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Saturday 10 October 2009

Book review: 20 Years On from Law Reform

Posted in: Books
By Michael Stevens - 16th April 2009

Well, not to quibble but in spite of the title, it is twenty-three years later we have the first detailed academic study of the struggle for Homosexual Law Reform (HLR) in New Zealand written from a gay perspective.

Twenty Years On: Histories of Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand. Edited by Alison J. Laurie & Linda Evans. Publisher: LAGANZ, 2009
For those of us who are interested in this type of work, it's worth the wait. Largely collected from papers held at the 'Twenty Years On Conference' in Wellington in 2006, they form an interesting and important cross-section of perspectives and interpretations of this time in our history and just what it meant then, and today.

Contributors range from those who were in the thick of it all, such as Tighe Instone and David Hindley to one late-comer, MP Tim Barnett, who was resident in the UK at the time, but provides and interesting analysis on what HLR has meant and what we may face in the future.

The editors tell us that a "wealth of lesbian and gay histories of law reform are being written." If this is so, then I expect most will have need to refer to at least one of the contributions in this volume. We have had broader works dealing with NZ's gay past, such as Chris Brickell's excellent and popular Mates and Lovers in 2008, and various other scholarly works that sit in University libraries to be consulted once a year by a specialist. The book Worlds in Collision: The Gay Debate in NZ 1960 - 1986 by Laurie Guy is the only other work I can think of that deals in detail with this topic, but it needs to be borne in mind that he writes from the viewpoint of a Baptist pastor. The excellent Best Mates edited by Peter Wells and Rex Pilgrim perhaps ranks as the first of these new more public and popular attempts to display our world from our point of view.

This slim volume provides us with a good selection of GLBTQ voices. which is important. This is our history and our story and needs to be told in depth. It is, understandably, more of an academic production, but will certainly be of interest to those who took part in the fight, or have any interest in the world we used to have to live in. Some of the papers included are written from a strongly personal viewpoint, others from a more distant one. This variety of approaches adds to the richness of the work.

The Salvation Army was particularly virulent in its opposition to HLR and actively campaigned with our enemies against it. It is good to be reminded of the inventive and fun ways that activists opposed them, such as queuing outside the Sallies' Cuba St HQ and demanding their donations back. It is not so much fun to be reminded of the venom and ignorance that were raged against us. The MP Norm Jones told us to "get back to the sewers where we came from." Sir Keith Hay (David Hay's father) suggested all gays be put on Rangitoto. North Shore Pastor Richard Flinn called for the death penalty for all homosexuals. Seriously. After the Bill was passed into law, John Banks, then an MP, declared it was a "sad and sickening day for New Zealand." Aucklanders should remember that when voting for their new Council.

The hatred and fear-mongering that was ranged against us is something we need to remember. It has not entirely gone away, even now.

The arguments between the more radical wing and the more conservative over just which approach to HLR was best deserve to be remembered. The more conservative groups were willing to take legalisation at the age of 20 or 18, the more radical insisted, and history has shown them to be correct, on an equal age of consent for all, at 16. These arguments continue to echo down the years to positions taken today by some of our community. How far do we assimilate, how far do we maintain a separate identity? Should we compromise with society, or as the earlier Gay Lib and Lesbian movements argued, work for its radical overhaul? How central is being sexually different, being Queer, to our lives? Or does it no longer matter in the putative post-Gay world?

From political insiders such as Maryan Street and Tim Barnett to community activists such as Instone and artists and academics such as Miriam Saphira and Phil Parkinson we get a real range of opinions and interpretations as to just what (a) getting HLR in place took, and (b) what it has meant over the following two decades.

One of the things that struck me most was the central role of the Lesbian Community in so much of this era. Even though they were not affected by these laws, they stood up on the issue as a matter of principle. And this was echoed by the huge amount of support that gay men and others with HIV received from the Lesbian Community over the next decade. Even though this group was largely unaffected by HIV, or by HLR, they stood shoulder to shoulder with gay men and added hugely to the success of the campaign. Could we still build a coalition like this today I wonder?

David Hindley's collection of photographs from the time is a delight and I wanted to see more of them. They bring the era back in a way that words cannot.

I have three mild criticisms of the collection. It does seem very Wellington focussed – as if there was almost no other area in the country that contributed, which is unfortunate, but I imagine this was dictated by circumstances rather than any deliberate act of omission. My next criticism is the rather dull appearance of the book. It is not a pleasant work to look at, but of course, you can't judge a book by the cover. And my final one is the lack of an index. But these are small criticisms.

As we mark 40 years since the Stonewall Riots this year, it is pleasing to see the growth in works that explore or add to our own collective culture. The promise made that more histories of this era are coming out is exciting. This work is a hugely valuable contribution in the process of describing and maintaining our collective history.

Order Twenty Years On: Histories of Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand direct from LAGANZ on the link below.

Michael Stevens - 16th April 2009

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