Thirty Years of Homosexual Law Reform

Sex between consenting men over the age of sixteen was decriminalised in New Zealand by the Homosexual Law Reform Act, passed on 9 July 1986. IBT supporter Bill Logan was a leading figure in the campaign for law reform as spokesperson for the Wellington Gay Taskforce and Deputy Chair of the New Zealand Aids Foundation Trust Board. In this pamphlet we publish Logan’s speech at a gathering in Christchurch on 29 July 2016 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in New Zealand.

Our comrade’s leading role in this struggle is an illustration of the Leninist understanding that the proletarian vanguard must act as the “tribune of the people”, i.e., the need for revolutionaries to fight against all forms of oppression under capitalism. However, Logan’s participation in the campaign came at a time when he was not a member of a revolutionary organisation. He and his long-time collaborator Adaire Hannah had been expelled from the international Spartacist tendency in 1979, and in the first half of the 1980s they were organising a study group that went on to lay the basis for the New Zealand section of the International Bolshevik Tendency. Logan and Hannah were active in trade unions, the Workers Education Association and other movements, including the struggle for abortion rights and the demonstrations against the white South African rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981 (Logan was arrested and prosecuted for opposition to apartheid rugby tours in both 1981 and 1970).

Logan made no secret of his communist politics during the campaign for homosexual law reform, although he worked with allies from a vast range of political backgrounds to achieve a common objective, as described in the speech below. A few years earlier he had published the widely distributed “Poofters and Commies”, making the link between issues of gay liberation and the wider project of human emancipation through the destruction of capitalism.

As a supporter of the IBT, Logan continues to address queer politics, among other issues. Recently we published a speech he gave after the 2013 legalisation of gay marriage, “Love & Marriage: Capitalism, Queers & Equality”.

Thank you for the invitation to speak at tonight’s celebration. We did something amazing.

I want to argue that homosexual law reform was not, essentially, a parliamentary event.

Homosexual law reform came out of years of social struggles – workers struggles, the movement against the Vietnam War, Women’s Liberation, Gay Lib, the 1981 Anti-Tour Movement.

Gay communities seized the moment after the 1984 election. We didn’t have the numbers in parliament at that point, not by a long shot. But it looked as if it might be achievable.

At that point Fran Wilde, who was a superb figure to put this forward, represented Wellington Central, the most gay-accepting electorate in the country, and a large group of lesbians and gay men there met with her, both before and after the election of 1984.

In Wellington in particular lesbians and gay men worked closely together. We were an extraordinarily diverse group, running from almost-separatist lesbian feminists to actually quite misogynist rich old men. Sometimes it was very turbulent. Sometimes there were thoughts of murder on both sides. But over time a great deal of respect was built, and even some unexpected friendships.

This unity was important because it allowed us to move out to wider constituencies beyond the gay and lesbian communities. Polling showed the efficacy of this approach during the course of the campaign.

The bill was introduced into parliament in March 1985. We then had 16 months of amazing, intense struggle.

It was a struggle in parliament, of course, but it was the struggle in the wider society that was the engine powering the struggle in parliament, and it was gay and lesbian activists and their supporters who were making it happen in the wider society – in the media, and in struggles at meetings, in halls, in demonstrations and in schools and on streets and in families – in cities and towns and workplaces around the country. Eventually we involved wide layers of ordinary decent people throughout the country.

None of this happened spontaneously. The bigots were highly organised, through the churches, and in their Concerned Citizens Coalition. And we were organised.

So who were the people in Christchurch?

Just one example was a Christchurch lesbian called Sue Odlin who made badges. Her partner, Alison Kagan used to travel a lot for her work, and the whole country was supplied with badges from Christchurch. I can only find “I support homosexual law reform” buttons now, but I used to have one of Sue’s badges which was about the monstrous petition against the bill – the petition which was eventually presented at the Nuremburg Rally at parliament. The badge read “I signed 27 times”. [On 24 September 1985 the opposition to law reform presented what was claimed as the biggest petition in New Zealand history at an event outside Parliament staged with flags and pompous ceremony and under the main slogan, “For God, For Country, For Family”. Of the claimed 810,000 signatures, only 350,000 were verified.]

I was talking to Ralph Knowles in Christchurch the other day. I’m sorry he can’t be here but he’s not very well. He was one of our pioneers who has contributed in his quiet way to our community for so long – since way, way before 85-86. He was in the Homosexual Law Reform Society in Wellington, if I’m not mistaken in 1970.

Ralph and I talked about Robin Duff and Hugh Gaw. Both have since died. Their main roles were not in this campaign but in other activities, many of which prepared the way. Ralph reminded me of Andrew Carstairs and Dennis Walker, who were the co-chairs of the Gay Taskforce in Christchurch in 1985-86.

But Ralph never talks of his own role, as the one who actually kept the Christchurch Gay Taskforce together with its weekly meetings through 1985-86. Ralph made the Gay Taskforce happen.

So Ralph, was a key community-builder, probably the key community-builder, and it was community, and community-builders who were crucial to our victory.

Remember, New Zealand culture was in general fiercely homophobic. Families might eventually get used to a son or daughter being gay – but the disruption of connection was generally prolonged.

In those days there were very few careers available to openly gay men or lesbians. So we hid. We coped with life mostly by living in secrecy – by being unnoticed.

And now, suddenly, we were at the centre of national attention. We had to take a risk. There was a real chance things would change and we had to bet on that. So thousands and thousands of gay men and also lesbians took the conversation into their homes and workplaces. Thousands of us answered back when Aunt Mabel said she’d never met anyone like that.

That transition in early 1985 from a life in the shadows to the centre of political and social conversation was not easy.

We faced a barrage of the most vile insults and rhetoric. They talked obsessively about our supposed sexual practices. They told us we were responsible for spreading AIDS. They told us to get back into the sewers.

And the assaults and street violence increased.

Every day for 16 months we were in the media – the newspapers, radio, television. We had to make sure the journalists were fed – with responses to the bigots, and with positive stories of gay lives. And we had to look after ourselves and our friends going through this huge adjustment.

And it worked. Over that period of 16 months there was a profound change in the culture, not only in regard to homosexuality, but a weakening of prejudice in general in this country, an opening of minds, a growth in acceptance of difference.

It all happened very fast. If you look at the process of cultural change, the events in New Zealand in 1985-86 are quite exceptional internationally in their speed.

There was a source of stress in the background while all this was happening which was so severe we tend to suppress it from our memories – AIDS. At the same time we were fighting this political campaign we gay men were both having to lead our community in a complete revolution in our sexual practices and also to tend to our dying friends. Bruce Burnett, a dear friend and the key founder of HIV/AIDS work in New Zealand, died in June 1985.

But it was not just a few. We lost a generation. There are nearly 50 of my friends who died.

So while we were fighting our political campaign the bizarre irrational social hysteria against AIDS was at its height, reinforcing homophobia as an argument against law reform.

Of course, in truth, the public health need for openness about sexuality was an argument for law reform, and we used it. The fight against AIDS was one of our key arguments.

The secret to our success in the campaign was not simply in our own activity, of course, but in mobilising wide layers of the broader society, most importantly in the churches, in women’s organisations and in the trade unions.

Some of our worst enemies were Christians, but on the other hand it was also strategically important for us to make Christian allies, and we had some who were superb. The liberal wings of all the major denominations played very important roles in the campaign, undermining the authority of the bigots. Christianity is not a monolith. Against those like Pastor Richard Flynn, who literally wanted to stone us to death, were the likes of Lloyd Geering, New Zealand’s foremost theologian. [Now Sir Lloyd Geering, a neo-Feuerbachian who had been unsuccessfully tried for heresey in the Presbyterian Church in 1967.] Indeed, we had nuns, in their full regalia, lobbying Catholic Members of Parliament to support the bill.

Women – politicised women – the women in the Labour Party, and also in fact some of the women in the National Party, were key constituencies for us. As a generalisation women have been less afraid of homosexuality than men.

The women in the Labour Party were particularly important, because they were a force that the male Members of Parliament ignored at their peril.

It’s great to find myself tonight sitting beside my old friend Ruth Dyson. She’s now even Honourable. [At the time of the campaign Ruth Dyson was Women’s Representative on the New Zealand Council of the Labour Party, she subsequently became a Member of Parliament and then a cabinet minister, acquiring the title “Honourable” which is kept for life.] In those days she was probably the most important link to the women of the Labour Party.

The lesbian community was another important network linking in to the women of the Labour Party of course.

And now to turn to the trade unions. They were of huge strategic importance in our plan. In some cases unions took a while to see the relevance of the issue to their concerns, but an understanding developed about the ways in which homophobia was a union issue, and how scapegoating someone as gay was so often used as a device to divide a workplace and prevent the development of solidarity. Brave gay men and lesbians in workplaces pushed the issue, trade union officials who we lobbied pushed the issue. One particular personality who played a tremendous role was Sonja Davies, who has since died. She had been a major leader in the trade union movement and by this time was a Member of Parliament, and she was a lynchpin of our orientation to the union movement.

Eventually, it came to a vote in parliament – on the night of 9 July. We won by 49 votes to 44. We were not sure about the numbers until the votes were cast, and if three of those aye votes had gone the other way we would have lost. That would have been very bad. And if we had lost, it would not have meant things stayed the same as they had been – it would have been a terrible reverse.

I was in parliament that night of course. I must say it was pretty euphoric. And we went on to party. And the next day Kim Hill got me up well before dawn to be on Morning Report [national radio news and commentary programme], to claim it as an important victory, but to warn that we still face a great deal of prejudice and discrimination, and that a reverse was always a possibility.

That is still the case. In this society all gains are fragile.

We’ve had more victories since. In 1993 we got the human rights part of the bill which we had lost in April 1986. [The bill as moved had been in two parts. A second part of the bill which would have extended the Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination in access to goods and services, employment, education and the like on the grounds of sexual orientation had been lost in the horse-trading of the Parliamentary process, but was achieved five years later.] In 2004 we got Civil Unions. And in 2013 we got marriage.

But there is something else we’ve got since 1986. We’ve got a new highly privileged professional cast of gays and lesbians.

That was inevitable. When the oppression was lifted the income and status distribution among gay men and lesbians inevitably started to closely reflect that of the wider society. That’s liberation, I guess.

But it’s a phoney liberation.

Think of the issues of homeless queer youth. Free access to good housing is crucial for our communities.

Think of HIV/AIDS. Think of the needs of trans folk. Vastly improved free medical care is crucial for us.

Think of the depression and suicide among our people. The existing psychological services are pathetic.

Think of bullying in schools.

Think of the abuse of young queers.

Sometimes it is good to stop and celebrate our past, and look at what we have done, but let that be to work out how we can achieve the even greater things we need in the future.

There is so much to be done.