It was the late 1940s, and some time after Ian Smith* moved to Wellington as a teenager from Hawera, in the rural and conservative Taranaki, he met the boyfriend he would live with for the next two years. When they met for the first time, they immediately hit it off.
“It wasn’t a groundbreaking romance,” Ian said. “We were just two kids who fell in love with each other and decided to live together, in the same way kids do nowadays. We were young.”
But to the outside world they were only flatmates. In the house the two shared, Ian had a separate bedroom. He also kept a pair of stockings, a ladies’ coat, hat and shoes at the foot of his bed to fool anyone in case their house was searched. At the time, homosexuality was still illegal, and Ian and his partner lived a life of fear.
In 1950, the police raided a well-known gay cafe in Wellington. Ian and his partner, who by now were 23, were sharing a drink together after a night at the theatre. Ian was arrested. After serving three years in a New Zealand prison, he was committed to a psychiatric facility and given chemical hormone treatment in an attempt to cure him of his “illness”. He never saw his partner again.
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2015/2016 marks the 30 year anniversary of Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand. As a community, the LGBT people of Aotearoa have come such a long way since that day in Parliament, 9 July 1986, when consensual love between anyone of any sex or gender identity was finally legalised. As a young Queer man looking back at history as I write this now, it seems bizarre to ever imagine that there was a time where my fondness and affection for other men could have resulted in a criminal punishment.
Māori had long appreciated the special and sacred role that LGBT people played in their society. In 1849 Wīremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke of Ngāti Rangiwewehi told the story of Tūtānekai and Tiki. Before Tūtānekai married his fiancé Hinemoana, he had a close male companion named Tiki. In a manuscript by Te Rangikāheke, Tūtānekai says to his father, “I am stricken with love for my friend, for Tiki.’” Later, Tūtānekai refers to Tiki as “tāku hoa takatāpui”—a close companion, or lover of the same gender.
However, upon the arrival of European settlers, consensual sex between members of the same sex was outlawed under British Imperial Law. Gay men in particular were imprisoned, beaten, whipped, and ridiculed for their “crime”. When my grandparents were young, we LGBT folks were considered criminals in the same manner as those who committed sexual assaults against children.
It feels bizarre to be commemorating the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act as a piece of amazing and revolutionary social change when, technically, the rights it enshrined were almost gifted to LGBT people by those who were not Queer. Those who campaign for social change have always felt uneasy about the role of Parliament in achieving a more progressive and inclusive society. Yet the truth is, we would not be where we are today without it.
Fran Wilde, a gutsy Labour Party MP from Wellington, introduced the Homosexual Law Reform Bill to Parliament in 1985. Bills like this had been attempted before in the 1970s but had been defeated by sitting National governments, led by notorious homophobes like Robert Muldoon. But Wilde’s Bill was different—it had the mass support of hundreds of Queer New Zealanders up and down the country who rallied in support. They organised public meetings and marches, campaigning for their right to love equally.
The campaign was not without serious opposition: the National Party, led by Jim McLean, opposed the Bill en mass, and MPs including Winston Peters, John Banks and Norman Jones told LGBT people to “Go back into the sewers where you come from”. It was this time that the Salvation Army utilised their base support to oppose the Bill, and even went to the extremes of targeting dementia care rest homes to solicit signatures from elderly people in petitions against the right for consensual gay sex to be legalised. At immense personal cost, LGBT New Zealanders rallied behind Wilde’s Bill, but nevertheless ensured its success in Parliament.
After the Bill passed into law in August 1986, Ian and Mark started dating. Soon, they moved in together. This time there was no need for Ian to hide who he was.
Ian Smith was one of those who fought for Wilde’s Bill. Ian told me that he faced regular abuse from opponents to the Bill—most of it coming from within his own family. But that never deterred him. In 1985, while participating in a number of different LGBT action groups who ran campaigns to gather popular support behind the Bill, Ian met his life partner, Mark. After the Bill passed into law in August 1986, Ian and Mark started dating. Soon, they moved in together. This time there was no need for Ian to hide who he was. After the passage of the Civil Unions Act in 2004, again by a Labour government, Ian and Mark finally were able to achieve legal recognition of their relationship.
In 2011, a year before Louisa Wall introduced her Marriage Equality Bill to Parliament, Mark passed away after a battle with prostate cancer. To this day, Ian keeps a photo of him in every room of his house. It is through the lives of people such as Ian that we truly can appreciate the full importance of that Bill 30 years ago—how it gave young LGBT people like myself an opportunity to hope for a better and more inclusive future. It is because of great people in Parliament that social change comes about, but it is only because of the tireless work of activists that progress towards equality can ever be achieved. LGBT people have a proud history of fighting for their rights in the face of great adversity. Over the past 30 years we have seen leaps and bounds in the way of achieving full legal equality for many of our LGBT people. But the fight does not stop there. To honour our Queer Whakapapa, we young Queer people and our allies must keep pushing for that greater equality that we all dream of.