Wellington Central MP Fran Wilde’s private member’s bill, which removed criminal sanctions against consensual male homosexual practices, was passed by 49 votes to 44.
The legislation was signed by the governor-general on 11 July 1986 and came into effect on 8 August. It decriminalised sexual relations between men aged 16 and over. No longer would men having consensual sex with each other be liable to prosecution and a term of imprisonment. Though sex between women had never been illegal, many lesbians suffered the same social discrimination as gay men and were staunch supporters of the reform movement.
The campaign to reform the law aroused bitter public and political debate. The Coalition of Concerned Citizens organised a petition opposing Wilde’s bill and claimed to have gathered more than 800,000 signatures (although many of these were later discredited). The group believed that decriminalising gay sex would lead to moral decline and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
In 1993 reforms to the Human Rights Act finally prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.