now?

"Oh yes!" Mr Smith says. "When you go out there and you hear some guy of 19 who's out say they can't believe there was a law that [prohibited] anyone from being together.

"The Homosexual Law Reform Act helps, no doubt, but with the law and the battle going on for so long, there was a lot of visibility.

"One thing we learned was how important visibility is. A lot of people would like us to go away, but [being visible] is part of our survival."

The Dominion Post