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July 23, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Gay Old Time

The Journey Of The Gay In Nz Politics



What does it mean to be queer in New Zealand? How do our politicians see us, the non-heterosexual contingent? New Zealand’s political landscape has a long history of avoidance when it comes to ‘the gay’, punctuated with occasional bouts of activity as we struggle to catch up to (marginally) more enlightened countries. We’re a very proud nation, sometimes too much so, and we’re still inordinately proud of our world- beating efforts to recognise women as people by giving them the vote. That was a long time ago though, and we’ve lagged a bit since then. 

Hell, France decriminalised homosexual acts between two men 195 years before New Zealand did, 1791. Brazil managed it in 1830. What took us so long?

When New Zealand became part of the British Empire in 1840, we adopted their laws, which included the death penalty for homosexual acts. New Zealand has always been closely tied to England, and we take a lot of our social and legal cues from
them. With its strong Christian background, England had a lot of very conservative things to say about homosex, and ‘buggery’ was considered very un-Christian. This meant that not only could dudes not get their freak on, nor, legally, could a heterosexual couple when one (or both) of them wanted it up the butt. In 1861, the death penalty for homosex was replaced with life imprisonment in England, and New Zealand followed suit six years later. Any sexual activity between men, not just anal sex, became illegal in England in 1885, and then eight years later, New Zealand enacted legislation to do the same.

Things stagnated for a while after that, and it wasn’t until 1957 that a report in England recommended homosexual law reform, but it was rejected by Parliament. In 1968 a petition was submitted to the New Zealand Parliament, signed by a group of prominent citizens, calling for legalisation of homosex, but our Parliament rejected it. Finally in 1967, England legalised homosexual acts between two men, but only under very specific conditions, such as only having two people present. This law was slightly amended in 2000 to change the age of consent for homosex to 16, in line with hetsex. It’s been a spectacular success, and there has not been a single threesome recorded in the UK ever since.

In 1974, ‘79 and ‘80, there were bills submitted that would legalise homosexuality in New Zealand, but they were all defeated. Aside from a prudish Christian squeamishness about the gays left over from the Victorian era, opponents of these bills were dissatisfied by a difference in the age of consent between heterosexual couples (16) and homosexual couples (21).

Homosexual law reform in New Zealand came into effect in 1986, four years before I was born. That freaks me out a little bit sometimes—that I grew up in a world where practicing my sexuality (read: homosex) was only recently allowed. The Crimes Act 1961 had actually criminalised homosexual acts between two men, but the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986 removed these provisions when it had become apparent that buttsex was actually pretty cool. Luckily, even though it took us longer than the UK, we are allowed threesomes, so it’s not all bad.

Homosexual law reform in New Zealand was notably opposed by the Salvation Army, who were heavily involved in a petition to ensure it didn’t pass. They have since issued a statement apologising for their actions, though some branches of the organisation in other countries still have pretty open anti-LGBT policies. There was significant opposition from other groups as well, and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens issued a petition against the bill, though many of the signatures were found to be fake.

Interestingly, homosexual acts between females have never been illegal in New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Maybe that’s because straight dudes are into that or something. I don’t know—ask a straight dude.

So, now that existing was more or less legal for boys who like boys, where did things move from there?

At the time of writing, eleven countries around the world have nationwide same sex marriage, and some others, like the US, have same-sex marriage in some places but not others. Sadly, New Zealand seems to be some way away from making its way onto this list.

There is no specific legislation prohibiting gay people from adopting, though there is no facility for same-sex couples to adopt as a couple, as much adoption legislation is written in terms of marriage. Rather, one member of the couple must adopt as an individual, and this is a harder process than adopting as a couple. Additionally, it is impossible for a man to adopt a female child by himself. This system is implicitly homophobic and kind of silly, really, because you’d think a gay couple adopting a girl would be safer than average for the child, who would no doubt grow up to be extra-fabulous.

Civil unions between same-sex couples in New Zealand have been possible since the Civil Union Act in 2005. It’s a very similar act to the Marriage Act, but with ‘marriage’ replaced by ‘civil union’ throughout. This has the result of giving a same-sex couple in a civil union most of the same rights as a married heterosexual couple, with the important exception of adoption.

The whole thing reeks of a separate-but- equal approach to LGBT rights. I get the strong impression that we are being told this is something we should be happy with, like a huge favour has been done for us. Most parties treated it as a conscience issue, and it passed by a measly ten votes (65 to 55).

There was strong religious opposition from groups like Destiny Church and the Catholic Church, because, you know, tolerance and love for all or something. The Christian Student Union, however, supported the introduction of civil unions and even got involved in the debate. Destiny Church organised the anti-gay ‘Enough is Enough’ march in Wellington, along with the Christian Heritage Party and a white supremacist group. Make of that what you will.

The first openly gay MP was Chris Carter, of Labour, who came out shortly after the 1993 election. The first MP to be elected while out was Tim Barnett, also a Labour MP, who was elected in 1996. Our first open lesbian MP was Maryan Street, again from the Labour Party, who was elected in 2005.

In good news, New Zealand was the first country in the world to elect a trans* MP, Georgina Beyer. She was elected in 1999, and I think this is something we can be extremely proud of. In 1994, the New Zealand High Court ruled that post-operative transsexuals could marry as their new sex.

And where are we now? We’ve come along way, but there’s still some distance yet to travel. There’s an increasing dialogue regarding LGBT issues in New Zealand, which is what we’ve been missing all along. The reluctance to talk about LGBT issues that has inhibited progress is gradually being eroded, but not so much by action from within New Zealand.

There are equality movements here, but they don’t have the size and momentum to be as society-changing as those elsewhere, such as in the US, which is significantly further down the path to full marriage equality than we are, in several respects. We can make a difference by talking more. Get interested in LGBT rights, and get other people interested in it too. Younger generations are increasingly pro- LGBT, and we can speed up the process with better education and more dialogue. Go forth and be queer!


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