Hard News by Russell Brown


Media Take: Three decades on from law reform

One memory always comes to mind when I think about the year leading up to the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986. I was on Queen Street, nea where I worked, when I saw a man getting two children to sign a petition.

I knew what it was: I'd been pitched several times to sign it myself. It was the petition mounted against Fran Wilde's law reform bill. Originally launched by the four MPs who aligned to campaign against the bill – National's Graeme Lee and Norm Jones and Labour's Geoff Braybrooke and Alan Wallbank – it was taken over by Keith Hay and Peter Tait who, with the assistance of The Salvation Army, campaigned for signatures in streets, schools and workplaces.

The way in which the signatures were collected was often ethically dubious. It was presented in workplaces in ways that put pressure on those present to sign – or be considered suspect themselves. My friend Brian Holland recalls his flatmate coming back from the pub and admitting to signing it "because everyone else there was". 

But I was damned if I was going to let one of the canvassers talk passing children into signing. So I called over a policeman. The officer was perplexed, the canvasser was indignant and I was furious. I maintained my position until our little group dispersed. They didn't get their two signatures that time.

Eventually, that ethical bankruptcy itself rendered the petition ineffective. The Parliamentary select committee considering the bill reported back an array of problems with the claimed 800,000 signatures, including false names (Mickey Mouse signed at least four times, the dirty rotten rodent), evidence of people signing for others and, remarkably, misrepresentation of the actual number of signatures. It was duly reported "without recommendation" – much to the chagrin of Winston Peters.

It's hard now to explain the sheer nastiness of what went on then. But three years ago, when Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act passed its third reading, it was in many ways the a glimpse of the best our political culture could be. MPs spoke from the heart and even those who opposed same-sex marriage showed some dignity. The final vote was greeted with a waiata heard around the world.

Not a single MP would have proposed a reversion to making sexual acts between men a crime again – that's the furthest of fringe territory in 2016.

By contrast, in November 1985, Norman Jones MP told an interviewer he was trying to "talk out" the bill at its second reading – so that more homosexuals would die of AIDS as a result of the delay. Gay men and lesbians who campaigned for the bill were subject to beatings. There was a firebombing of a gay archive. I recall going on the pro-reform March in Christchurch when I happened to be in town – and a crowd of men coming out of a pub and chanting 'PUSH SHIT! PUSH SHIT!" as the march went past.

So what has changed in us these past 30 years? Are we a better country? Where do we yet have some way to go? This year's thirtieth anniversary – the bill passed on July 9, 1986 – could have been a good time to contemplate that, and to capture the memories of those closest to events while they're stll around. 

But not one of the TV networks showed any interest in screening a documentary proposed by Brian Holland, which would have done those things. Stories about who we are and how we got there apparently don't make the grade in TV these days.

So we decided that the final Media take for 2016 would mark the anniversary. And then, shortly wards, the horror in Orlanda made it all that much more acute.

So that's the show we made this week. Johnny Givins, who produced Queer Nation, broadcasts of the Hero parade and much more, is on the first panel with Louisa Wall. Then Paul Kramer of the University of Auckland and Tracey Barnett talk about America's culture war in the wake of Orlando. And Mera Penehira and Anton Blank talk about the relationship between Maori identity and sexuality in the third part.

Then, as we've been doing this year, we gathered all the panelists for an extended online-only korero. It was a good way to go out.

You can watch Media Take on-demand here.

And the additional online-only discussion is here.

PS: If you want an idea of quite how bad things got in the lead-up to law reform, the 2002 Queer Nation episode on Wellington's queer history is on NZ On Screen and shows it pretty well. The whole thing is great (Katherine Mansfield!), but the second part covers the law reform struggle and includes news footage from the time. It's intense.

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