On 8 March 1985 Fran Wilde, the MP for Wellington Central, introduced a private member’s Bill that would, if passed, decriminalise homosexual acts between men and make it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality. In 1986 the first part of the Bill passed, but the second part was defeated.
Before I began to research this topic I had thought that the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was the moment when it became ok to be gay in New Zealand, but it wasn’t. The idea that in 1986 the majority of New Zealand MPs would vote against a Bill making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality amazes me. In fact, the debate around this Bill between its introduction and final reading sends all kinds of shafts of light into all kinds of areas of New Zealand society that makes the generally received story seem, at best, threadbare or, at worst, totally inaccurate.
Fran Wilde’s opening statement introducing her Bill covers many of the points that would be argued back and forth over the 14 months it took to get the Bill to its third reading in July 1986. One thing that is noticeable about most of Wilde’s statements throughout this long period of debate is how clear-eyed she was about the issue. Unlike most of the people who opposed her, and some of the people who supported her, Fran Wilde’s responses to people’s questions, and rebuttal to their points, sound modern: as if she were talking about homosexuality in the 2010s and not the 1980s. In 1986 she occupied a space in the narrative on sexuality that very few heterosexual people did, but that many would come to over the next thirty years.
Wilde must have known the fight was going to be hard as soon as she sat down after introducing the Bill. The first person to speak in the House after her was the Labour MP Trevor de Cleene, and although he was speaking in favour of the Bill he made some curious statements in his opening remarks.
I do not want people to think that I have got so far along the line in life that I condone that behaviour, but gradually, through my life, I have become sympathetic to those people because of their tragedy. (2)
Trevor de Cleene’s language here around condoning behaviour, and tragedy does not set up the issue well, and he then goes on to relate a story which I think Fran Wilde may have seen as unhelpful.
I cannot help but feel sympathy for some of the people I have acted for, including the president of a rotary club who gave tremendous service to his club, and the chairman of a county council who locked the scrum in a provincial rugby team and who, when his wife became paralysed from the waist down in a tragic car accident, reverted to what was called in the open court as practices that were forced upon him in a boys’ boarding school. Those were the worst cases, because those people interfered with young boys. That is not the position with the Bill. (3)
I think this is what is referred to as an own goal. Trevor appears to be talking about child molestors which is not a helpful comparison, and I can’t help but think that if we are looking for tragedy in this story we have plenty of people to attach it too: such as the county council chairman’s wife, or the young boys.
De Cleene gets on to better ground when he starts talking about the Wolfenden Report (1957) in Britain, which led – eventually – to the decriminalising of private homosexual acts between men (but not in the armed forces) in 1967.
The third person to speak is Norm Jones the National MP for Invercargill. We will hear a lot from Norm in the future; it is really enough now to allow him his own voice:
I am a perfectly normal person from a family of eight kids, and I have six of my own. The Bill is about abnormal sex between males. It is about sodomy…. All I know is that if the good Lord wanted us to procreate the race through the rear he would have put the womb down there. We are not animals…. (5)
A vote to legalise homosexuality at 16 years of age would be a vote to legalise the spread of AIDS throughout New Zealand…. These people will come out into the open. They are in the open in gay communities now. It is sickening. Homosexuality will not stop at the age of 16 but will spread to 10-year-olds, and 12-year-olds. I taught in schools for 27 years. I have seen it in the lower forms, and people practising it with kids…. (6)
I do not have to quote the scriptures or moralise; I have a gut feeling that homosexuality is wrong for the human race…. Civilisations that have allowed it – the Greeks, the Romans, and others – have gone down the tube, and they have done so because of this so-called need to keep up with the sub-culture. (7)
I’m not sure how the Romans would feel about this characterisation of the gradual decline of their power over a number of centuries, let alone the Greeks. It sounds a lot like Norm is suggesting a vibrant gay clubbing scene wore everyone out in the Greek city states.
After Norm’s speech there is a reminder from the Speaker to the gallery that they are not allowed to “register their feelings” out loud. Three speakers into the opening debate and it’s a faint hope. A few of the lines of attack and defence have already been set out and, in Fran Wilde and Norm Jones, two of the main protagonists established.
It’s going to he a hell of a ride.
(2) De Cleene, T. (8 March, 1985). Homosexual Law Reform Bill. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, p.3520
(4) ‘Norman Jones speaking against homosexual law reform’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/norman-jones-speaking, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Jul-2014
(5) Jones, N. (8 March, 1985). Homosexual Law Reform Bill. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, p.3522
(7) Ibid, p. 3523