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A pandemic and activists’ fight for rights

Social researcher and author Angela Yeoman looks back at a unique set of circumstances that led to a major improvement in our country’s human rights: A pandemic, a community of activists ready to fight for their rights, a society able to listen, and an MP [now Wairarapa local] ready to change the law.

In July 1984, Fran Wilde met with the gay community in Wellington. She was MP for Wellington Central, and the agenda for the meeting was homosexual law reform. Wilde was working towards delivering on a commitment she’d made when she was elected to Parliament – to sponsor a bill decriminalising homosexuality.

Wilde was first voted into Parliament in 1981. This was followed by her re-election in 1984, 1987, and again in 1990. Previously, she’d been a reporter but had always been interested in politics, joining the Labour Party in the late 1970s. Wilde’s horror at how Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was “driving the economy into the ground and driving the country into a banana republic,” propelled her into political activism.

On 8 March 1985, Wilde introduced a private member’s bill designed to decriminalise consensual adult male sex and prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Sixteen months later, in July 1986, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill passed by 49 to 44 votes and was signed into law, but without the human rights provisions – these were voted down in the House. The Homosexual Law Reform Act came into effect on 8 August 1986.

We talked with Dame Fran Wilde, on the porch of her sunny Greytown home, about her role in homosexual law reform. We also spoke with Bill Logan, a member of the grass roots gay taskforce that lobbied MPs and helped shape the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. And Geoff*, from Wairarapa, talked to us about how his life changed after the passing of the bill.

In the early 1980s, New Zealand’s human rights and crime laws lagged behind other developed countries

Our human rights laws in the early 1980s did not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment, accommodation, or the supply of goods and services. The Crimes Act at the time made criminals out of adult men who engaged in consensual sex. More than 1,000 New Zealand men had been convicted and shamed under that Act.

By comparison, individual states in America had been decriminalising same-sex sexual activity since 1961, beginning with Illinois.

In 1967, England’s laws were amended to decriminalise homosexual activities between consenting males aged over 21 [subsequently reduced to age 16], so long as only two people were present, and they were not in the merchant navy.

In May 1984, New South Wales decriminalised gay sex for consenting adults over the age of 18.

The time was ripe for change in New Zealand

Law change was a long time coming in New Zealand. Social and political groups established by and for homosexuals had existed in New Zealand for some time and one of the earliest, the Dorian Society, presented a petition to Parliament in 1968. It was rejected.

A campaign for homosexual law reform began in earnest in the mid-1970s when MP Venn Young introduced a Crimes Amendment Bill to legalise private homosexual acts between consenting adults. It was not passed into law.

Any law change was always going to allow MPs to vote according to their conscience rather than along party lines but, to bring about that change, the gay movement needed a parliamentary champion able to both introduce a private member’s bill and actively campaign for it. That champion was found in Fran Wilde, Labour back bencher, liberal and, at the time the bill was introduced, a party Whip. And, as a woman, she was viewed as not having a “vested interest” in reforming the law, which had never banned sex between women. It also didn’t hurt that Wilde’s electorate, Wellington Central, was arguably the most active in homosexual law reform. The district was fired up and ready to go.

In her speech seeking leave to introduce the Homosexual Law Reform Bill into the House, Wilde put it on record that “people have steadily moved from a knee-jerk, hysterical opposition to a position of more informed and considered acknowledgment that there is no evidence in favour of the punitive criminal code that deals with the issue of consenting adult sexual activity. There was majority support for homosexual law reform even five years ago in a Heylen poll of 2000 people.”

In September 1985, another Heylen poll found that more than 62 per cent of people were happy to support homosexual law reform.

Pandemic pain and panic

Around the same time, a pandemic was spreading across the globe. Gay men were disproportionately affected in countries like New Zealand, lending even more weight here to the idea of law reform.

The first case of AIDS in New Zealand was diagnosed in 1983 according to a New Zealand Medical Association Journal article. In 1984, HIV was identified as the underlying cause of AIDS. Testing for HIV became available in 1985, and antiretroviral treatment from the mid-1990s.

UN records show that, since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, about 86 million people have been diagnosed with HIV and over 40 million have died from AIDS: 630,000 in 2022 alone. Approximately 39 million people are living with it today.

Back in 1985, when New Zealand began to monitor HIV, 60 men were identified as HIV positive. Between 1985 and 2022, more than 5500 people in New Zealand [mostly men] were notified as having HIV, with about a quarter diagnosed from 1985 to 1999.

By comparison, 1145 men and fewer than 200 women have been diagnosed as having AIDS since 1985, with more than half of these during the early period 1985 to 1999. About 50 AIDS-related deaths per year are recorded in those early years, according to the New Zealand government’s HIV action plan, released in 2022.

“AIDS was all-consuming in the 1980s,” Bill Logan says. “My friends and colleagues were dying. At the time the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was introduced, some MPs believed a law change would increase the numbers of people with AIDS, but we knew it would have the opposite effect.

“If gay sex was no longer a crime, then gay men could safely talk to their health advisers about AIDS and HIV. They could be educated about HIV prevention. Fran understood this, as well as the underlying complexity of AIDS epidemiology.”

Michael Basset, Minister of Health and “on the liberal end of the spectrum,” sought government funding to help set up a foundation to advise people about AIDS, “but he was less informed about the epidemic than Fran,” Logan says.

A young doctor by the name of Michael Baker worked in Bassett’s office at this time. He was “quick to learn” about HIV and how the gay community would have to play a pivotal role in checking its spread. This experience put him on track to become an erudite epidemiologist – one we got to know during the covid-19 pandemic.

Wilde told the House: “If we are effectively to combat the spread of AIDS in New Zealand, we must remove the criminal label from the prime target group and ensure that those people feel secure enough to participate in a public education programme.”

Part II next week

Next week, the second part of this series covers the role of public education in progressing homosexual law reform, how Wilde busted the myths presented in the House by opponents of reform, and how changes to law changed lives.

* Name has been changed.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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