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Sunday 09 April 2017

My Life Before Law Reform: Peter Wells

Posted in: People
By Peter Wells - 23rd May 2016

Anger is what I remember most about the pre-HLR days.

Anger against the injustice that meant we were illegal humans on the basis of our sexual  identification. Anger that love and sex were so stigmatised you could get arrested and anyone at any time was free to laugh at you or make you into a joke or bash you in the face.

Anger at never being able to hold hands with someone you loved in public. Anger at your parents for feeling shame and grief that the child they had given birth to was somehow also a great disappointment to them. Anger that you weren’t free to find employment without constantly hiding who you really were.

Anger that you never saw your life represented on television or film or in books without being shaped into tragedy or suicide or disaster or a joke. Anger that it took so long to know yourself as the means of self knowledge were hidden from you and so hard to access.

There was a lot to be angry about. (If you want a broader picture you can read my memoir ‘Long Loop Home’ which most libraries will have. This gives a sense of how confining it was to grow up gay in pre-HLR days then the difficulties of becoming vocal during the years of protest. It also looks at the years of epidemic in which I lost my brother, Russell.)

I was actually making a television drama called ‘Jewel’s Darl’ during the agitation for Homosexual Law Reform.  ‘Jewel’s Darl’ in its own small way introduced transgender characters to a New Zealand television audience in the days when television watching was a mass occupation. It treated the characters as human beings. This was seen as problematic by the television broadcasters. As we were told, it was OK for transgender characters to be seen as figures of fun ‘ like Benny Hill’ (or for homosexual men to be wincing effeminate men who could never admit to being gay like John Inman on ‘Are You Being Served?’)

But for transgender people to be seen in a broader dramatic context was forbidden. The drama was actually held up for two long years before it was considered ‘safe enough’ to be shown. My aim was to provoke a change in New Zealand television drama. This was in the days when there were no openly gay characters in any television dramas either local or international. It was a moment of change in New Zealand as it began its slow evolution into the Aotearoa that we live in today. I was fortunate enough to work with Georgina Beyer who of course went on to become the
world’s first transgender member of Parliament.

If you watch the film you will see many small hidden details to do with the
political agitation at the time. This includes small pieces of impromptu
conversation – right at the end of the film, Georgina made up a piece of dialogue along the lines of ‘and then I should tell you about the time Norm Jones went off with me’. Norm Jones was the MP for Invercargill and a notorious homophobe who led the agitation against homosexual law reform.

Even more obvious in the film is when the two characters Jewel and Mandy run out into the street and interrupt and make fun of a Salvation Army march up Queen Street. This was an act of political interruption. The Salvation Army at the time had decided to make a stand against the legalization of homosexuality. They decided to side with the haters. They volunteered to collect signatures of homophobes nationally and send them to Parliament in the hope that legalization of homosexual relations would be stopped.

We decided during the filming of the drama, to get Georgina Beyer and Richard to run out onto the street as their characters Jewel and Mandy and film whatever happened when they came into collision with the Salvation Army marching up the street. It was risky, as it was a time of physical violence. (I can remember the marches up Queen Street for homosexual law reform when people on the side lines threw bottles of beer at we protesters.) But Georgina and Richard were into it, and so they skittered out onto Queen Street. For a few minutes they led the march up Queen Street – much to the fury of the Salvation Army. It only happened for a few precious minutes, which we caught on film. We all ran away in different directions and hid.

So I guess when I think of pre-HLR days I think of days of anger – but I also think of days of excitement, of intense associations in which danger was involved – of friendships forged - hilarity. There was a sense that you were part of a movement that was shifting the inert weight of history. This was not only in terms of homosexuality but also feminism and racism. It was a time of refusing to stay silent any longer – of clearing our throats and shouting out. I think too of people who are no longer with us – people who were on those marches like the wonderful elderly writer E.H.McCormick – the author David Lynden Brown who died just last year. I think of a long ago time when our anger changed into the translucence of action.

It was a really difficult time but it was also a time of provocation, in which you had a sense of all the others who thought just like you. I guess it was like ‘an army of lovers’ as someone has said. And then there was the silent majority who would not speak out. Who represented ‘middle New Zealand’ – who did not know they had brothers, sisters, children, nieces, a father or a mother who was gay.

The fact is it was only the pressing reality of HIV-AIDs that allowed the HLR bill to be passed. It was not like MPs suddenly saw the light and decided that homosexuality was ok. It was passed simply as a way of trying to confine the spread of AIDS. It was felt homosexual men would not come forward if they were so heavily stigmatised and illegal. So the passing of the bill, that did actually start to change all our lives, was done for cautious, grudging essentially negative reasons. It is we who grabbed hold of the change and accelerated our presence and acceptability in society.

It did change everything. It is all a long time ago now yet I have to admit when I saw Salvation Army collectors outside my supermarket just a fortnight or so ago, I had a vivid flashback to those times and how the mask slipped off the ‘friendly Sallies’. It is one of the things that happens as you grow older. You remember more, and your memory reaches back through time, seeing people – and even yourself – in different guises at different times.

And while we can relax at this moment we also need to remain vigilant, aware that the river of time is always moving, changing, deepening. Even, at times like this, running into what feels like sun-warmed shallows. But the river moves on while we remain, as we will always be, a minority. And a minority, because of human nature, is always vulnerable.

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Peter Wells - 23rd May 2016