Homosexual law reform

Page 4 – Reforming the law

The Homosexual Law Reform Bill

To bring about change in the law, the gay movement needed a parliamentary champion. It found one in Labour MP Fran Wilde. She consulted with gay groups to develop a private member’s bill, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which she introduced to the House of Representatives on 8 March 1985.

The bill had two parts. The first dealt with the decriminalisation of sexual offences between men and of consensual heterosexual anal intercourse, while providing protection for minors of both sexes. The second would make it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the areas of employment, accommodation and the supply of goods and services.

Support and opposition

Gay and lesbian groups had been assured that the campaign would be short and confined to Parliament. This completely underestimated the depth of public and political opposition to the proposed legislation. The bill's opponents organised and mounted a strong and campaign virtually from the moment it was introduced. Supporters of the bill reacted to rather than led the debate, which soon became acrimonious.

'Looking into Hades'

'Go back into the sewers where you come from ... [A]s far as I'm concerned you can stay in the gutter.'

'Turn around and look at them ... gaze upon them ... you're looking into Hades ... don't look too long – you might catch AIDS.'

National MP Norman Jones addressing a public meeting in 1985
LAGANZ 0080-B, Peter Nowland Collection

Opponents were supported by organisations such as the Salvation Army and by well-known overseas campaigners against homosexuality – the Reverend Lou Sheldon and John Swan in particular. Their arguments often rested on moral and religious grounds: that homosexuality was 'unnatural' and that the Bible condemned it.

Some people argued that the law would lead to more homosexuality and eventually to the collapse of the family unit. Fear and a lack of understanding led some to claim that young boys would be put at risk. Homosexuality and paedophilia – sex with children – were sometimes regarded as the same thing.

Some of those opposed to the legislation also raised the spectre of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). This illness could be passed through the transfer of body fluids such as blood or through sexual contact of any sort, homosexual or heterosexual. In the USA, AIDS mainly affected gay men, so some people saw it as a gay illness or even as divine punishment of homosexuals.

Few cases of AIDS had occurred in New Zealand. Law reformers argued that decriminalisation would allow people at risk to come forward for testing and enable a public health response based on prevention strategies such as condom promotion. Health officials soon realised that the gay experts knew what they were talking about, and the government decided to fund campaigns by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.

'Be visible ... Be blatant'

'Come out now. Be visible, tell everyone you can. Be blatant. Be as gay and as lesbian as you can all of the time.'

Bigot Busters rally at Wellington Town Hall

Groups such as the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society, the Gay Task Force, Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays (HUG), the Lesbian Coalition and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality tried to counter their opponents in many ways. They organised nationwide street marches and rallies at which information was handed out. They disrupted anti-law-reform meetings. Their arguments were based on issues of human rights, freedom of choice and an end to discrimination based on sexuality. Pro-reformers demanded greater openness in sexual matters.

The petition

A central part of the debate was a huge nationwide petition opposing the legislation. On 24 September 1985 the anti-reform petition was presented at Parliament in a ceremony that some critics likened to the Nuremberg Rallies. Ninety-one boxes were delivered to the steps of Parliament. It was claimed that there were over 800,000 signatures. In fact, some of the boxes were nearly empty, and some petition sheets contained several signatures in the same hand. These irregularities led Parliament's Petitions Committee to reject the petition, but it nevertheless showed that there was strong opposition to the bill.

Victory – of sorts

The Homosexual Law Reform Bill took 16 months to move through the parliamentary process. MPs rejected a proposed amendment to raise the age of consent to 18, so it remained at 16 in the final legislation – the same age as for heterosexuals.

When the final vote was held on 9 July 1986, the bill was passed by 49 votes to 44. The governor-general gave his assent to the legislation two days later, and it came into effect on 8 August. Gays, lesbians and their supporters partied; opponents predicted doom. For the first time in New Zealand history, homosexual men could enter into sexual relationships without fear of prosecution.

For the law reformers, it was only a partial victory. The second part of the bill, which would have removed discrimination on the basis of sexuality, was rejected. Opponents argued that homosexuality was not a human rights issue and that discrimination was acceptable. Not until the Human Rights Act was passed in 1993 did it became illegal in New Zealand to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Other legislative barriers for homosexuals have been removed. In 2005 the Civil Unions Act allowed gay and lesbian couples to formalise their relationship. The debates over this legislation were not as bitter as those in the 1980s, but they showed that opposition to homosexuality still ran deep for some New Zealanders. In 2013 the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act saw New Zealand become the 13th country in the world – and the first in the Asia-Pacific region – to allow same-sex couples to marry. Prejudices die hard, and legislative changes do not in themselves change attitudes; gays and lesbians can still find it difficult to be out and about.

20 years out! Homosexual law reform in New Zealand

To mark the 20th anniversary of homosexual law reform in New Zealand, Radio New Zealand added rare recordings to its website. The rich assortment of audio was drawn from ‘20 years out!’, a documentary broadcast on National Radio on 9 July 2006, the 20th anniversary of the final vote in Parliament.

Much of the protest and rally audio was recorded for Access Radio programmes made by the Gay Broadcasting Collective and had not been broadcast nationally. There are also reflections by gay men who faced discrimination during the debate.

Listen to the recording at www.radionz.co.nz/national/documentaries/20yearsout

Main sources are from the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.

How to cite this page

'Reforming the law', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/homosexual-law-reform/reforming-the-law, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-Jun-2022