by Sean Kearns
This Saturday, July 9, marks the 25th anniversary of the 1986 partial liberalisation of New Zealand’s by then outmoded and draconian anti-homosexual laws. On July 9, 1986, 14 months after it was first introduced to parliament, the first section of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, legalising consensual sexual activities between males 16 years and over, was narrowly passed by parliament (49 to 44). The second section, which would have made anti-gay discrimination illegal, didn’t pass.
The battle over the 1986 reform and the struggle over the 1981 Springbok tour were defining points in NZ politics, part of the shift away from old forms of conservatism and towards the domination of liberal ideas in the political mainstream.
New Zealand laws on homosexuality originally derived from Britain. In 1867 New Zealand adopted the English 1861 law which made men committing buggery liable for life imprisonment. All sex between makes became illegal in England in 1885 and this was followed by the New Zealand parliament adopting a new criminal code in 1893. This code contained a section on “Crimes against Morality” which made liable to imprisonment with hard labour for life anyone who “commits buggery either with a human being or with any other living creature”, with the offence being “complete upon penetration”. They could also be flogged once, twice or thrice, depending on their age. Anyone who attempted to commit “buggery”, assaulted someone with the intention of committing it and any male who “indecently assaults any other male” was liable to the same kind of flogging and to ten years imprisonment with hard labour. The 1961 Crimes Act removed life imprisonment as the sanction against anal sex, but all male homosexual activity remained illegal.
The following year a gay men’s social group, the Dorian Society, was founded in New Zealand. As Britain moved to decriminalise homosexual activity among consenting adult males in 1967, a Homosexual Law Reform Society was established here. It was a moderate, lobby group which relied on support from respectable heterosexual figures and in 1968 presented a petition, signed by 75 such people, to parliament calling for law reform. A public and militant struggle for gay rights did not begin until several years later, when the first gay liberation groups were established in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. These groups were part of the youth revolt of the time and most of the activists had already been involved in protests against the Vietnam War and other causes of the day. The gay liberation activists were generally also anti-capitalist.
In the early 1970s, when this movement emerged, Labour was dominated by social conservatives. It was a National Party MP, Venn Young, not a Labourite who in 1974 introduced the first bill to liberalise the laws on same-sex activity. Prominent Labour MPs denounced Young’s bill and argued that homosexuality was a perversion. The Labour caucus was still so anti-gay that they purged former Agriculture Minister Colin Moyle from their ranks on the slightest suggestion he was gay. And it was National who had the first out gay MP, Marilyn Waring, well over a decade before Labour’s out gay MPs started appearing
It was not until the mid-1980s that a significant section of the parliamentary Labour Party swung behind the idea of liberalisation. By this stage, NZ’s anti-homosexual laws were thoroughly outmoded, public attitudes had changed – no thanks to the Labour Party itself! – and NZ was very much out of sync with the rest of the developed capitalist countries in terms of maintaining repressive anti-gay laws. Moreover, the fact that the laws were so outmoded meant they were fairly openly flouted; it was in the state’s interest to reform such laws. The 1986 reform legalised homosexual acts for those 16 and over, but it did not outlaw discrimination against gay women and men. This did not change until 1993 under National.
Labour MP Fran Wilde’s 1986 bill was given a conscience vote, which allowed the most socially and morally reactionary Labour MPs to oppose it. Of course, when it came to attacks on the working class, Labour imposed the whip so that all their MPs would have to vote for privatisation and punitive industrial legislation.
The 1986 reform passed through at the same time that the Labour government was implementing the biggest attacks on workers’ living conditions since the Depression. One of the characteristics of the fourth Labour government was to liberalise social policy while attacking the working class at the economic level. This had the effect of splitting potentially powerful opposition forces. The liberals largely stayed behind Labour, and the working class got the knife in the back.
This state of affairs may have ensured liberal hegemony, but it set back radical politics by further dividing economic issues from broader political and social issues. On the one hand, the leaders of the labour movement refused to champion struggles against exploitation and oppression; on the other hand, leaders of movements like gay rights, especially the leadership of the movement around the Wilde Bill, were not prepared to challenge Labour more broadly and make common cause with workers.
In fact, the gay movement and its straight supporters in 1986 pursued a self-limiting strategy, essentially all getting in behind Wilde and Labour, although Wilde herself was clearly an anti-working class Labour MP and a supporter of the assault on the working class. The absence of any revolutionary politics or leaders in the gay rights movement of the time ensured that Labourites like Wilde were allowed to determine the politics of the movement, while the “radical” gays did a lot of the legwork. This is, in fact, how much of what passes for radical politics operates: the activists do the hard yards but line up politically behind Labour which sets the agenda and ensures there is no challenge to the wider system of exploitation and oppression.
One of the results of the “getting in behind” approach was that the section of the bill which would have banned anti-gay discrimination was not passed. It was not until the 1993 Human Rights Act, that such discrimination became illegal.
Two decades on, Labour played the same “rely on us” game with the civil union legislation of 2005. Interestingly, it was ex-Tory MP Marilyn Waring who saw through this. As she noted, civil unions are not marriages. They are a separate and unequal form of legal relationship, compared to marriage. Moreover, civil union legislation can serve to close the door to gay marriage, rather than be a step towards it. Unfortunately, the liberal nature of gay politics meant that many gay people were simply grateful for this reform, rather than demanding more.
Although New Zealand mainstream thinking likes to pride itself on its liberalism and Labour likes to see itself as a liberal party, both the New Zealand and Labour record on gay rights stack up pretty poorly in the global context.
The first country to get rid of anti-gay laws was the Soviet Union, shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917. This was done by the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, although later reversed during the Stalin years. In the near-century since, only one or two capitalist countries have come anywhere near putting heterosexuality and homosexuality on the same legal footing, never mind educating the society about the need for equality.
It was not until 1968 that a partial reform of anti-gay laws was introduced in Britain and not until 1986 that NZ’s laws were liberalised. In 1989 Denmark passed legislation giving same-sex partners similar rights to married (heterosexual) couples, but has continued to deny gay couples the right to marry. In 1996, similar laws were passed in Iceland, Norway and Sweden and, in 2002, in Finland. In 2001 the Netherlands began allowing full civil marriage rights to gay couples. In Belgium, similar legislation was passed in 2003. Spain and Canada legalised gay marriage in 2005. Six states in the United States plus the District of Columbia and the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon now have gay marriage.
In the face of powerful opposition from the Catholic Church, in a country with a strong Catholic tradition, the Spanish parliament passed a bill put forward by the social democrats for gay marriage. In Canada, one of the two major traditional capitalist parties (the Liberals – roughly the Canadian equivalent to the Nats) introduced legislation for gay marriage. The Liberal premier said that you cannot cherry pick which groups in society will have which rights, and homosexuals had to have the same rights as heterosexuals.
In NZ Labour managed to get away with introducing something substantially less than what a Tory party introduced in Canada and what a fellow Labour party introduced in Spain, historically a bastion of the Catholic Church. It’s a particular comment on how crappy the NZ Labour Party is and how unprepared they are to champion basic equal rights, even for communities that support them, that the Canadian Liberals introduced more advanced legislation in relation to gay rights, and argued for it on a more egalitarian basis, than Labour did in NZ. Moreover, Canada has a bigger backwoods Christian movement than NZ does.
Part of the problem is that in NZ there is not a militant movement for equal rights for gay women and men or a wider labour movement which sees all issues of oppression and discrimination as its concern. In the early 1970s there was a gay liberation movement demanding full equality and emancipation. It wasn’t interested in ‘respect for difference’ – it fought for liberation for gay women and men in a liberated overall society.
A chunk of the old ‘new social movements’, however, – the gay movement, the women’s movement, etc – disappeared into the murky pit that is the Labour Party and this has done no favours for the people whose oppression those movements set out to fight, although it has been a good career move for some middle class women, middle class Maori, middle class gays.
The official labour movement leadership is also little interested in fighting for workers around even bread and butter issues, let alone educating and organising against discrimination and oppression in the wider society. The old workers’ slogan of “An injury to one is an injury to all” is rarely trotted out and, in practice, means next to nothing in the official labour movement.
The most reliable political movements for implementing equality for gays remain those which champion equality and liberation across society as a whole. Today, the road to gay liberation is illuminated more by revolutionary movements than by capitalist governments. Take the revolutionary movement in the Philippines as an example. The CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines, a Maoist organisation) and its military wing, the NPA (New People’s Army) staunchly champion the liberation of gay women and men as an integral part of the emancipation of the mass of the people of their country from imperialist domination and local capitalist exploitation and oppression. They do this in the face of the strong legacy of machismo implanted in Philippines society by hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism and a century-long domination by the United States.
At the start of 2005, when the NZ parliament was preparing to pass the second-class civil union legislation, the NPA saw its first gay wedding. Ka Andres and Ka Jose exchanged vows in front of local villagers, friends from the city and fellow comrades. The two revolutionaries held each other’s hand and each held a bullet as well, symbolising their commitment to the armed struggle for the liberation of the Philippines and an end to imperialist domination and the local exploiting classes as well as their commitment to each other. They were serenaded with revolutionary love songs.
Revolutionaries have no vested interests in defending systems based on exploitation and oppression. The “gay-friendly” Labour Party’s prime reason for existence, however, is, like National’s, to defend precisely such a system – capitalism – and the party’s MPs are paid well for doing this. So it’s not rocket science to work out who – revolutionaries or Labour MPs – make more genuine fighters for gay rights.