Wow, 30 years! I can’t say it just seems like yesterday, but some of my memories of that time are still extraordinarily vivid. Over the past week I had two film experiences that brought many of them back.
On Monday night my partner Ian and I (re)watched Pride, the story of lesbians and gay men from London (LGSM) supporting a south Wales coal mining village during the miners’ strike in Britain. We love this film because it reminds us so much of our lives back in 1985. We lived in Auckland, and spent our lives shuttling between events promoting homosexual law reform, anti-Apartheid demonstrations (the All Blacks were due to go and play in South Africa), anti-racism activities, anti-nuclear demonstrations and many others. At one point some of us jokingly formed the Alliance for Justice, since we all went to all of these things anyway. If you haven’t seen Pride, you should; it’s wonderful.
Then, on Thursday night, I finished in the office early enough to get to Thin End of the Wedge, a screening at Nga Taonga Sound and Vision of clips from the homosexual law reform campaign pulled together by Gareth Watkins. Using mostly TV news clips and interviews, this walked viewers through the public and political debate over Fran Wilde’s bill.
It was wonderful to see so many old friends on film, some sadly no longer with us, and for about half the audience I think the viewing experience was primarily a nostalgic one. But there hasn’t been a film like Patu!, which told the story of the other pivotal and polarising issue from that time, so younger people seemed stunned by some of what they saw. Things have changed a lot. We’ve won a lot of battles, and there’s been considerable social change. Political issues seem largely absent from many of our events (mindshift to the scene at the end of Pride, where the gay pride march organiser tells LGSM they have to march at the back, because it’s a non-political celebration). The fierce determination and political staunchness we showed were unexpected and outside their experience – the past is another country.
Of course our recent experience with the marriage equality campaign brought out many of the same opponents, so they probably didn’t seem that surprising, though the clips being sourced from TV probably softened some of the venom and nastiness of what we faced. There’s a clip with Pastor Richard Flynn, from Auckland’s North Shore, for example, where he trots out the familiar “love the sinner, hate the sin” line, and comes across as unbendingly extreme, but I well recall that out of the gaze of that TV camera he went much further, preaching that we should be hanged. Alliance for Justice became the Anti Bigot Committee for a picket of his church one Sunday morning!
Naturally a screening of this sort couldn’t show us the vile, nasty submissions received against the Bill. Tim McCreanor later published a study of the framing and language used in the submissions, revealing some of the deep and weird beliefs and fears underpinning some of these.
The most surprising thing for modern viewers seems to be how we fought back against this intimidation and hatred. The 1981 Springbok tour was still fresh in people’s minds, with its lessons of standing up for what you believe in, and that it’s justified for you to break the law if it’s necessary to combat a greater harm. That was part of it. And another part of it was that, just like the ’81 Tour, homosexual law reform was a high-profile issue that allowed no middle ground. People couldn’t ignore it, and couldn’t be neutral; they had to declare for or against it.
This was enormously important. In a society where it was essentially illegal to be a gay man, and it was entirely legal to fire someone, evict them or refuse to provide them goods and services, just for being lesbian, bisexual or gay, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising to people today that most of us were firmly in the closet, and many people genuinely believed that they had never met a gay man or lesbian. Hence a big part of the strategy was to get people to come out. A risky strategy because of the hostile environment, and many people were abused, discriminated against, shunned by family and friends, or subject to violence. But we did it anyway, because we could see that we had to stand up for ourselves.
I’m sometimes astonished myself to remember how brave people were: for many Aucklanders the way they came out to family, friends, employers and, well, everyone, was that they paid money to have their name listed as gay men and lesbians who supported the Bill in a full page advertisement in the New Zealand Herald (I remember being in a cold sweat over that one myself).
Homosexual law reform, and the bravery of everyone who supported it, is still something to celebrate – in the end, I, like many other New Zealanders, marked its 30-year anniversary with a few tears, a few laughs and an overwhelming sense of pride.