Salient. Newspaper of the Victoria University Students' Association. Vol 42 No. 19. August 6 1979
Worth Fighting for! — A History of Gay Rights
Worth Fighting for!
A History of Gay Rights
During Gay Pride Week at the end of June, Chris Parkin. Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, gave a public lecture on the Gay Rights Movement in New Zealand, its history and its aims. Salient is pleased to reprint the basis of his address.
The Gay Rights Movement in New Zealand.
(a public lecture delivered at Victoria University of Wellington on 28 June 1979.)
|1.||A Decade of Gay Liberation Today is being observed internationally as a day of Gay Solidarity. Throughout the world gay men and women, together with their straight friends, are celebrating a decade of gay liberation. And we are saying it with flowers too! Hence the pink carnations in evidence here as elsewhere today.|
On 28 June 1969 there was yet another police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village - the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Street, due apparently to some petty infringement of liquor laws. However there was no moral doubt in the minds of many present that such infringements were being used as the proverbial stick with which to be labour a hitherto largely uncomplaining gay minority. Harrassment, especially on the part of the police, is notoriously difficult to prove. I'm sure there are many groups in this country who have wondered, and felt powerless to do more than wonder, whether they are not victimized in the administration of our liquor laws. It would be instructive to compare the fate of rugby social and gay social clubs in this regard.
Ten years ago, however, the Greenwich Village gays rebelled. In a three day fracas, known to posterity as the Stone well riots, gays gave angry voice to their sense of outrage and frustration. And in that squalid violent crucible was forged a new determination to win for themselves the rights and above all, the plain human dignity of which they had been systematically and, at times malevolently, deprived. Such was the birth of gay liberation.
The Forerunners of Gay Liberation
The global growth of gay liberation has a history of a mere ten years, but it was not born into an entirely hostile world. As early as 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld founded his Scientific Humanitarian Committee. It, and a number of similar groups in Europe, led by Germany, did more to champion the cause of homosexual emancipation than is usually acknowledged nowadays. Indeed it stands to the latter-day gay rights movement in a relationship not unlike that between the early suffragettes and contemporary feminism. Nevertheless, that particular movement died by suppression with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.
England in the early 1950's saw growing dissatisfaction with the law concerning homosexual conduct. Ecclesiastical and secular bodies, such as the Church of England Moral Welfare Council and the Howard League for Penal Reform, helped to create a situation in which the Wolfenden Committee was appointed.
It produced its report in 1957 and, in May 1958 the Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded, with the objective of lifting criminal sanctions from homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, the principal recommendation of the Wolfenden report in respect of homosexual conduct. And, as we well know, it was not until a decade later, in July 1967, that the English Sexual Offences Act finally implemented the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations.
The Foundation of the NZ Homosexual Law Reform Society
In New Zealand, 1957, the year in which the Wolfenden Report was published, heralded a revision of the Crimes Act 1908. In 1959, the Minister of Justice, Mr H.G.R. Mason, moved by the suicide of a homosexual friend in Auckland and acting independently and not as the result of any report or recommendation, sought to introduce a lesser penalty for homosexual acts where they took place between consenting adults. Mr Mason's proposal had, unfortunately, some anomalous effects and some of his opponents used this fact to accuse him of master-minding a secret conspiracy to legalize homosexual conduct, a suggestion which predictably attracted wide publicity. Mr Mason, fed up with the bother, directed a reversion to the existing law which, with one or two minor modifications became the relevant clauses of the Crimes Act 1961.
Less than a week after the Crimes Bill had received its third reading the New Zealand Methodist Conference called for legal toleration of homosexual acts as a first step towards a constructive response to the homosexual's invidious social situation. In 1963 the New Zealand Howard League began to apply pressure upon the Minister, Mr Hanan. It was joined in 1964 by the National Council of Women, whose argument for reform was based upon a defence of civil liberties, and upon the impropriety of imprisoning homosexual offenders, a point conceded by the Justice Department for what is by now 15 years.
By 1967 a group of individuals, mostly churchmen and professional people, who had been liaising with the Howard League on how best to follow up its earlier initiatives, called a public meeting in Wellington to launch a Wolfenden Association. What emerged was the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society (NZHLRS) whose aims was to secure reform of the law whereby homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer constitute a criminal offence. Events conspired to suggest that the Society's life might be a short one. Extensive media coverage and public support from diverse social groupings and public figures augured well for a movement spurred on by the British reform, barely three months after the NZHLRS had been formed.
The Gay Image of the Late 1960's
But what sort of image did gays project in these years immediately preceding the birth of gay liberation? Influenced no doubt by the legal situation, it was the gay men who took the lion's share of the attention, or rather male homo-sexuals. The word 'gay' was not the current idiom; the word 'camp' had some limited currency; the word 'homo-sexual', carefully pronounced, was both studied and staid enough to meet the mood of the moment.
Anonymity was the order of the day. Differences of sexual orientation were deliberately, if a little self-consciously, left beneath the surface in a common cause. Few identified themselves publically as homosexuals, as the discreetly silhouetted profiles of those interviewed on TV's Compass programme bore witness. It was, of course, encouraging to find an unexpectedly wide measure of support in society at large, but the homosexual rarely came out into the open but rather stood in the shadows.
Parliament out of Touch
In 1968 Parliament was offered an opportunity to re-capture its reputation for page 12 progressive legislative policy when the NZ HLRS petitioned for reform. But the Petitions Committee reported no recommendation. The Committee's chairman, Mr Grieve, was to have his impartiality called into question in an almost unprecedented number of editorial columns.
Parliament's opposition continued, despite calls from the Labour Party Conference to 1969, reaffirmed in 1971, and the National Party Conference of 1970 for homosexual law reform. The rejection of Venn Young's Crimes Amendment Bill in July 1975 set the seal on the gulf which yawned between Parliament's collective conscience and that of the community at large.
Gay Liberation Fronts
As the initial exuberance of the law reform movement yielded to a dogged determination to persevere in the face of prejudice and frustration, a new mood of impatience was experienced in many quarters, not least on the part of many homosexuals. The Stonewall riots had issued in the formation of groups known as Gay Liberation Fronts, groups of gays determined to emerge from the shadows and to come out as self-professed gay activists within the political arena. The US lead was emulated amongst a group of students at the London School, of Economics where the first English Gay Liberation Front came into being in October 1970. GLF's began to blossom, though none as yet in New Zealand.
The Catalyst: Ngahuia Volkering
The catalyst which fomented New Zealand's Gay Liberation movement came early in the person of Ngahuia Volkering. Ngahuia, a lesbian Maori, won a study a—ward, the South East Asia and Pacific Leader grant, to the United States. The unanimous choice of the selection panel from a field of 14 applicants, Ms. Volkering had indicated in her application an interest in ethnic and gay minority groups in the states.
She was refused entry. An oral statement from the US Embassy, never confirmed in writing, said that her permit was refused because she was a sex deviate. This incident sparked off the formation of a Gay Liberation group in Auckland and a Gay Liberation Front in Christchurch.
Easter 1972, indeed the whole of April saw a mushroom of activity from the "happening" in Albert Park to publicize an open letter to Auckland's mayor protesting gay oppression to support from the National Women's Liberation Conference to interviews on radio, television and in the press.
Early Gay Sexual Politics
The Auckland group inaugurated a Gay Week, culminating in Queen's Birthday weekend. Auckland gays were present in July when the Wellington GLF was formed. Auckland hosted a small but significant national Gay Liberation conference in September which brought together members of the infant movement from all three centres.
But, from the outset, two problems were to bedevil the movement. Political activism was, and still is, a possibility only to the extent that gays are prepared to "come out", a difficult and often time-consuming process of self-declaration homophile. Thus, gay liberation and gay rights groups have, in all parts of the country, been particularly dependent upon the energies of individual leaders There have been cases where a group has collapsed, or gone into temporary recession, with the departure of some key figure to another town, or overseas. One early priority, in consequence, and it remains an important priority, has been to provide the network of support which will ultimately make "coming out" the uncontroversial rule rather than the exception it presently is.
The other problem has been one of internal fragmentation. The pressures at; work in this regard are as diverse as they are powerful. A politically active homosexual has, in the very nature of the case, to be possessed of a certain resilience as an individual. And individualists do not always make good political bed-fellows. There is something of a generation gap. To generalize widely though not, I hope, too wildly, the older hitherto invisible gay will usually have a great deal more to lose than his younger counterpart. And so conservatism and caution may conflict with more militant attitudes.
Again, politically moderate or liberal views proceed from the premiss that the present social structure offers adequate avenues by way of education and due process; for securing full civil rights for homosexuals. Such views are not readily reconciled with those of the radicals who, sensitive to the debates already well-developed within the women's movement, see some measure of social reconstruction, eliminating the various manifestations of sexism, as mandatory for gay sexual politics. Again, the extent to which the movement has been open to lesbians has, while clear in theory, yet to be fully resolved in practice. And so on.
A Sense of Direction
The second national conference in 1973 was, I think, of particular importance to the movement. It formulated general aims and guiding principles for the movement which have since been affirmed and reaffirmed in manifestos and policy decisions. Perhaps the most important of these was implicit in the use of the word 'gay'. Homosexuals have been vilified with literally dozens of expressions, all voicing and re-inforcing negative and hostile attitudes. Homosexual conduct has been explained in terms of sickness and deficiency, sin and pervers deviation, abnormality, failure, arrested development etc. The word 'gay' is, by contract, political ammunition in its own right. It declares someone able to form those specially personal relationships - physical, emotional, mental - with people of the same sex. It recognizes homosexuality to be an alternative form of sexuality and not a degenerate form of heterosexuality. And, above all, it presupposes the individual's right to sexual self—determination.
Everything else follows from this. To teach gays to respond to their sexual orientation with pride and respect instead of the shame and guilt inculcated by society at large. To educate everyone about homosexuality so as to expose ignorance and prejudice, and so as to eradicate erroneous though widely held, stereotypes of gays. To secure full human rights for gays and to remove all discrimination against gays. These aims are, of course, conceived in broad terms. There is thus room for differences of opinion over the particularities of their implementation and for degrees of openness of involvement fed their pursuit.
Finally, in order to underscore a sense of gay responsibility for the movement, none but self-professed gays are permitted full membership in the movement. The long-term aim of the gay rights movement is, according to the Victoria University of Wellington Gay Liberation manifesto of 19 76, a world in which people are no longer labelled homosexual or heterosexual, but are thought of simply as people seeking positive, fulfilling expression of their sexual natures. But, ironically, anyone who labels himself or herself exclusively heterosexual is debarred from participation in the decision-making processes of the movement whose long-term aim that is!
New Voices, New Groups, New Concerns
The initial impact and inspiration of the first gay liberation groups was beginning to bear fruit. In 1974 new groups emerged in Palmerston North. Dunedin, in Nelson and Gisbourne, in Rotorua and Hamilton. The turmoil associated with their emergence pointed up the comparitevely greater difficulty and complexity of the coining out process in smaller provincial centres, and brought a social emphasis to group activities which as persisted outside the main centres.
Three issues dominated 1974. The first, arising out of a Lesbian Conference in March and the foundation of the Gay Feminist Collective, was the ongoing issues of the place of lesbians within the movement and the need to strengthen links between gay liberation and the feminist movement. This has met with partial success. Gay participation in the abortion debate set a precedent which has been extended to active interest in issues ranging from conversation to the SIS Amendment Bill.
The second issue, aired by the indefatigable Felix Donnelly and chewed over at Easter at the third National GL Conference in Wellington, concerned the homosexual and religion. The Quakers and the Methodists had long displayed an openness to gay members. Many of the churches, while supporting law reform, had not really come to grips with the issue of reassessing their traditionally harsh condemnation of homosexuality. A new possibility presented itself in 1975 with the visits of Rev. Lee J. Carlton of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a church found to minister to the needs of gay Christians which, were not being met elsewhere. The MCC's founder, Rev. Troy Perry, himself visited Auckland in January 1976 and, almost exactly a year later, the Rev. Peter Alexander-Smith was the first MCC pastor appointed in New Zealand. The measure of his concern for his charges had sadly to be judged by the sorrow attending his sudden death last year, ending a ministry of less than two years' duration.
The third issue was law reform, for in mid-1974 Venn Young introduced his private member's bill. I single out law reform rather than the new concern with the plight of gay parents, or the strengthening identity of a transexual and transvestite group within the movement, or the invitations to CLF members to visit and take part in schools programmes (an activity which has flourished uncontroversially in many parts of the country, the editor of the NZ Tablet notwithstanding) because there has been and still is diverted within the movement as to how important law reform is.
Gay Rights and Law Reform
The essence of the case for law reform is remarkable for its simplicity. The law can punish as criminal offences homosexual acts between consenting adults in private if the adults are male but not if they are female. In this respect the law is discriminatory. Whether or not a certain kind of behaviour should be a crime cannot sensibly turn solely on whether the agent is a man or a woman. This is something with which the Human Rights Commission, to its discredit, has not yet come to grips. Discrimination before the law on grounds of gender is now unequivocally illegal in New Zealand - and yet the anomaly remains.
But what about discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation? Heterosexual activities may take such forms or occur in such circumstances that many members of society would disapprove of the acts in question - adultery and premarital intercourse are obvious examples. But, in spite of such moral condemnation, neither adultery nor premarital intercourse are criminal offences. In other words, there is tacit recognition that some activities, in particular some sexual activities, are best regulated in ways which do not involve a criminal ban even where there is quite wide-spread moral disapproval of them.
But, it will be retorted by some, you have not allowed for the difference in sexual orientation. So let me do so. If you compare homo- and hetero-sexual conditions, the obvious difference lies in the typical choice of sexual partner. And this difference is so striking that little or no attempt is made to consider similarities between the orientations. For example in both cases we have only very limited knowledge of how the orientation is acquired; in both cases the orientation has a pervasive influence upon the emotional life and all the relationships of the individual concerned - far beyond the overtly sexual; in both cases substantial dangers confront the attempt to 'convert' an individual from the one to the other; in both cases the individual's sexual nature is associated with the capacity to give and receive affection, a capacity which naturally and inevitably seeks expression in sexual exchange.
Now, if we take account of these and other similarities, we end up with different social arguments (including laws) from those which at present obtain, arrangement under which hetero- and homosexual are treated alike as being in relevantly similar situations But suppose someone objects that being a homosexual is a relevant difference. Homosexual men may molest young boys; homosexual offences may undermine the moral fibre of the nation; homosexual behaviour may disrupt the institutions of marriage and family life. Such considerations all find some measure of support and touch upon matters we do and should take seriously, morally speaking. But we can, it we are patient, show that hetero sexuals may molest young girls - and boys for that matter, and that hetoerosexual offences may undermine the moral fibre of the nation; that heterosexual behaviour can disrupt the institutions of marriage and family life. In short, the situations of homo- and hetero-sexual are not relevantly different Whatever steps we take legally, morally, socially, to protect the young, to encourage positive moral standards, to support social institutions, will apply irrespective of sexual orientation.
The injustice of the male homosexual's treatment in law, does not merely consist in his being subject to certain penalties from which his lesbian counterpart is exempt. That piece of discrimination rubs in a more pervasive insult, namely that sexual self-determination is the exclusive prerogative of the heterosexual. That is why the argument which has recently found some favour within tin movement, that the effects of the law as presently enforced are not too bad, so that we should forget about reform page 13[unclear: trate] on more pressing issues is, [unclear: foundly] mistaken. A gay rights [unclear: hich] did not strive for legal [unclear: oh-he] right to sexual self-[unclear: detcrmi-][unclear: mong] other things, reform of [unclear: act] would be a movement at [unclear: s own] aims. In fact, of course, [unclear: ontinues] to hold its place [unclear: wi-][unclear: der] spectrum of gay rights [unclear: ac-]
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[unclear: e] for National Strength
|(1)||liberating Gays by promoting a social environment free from repressive laws, discrimination, social attitudes causing fear, guilt, shame and loneliness, sexism, sexual stereotyping;|
|(2)||working for the rights, interests and well-being of all Gays;|
|(3)||supporting the liberation of other groups oppressed in terms of (1) above.|
The NGRC became an overnight success. Before the year was out it was clear that the gay rights movement had acheived cohesion and purposiveness within the alliance of what is now 32 member groups with an affiliated membership exceeding 70,000. Readers of the recent article in the NZ Listener will know what is large, everywhere and has 140,000 legs.
I propose to conclude with some kind of assessment of the progress made by the NG RC over the past two years and with my reflections about the challenges which lie ahead. But before I do so I would like to pause for a moment to deal with one out-standing question, not infrequently asked, namely What do gays need to be liberated from? What lies behind such a question is usually a certain incredulity that a liberal democratic society such as ours oppresses any minority, the gay minority not excepted.
My response to such a query proceeds on two levels. I have already drawn attention to the value we attach to sexual self-determination, and have already shown how difference in sexual orientation is irrelevant to the promotion and protection of that value. It should therefore be clear how negative and hostile social attitudes, attitudes which conspire to erode the individual gay's confidence in his or her own worth as a human being, constitute an oppressive climate in which to live, the more so because the effects of such attitudes are pervasive, difficult to pinpoint and almost impossible to prove incontrovertibly in any particular case. A different explanation is always possible.
But what of gays collectively? Here too there is ever present danger of discerning bias where none exists nor is intended. Nevertheless, the following incidents offer a sample of what, by any reckoning, is minority oppression. In Christchurch in '76 a spate of "queer bashings" reached such proportions that a Gay Defence group was mooted; only at this point did relations with the police in the city of the Hagley Park murder take a turn for the better. On the subject of the police Commissioner Burnside said, again in 1976, that any candidate for the force must be of "excellent character"; anyone who broke the law, including sections 140-142 of the Crimes Act, was not of excellent character and hence ineligible to join the police. So presumably lesbian policewomen are acceptable, while gay men can anticipate a miraculous character change when the law is reformed!
In 1972 a year's campaigning was necessary before the Auckland Star would accept a personal column ad giving the box number of the newly-formed GL group Five enlightened years later the NZ Listener would not accept NGRC ads it judged "in poor taste". The Christchurch Press prevaricated over NGRC advertising until the point fulness of insertion had passed. Napier's Daily Telegraph, the Manawutu Evening Standard, the Southland Times and the Taranaki Herald have all created problems about accepting advertising. Now in all cases these were simple ads announcing gays groups and or gay activities with, in the case of the NGRC ads, a statement of aims and support. In all except possibly one case that policy has now been reversed thanks to the representation of gay groups.
In 1978 pre-election statements on gay rights were planned for the five private radio stations. At the last minute these statements were declared contrary to broadcasting policy in relation to election coverage - though the two of the five who did broadcast the statements were apparently unaware of that policy!
In 1976 the Waikato University Library's application for a reprint collection on homosexuality was turned down by the National Library, apparently on grounds of quality not of financial stringency. And yet that collection had been given an award by the American Library Association.
In 1977, in relation to an incident involving Carmen, Mr Muldoon tells the world at large that it is worse to be homosexual than to display bias as the Speaker!
The raids on Auckland's "Backstage" club; the Social Welfare Department's disinclination to subsidise the Auckland Gay Welfare group; Amnesty International's decision that persons imprisoned on grounds of sexual orientation were not a proper concern of their organisation. Radio New Zealand's ban of "Sing If You're Glad to be Gay"; the pressure put upon Mr Highet and the newly-formed Film Commission to prevent financial support going to the 'Night Moves' film; the disastrous effect of an accusation of homosexual activity or involving sexual activity upon public life and career, seen in the case of Moyle and O'Brien in New Zealand, and of Jeremy Thorpe in UK; the campaigns of groups such as Concerned Parents Association, Catholic Home and School Associations, and the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards—and perhaps the editor of the NZ Tablet should be added to the list; the seizure of the Spartacus International Gay Guide by Auckland Customs as indecent; the failure to include the NGRC or any gay group representatives in the Human Rights Day seminar. And so the list could go on.
In recent weeks the most disturbing incident was the Government's willingness to offer public apology to Iran over an alleged death threat from New Zealand homosexuals which is quite without foundation. And only this week the Defence Council's announcement concerning homosexuals and the armed forces bears the ludicrous veneer of the bitterly serious.
The National Gay Rights Coalition
How has the NGRC come to grips with these and other manifestations of adverse social pressures?
Part of the answer, as I have already indicated, is that member groups of the Coalition had been encouraged to take the initiative in contacting offending parties. But over and above this very important facet of the matter, the NGRC has established itself as a weighty, authoritative and credible voice in speaking on behalf of gay rights, in detecting discrimination and in protesting false stereotyping. Whether picketing a party conference, making submission to the select committee on the Human Rights Commission, protests against the John Inman "Are You Being Served?" stereotype, or making written representations to the Minister of Justice in Iran, the NGRC is and is increasingly know to be a watchful guardian of gay rights and interests.
The formation of the NGRC injected a new spirit of confidence into the gay rights movement, as a result of which has grown and diversified. In addition to the emergence of groups in new centres, referred to earlier, a sure sign of confidence are the new styles of groups. I have already mentioned Country Network and the Parents of Gays group promoted under the aegis of CHE. The Gay Teachers Union has been joined by an alliance of Gay Health Workers. Counselling and aid services have matured with experience, with specialist ventures in the direction of gay alcoholics and gay prisoners. All this represents a realization of Gay Liberation's hope that the movement would have room for special interests, emphasises and problems. And, because they are found within a framework which embraces low-key socializing as well as fairly high-pitched political activism, there is the sense of the movement being able to absorb the diversity without becoming unbalanced. One telling measure of progress is the willingness of government and private agencies alike to make referrals where appropriate, to the specialist gay agencies.
But, for my money, the NGRC's biggest success to date is in the field of education and public relations. The gay community has been presented to New Zealand as a social force which won't just go away and which is prepared to demand the rights it has too often been denied. 1977 was the year of the pink triangle. A quarter of a million homosexuals were liquidated by the Nazis and for them the pink triangle assumed a significance analogous to that of the yellow Star of David for the Jews. The pink triangle has thus become a symbol both of the destructive pressures to which gays are subjected and of the determination of gays and their supporters to expunge the idea that homosexuality is shameful. The mark of shame has become a visible affirmation of gay pride and self-respect. And it has, significantly, lent its name to the NGRC's newspaper whose first issue appeared earlier this year.
Last year's election campaign focussed around the theme that, at a time when the magic formula 'economic recession' seemed destined to excuse almost anything. Human Rights Cost Nothing. The NGRC co-operated with university sociologists in Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton in the matter of detailed attitude surveys in four electorates. In all four cases there was very large support for law reform and substantial support for including sexual orientation as well as sex in the Human Rights Commission legislation.
18. Prospect But what of the months and years ahead?
In the years to come there can be little doubt that the Gay Rights movement will grow, for even should it achieve one of its primary aims, of law reform, there is a long road to hoe in terms of educating the public so that Gays are freed from both direct and indirect persecution. In terms of the organisation itself there is the important question of the participation of lesbians in the, so far male dominated, Gay Rights movement. This last aspect is not only important for the growth of the movement, but is vital in pursuing the goals that stretch beyond those of repeal.
Finally, I believe the Gay Rights movement must examine its own structure. So far its growth has been very much on a self-help principle: gay responsibility for gay liberation. As Charlotte Bunch remarked during her recent visit: "We have to fight for us cos we're all we have."
In my judgement, the self-help principle was the right one for a movement finding its feet. But I wonder whether it still is. Gay self-affirmation may result in a insular, separatist attitude which excludes straight co-workers - simply because they are straight! A movement founded upon a conviction of the arbitrariness of categorizing people by sexual orientation must come to grips with its adherence to a principle of membership which selects - by sexual orientation! On reflection I'm inclined to think Charlotte Bunch was wrong. We don't have to fight for us cos we're all we have; we have to fight for us cos we're worth fighting for. And if we're worth fighting for, we're worth fighting for no matter what the sexual orientation of the fighters.