In 1986 New Zealand Parliament passed the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, making it no longer illegal for Kiwi men to be criminalized for having consensual sex. It wasn’t just the men involved, either, but their families and friends: if you allowed gay sex to occur on your property you could lose your house. Gay men killed themselves rather than face a life where they would be reviled for being themselves. Prior to 1961 sodomy was punishable in NZ by life imprisonment. Suicide is arguably preferable.
This week the New Zealand Parliament offered a formal apology to all men who were convicted under anti-sodomy laws. Justice Minister Amy Adams explained the government “recognises the tremendous hurt and suffering those men and their families have gone through, and the continued effects the convictions have had on them.”
Labour MP Grant Robertson said, “Let us be clear, the illegality of homosexuality, the arrests and imprisonments and fear of that happening did not just ruin lives and destroy potential. It killed people . . . Hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives have been lost because of the shame, the stigma and the hurt caused by this Parliament and the way society viewed them as criminals. It is for all of that that we must apologise.”
The apology accompanies a unanimously passed law allowing convicted men to apply for a pardon. Families of deceased men can apply for a pardon on their behalf. Kudos to Wiremu Demchick, who started the Campaign to Pardon Gays in Aotearoa in 2014, gaining the support of the Green Party, and organizing a petition presented to parliament in 2016.
I owe a personal apology to those men. To all gay men.
In 1985 the Christian-based Coalition of Concerned Citizens organized a petition against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which was then working its was through the committee process. The group’s leader, Keith Hay, was steadfastly against legalizing gay sex: “Homosexuality is definitely sinful. If this legislation is passed you might come home and find a man on the back of your son. Legally there. It will be happening under the trees and bushes.” The Coalition was strongly influenced by the work of American psychologist Paul Cameron, who equated homosexuality with paedophilia.
One day in 1985, in high school science class, my best friend pulled a sheet of paper from her bag and slid it across to me. “You have to sign this,” she said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The government wants to make being gay legal,” she said. “We have to stop them.” Disgust shuddered across her face.
My first thought was, What’s ‘gay’?
Yes, this was a real thing I didn’t know.
If you’re my age you don’t need to imagine a world without any representation of gay men and women. There were no gay TV characters, no out gay men as part of the community. 1980s New Zealand was incredibly oppressive about all kinds of sexual issues. I didn’t know what a condom looked like. Girls who ‘got into trouble’ had to leave school for “Bethany,” a mysterious live-in hostel. Sometimes mothers went into hospital for ‘women’s issues.’ We had no idea what these issues might be, or if we would also inevitably have them too. All we knew about was rugby, Knight Rider, and the Saturday night top 20 countdown.
I don’t know how many of those 800,000 signatures against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill were those of high school kids, but I know at least some were.
Because I signed.
She was my best friend. I wanted to please her.
I didn’t want to show my ignorance.
I didn’t want to stand out.
I didn’t want to be ‘for’ something that was apparently disgusting.
And I signed.
It’s the single most shameful act of my life.
Three other girls at the table signed the petition. Others overheard and got up from their tables to come over and sign. Finally someone handed the form to Jo, a quiet girl, whose friends were all in other classes.
Jo shoved the paper away. “I’m not signing that,” she snapped. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
My body still remembers the swell of shock that flowed through me, that someone would refuse to go along with the crowd. That saying, “No,” was a thing that was allowed. That someone would stand up and voice an unpopular opinion. That there was someone who thought being ‘gay,’ whatever that was, was okay, when clearly enough people were concerned about to it have organized a petition.
Thank you, Jo, for showing me what is was to be brave.
I was a fucking idiot and I signed, and became one of the ignorant, howling mob holding pitchforks.
I’m so, so sorry.