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Raising awareness, busting myths in fight for law reform

In part two of her feature on homosexual law reform in Aotearoa, Angela Yeoman speaks with former Labour MP and trailblazer Fran Wilde and activist Bill Logan about the role of committed volunteers in changing the law, opposition from politicians and notable organisations, and the impact of reform on gay New Zealanders.

In 1985, Labour MP Fran Wilde told the House that, “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.”

Public education was key

“The gay community launched a massive campaign to change the law,” Wilde [now living in Greytown] said. “At the beginning, I don’t think any of us knew how big or how hard that campaign would be.”

Some MPs that privately agreed with a law change knew they’d be voted out of office if they publicly supported the Homosexual Law Reform Bill.

“We realised that a public education campaign was needed to change public opinion in those electorates where MPs wanted to support a change in the law,” Wilde remembered. “Back then, organising locally was the key.”

“In 1984, it was not an MMP environment. What happened in the electorate mattered even more at that time than it does today,” Logan added.

Groups of supporters formed all around the country and, for over a year, Wilde’s Parliamentary office was packed with volunteers on the phones, liaising with print media, doing radio and TV interviews, and writing letters. They lobbied MPs, business leaders, and clergy. They organised meetings in town halls.

“And gay men, bravely, started coming out even before the bill passed,” Wilde said. “They were our neighbours, workmates, sons, brothers, and even our husbands. They were standing up and saying: ‘This is me and this is all about my future.’

“They were the real heroes of the campaign because, until the bill passed, were still considered criminals in the eyes of the law.”

Conversations met with some backlash. Wilde recalled the day the Salvation Army presented a petition to Parliament.

“They were all in uniform, with flags and hymns, and it looked like a Nuremberg rally. Boxes of petitions were delivered.

“When the petitions were audited, however, it became apparent that many of them had false names or were repeats or came from classrooms of children who had been forced to sign them. Public opinion turned against the Sallies because of their tactics.”

Some people against the human rights embedded in the bill wanted to also roll back existing rights, such as the criminalisation of violence against women and rape in marriage.

Wilde was of the view that, “We’d let the genie out of the bottle and so we absolutely had to pass that bill.”

The mid-1980s were a time before the internet, social media, and mobile phones. “We probably wouldn’t get such a Bill through today,” Wilde mused. “Disinformation, lies, and hatred would spread nationwide on social media.”

“Although,” Logan reflected, “if we’d had social media, we might have reached more young people.”

Dispelling myths

Backed by research painstakingly compiled for her by the gay taskforce and other supportive groups – including medical and religious groups, and one calling themselves “Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays” – Wilde was able to dispute many myths. The Turnbull Library was able to provide Wilde and others with weekly photocopies of up-to-date and relevant articles from around the world, including from medical journals.

The first myth met head on was the claim that homosexuality is a violation of Christian moral standards.

“It offends against God and man,” Graeme Lee, MP for Hauraki, said. Allan Wallbank, MP for Gisborne, announced that “Christian teaching is explicit on the matter of sodomy.”

Some MPs held the alarming – and incorrect – view that homosexuality was the same as paedophilia.

“Homosexuality will not stop at the age of 16 but will spread to 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds,” one MP stated.

But Wilde and supporters had drafted the bill with an age limit for consenting homosexuals consistent with the age already in law for consenting heterosexuals: 16. Paedophilia was to remain a criminal act. She was also able to assure Parliament, “Jesus said almost nothing about sexuality … and nothing about an age of consent.”

Opponents of the bill claimed young people would be corrupted if it was passed – implying that if young people were exposed to information about homosexuality, or to social or sexual contact with homosexuals, they would themselves choose homosexuality.

Norm Jones, MP for Invercargill, referred to the potential for the “spread of homosexuality,” as if it were a disease. The military, schools, and families would be torn apart under this spread, he said.

“There is no evidence to back up that assumption,” Wilde told the House. “On the contrary, there is a vast body of research showing that even actual sexual experience in the mid to late teenage years does not play a part in determining sexual orientation.”

She drew on evidence from the Royal College of Psychiatrists that primary sexual orientation is fixed early in life, long before age 16.

There was also much debate about whether a law change would contain the AIDS pandemic.

“A vote to legalise homosexuality … would be a vote to legalise the spread of AIDS throughout New Zealand,” Norm Jones thundered. “More New Zealanders will die of AIDS in the next 10 years than would die in a nuclear explosion.”

He later contradicted himself – telling media in November 1985 he was trying to delay the bill so that “more people would die of AIDS.”

When the ‘ayes and noes’ regarding the introduction of the bill into the House in 1985 were counted, there were 51 for and only 24 against.

One of the notable ‘noes’ was from Winston Peters, now Deputy Prime Minister.

Changing lives

In July 1986, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill narrowly passed and was enacted into law. Prior to the bill passing, most gay men could not admit their sexuality outside of gay-only environments.

“The loyalty of workplaces, families, and friends could not be tested,” Logan recalled.

Men thought to be gay were assaulted, arrested, and sacked from jobs. A 1984 Wellington-based survey of gays and lesbians found that 75 per cent had been subjected to verbal abuse, and 42 per cent threatened with physical violence.

Geoff*, from Wairarapa, knew he was gay from a young age, but was terrified of what it might mean for his life in small town New Zealand. His young love with a man was stopped in its tracks by his parents, and Geoff was taken to a doctor for treatment. Eventually, he married a woman, and had several children.

But a few years after the passing of the bill into law, Geoff, now in his 40s, knew he couldn’t spend the rest of his life hiding the truth – especially as turning away from intimacy with his wife had strained their relationship to breaking point. Their separation was truthful and amicable.

“I was blessed. I had a great life. Our children are wonderful, and I have nothing but respect for my former wife,” he says.

Today, Geoff lives with his partner of more than 25 years: A man who had been forced to undergo conversion therapy in his own youth.

Bill Logan, a self-described “Trotskyist”, has spent his life searching for fairness and equality. As he increasingly became aware of his sexuality, he got involved in the gay community centre, the gay switchboard, and organisations like the Dorian Society and the Victoria Club where he was among friends. Before the law change, gayness was ghettoised. He opened a book shop that became an unofficial gay drop-in centre. “These were our places.”

Asked if he thinks his life would have been different if homosexual law reform hadn’t passed, Logan remarked, “it would have been more isolated. And I would probably have ended up in a different line of work.”

Today, Logan is a counsellor and wedding and funeral celebrant. These roles sprang from the 1980s when he volunteered for the gay switchboard, was involved in the AIDS support network, and became Deputy Chair of the AIDS Foundation. Gay men, alienated from the church, were searching for alternative funeral options – which Logan stepped up to provide.

In closing

Homosexual law reform was just one of many enormous political and societal shifts in which Dame Fran Wilde was involved. It’s an illustration of our society at its best. Although the human rights aspects of the bill failed first time around, Parliament passed these in later years, thanks to National MP Katherine O’Regan.

Logan closes by saying, “people have always had gay sex, but it is only more recently that gayness as an identity could even be considered. Thanks to the reform of archaic laws, gayness has been destigmatised. But that stigma has now been transferred to transgender people.”

Though 2024 is the 25th anniversary of Georgina Beyer becoming the world’s first openly transgender MP, there is still work to do.

*Names have 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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