a) Gay Tasmania
After gay law reform
Euphoria was just one of the things we felt when Tasmania's anti-gay laws were finally repealed
(published in Brother Sister, July 1997)
When I think about the completion of the campaign for gay law reform in Tasmania, I recall my parents' stories about the end of World War Two. They were children in 1945 and their memories are patchy, but the overall impression is one of a great outpouring of happiness and relief, mixed with nostalgia for the past and eager anticipation of the future. The impact of the nine year campaign for gay law reform, like the impact of WWII, demands the writing of books. The campaign has dramatically advanced human rights law, shaped lesbian and gay history and transformed Tasmanian society. But the impact of VH Day - Victory over Hatred - is something that can be dealt with in this small space.
There may not have been much dancing in the streets after our May Day victory, but there certainly was a lot of crying, hand shaking and congratulations. Knots of people - homo and hetero - would gather around those identified with reform to congratulate them and express their happiness. Many heterosexuals were profoundly moved by events. For them law reform brought an end to years of embarassment and re-invigorated their pride in being Tasmanian. For gay men and lesbians alike the reform was greeted with a surge of empowerment, a new sense of belonging, and not a little relief.
At celebratory parties and dinners in Hobart the strong sense of community that has been fostered by the gay law reform campaign has flowered. At the recent Queen's Ball in Hobart, the largest ever, 900 people partied in a friendly, welcoming and celebratory atmosphere. It was hard not to feel a sense of belonging.
Ironically, the least jubilant people at the events celebrating gay law reform have been those activists directly involved in the campaign. The gay law reform debate has been part of our lives for almost a decade. While the laws were our foe, and we are overjoyed they have been repealed, the campaign to repeal these laws had been a mentor and a companion, teaching us much about our world, and ourselves. Now it has gone and the hole it has left in our lives will be difficult to fill.
*Post War Reconstruction
Within days of the repeal of Tasmania's former anti-gay laws, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Group had received calls from the State Education and Health Departments. They wanted to talk about new policies to address the needs of our community. They wanted meetings and submissions quick smart. Meanwhile, at the AIDS Council, gay educators were on the phone to health officials in Canberra. "You know that Tassie specific safe sex campaign that you said you couldn't fund because of the laws here, can we have the money now?" The reluctant answer was "yes".
The same attitudes prevail around the issue of sexuality anti-discrimination laws. Many of the same Upper House members who supported gay law reform say they will also now support equal opportunity legislation. The Liberal Government is also keen to move on the reform. The mood is for more change.
The chances of getting better gay and lesbian related public policies and anti-bias protections have also increased following the most recent round of Upper House elections. On May 31st, only four weeks after losing his battle to stop gay law reform, anti-gay campaigner George Brookes faced the people of his blue-collar Launceston electorate in what he billed as a referendum on gay and lesbian rights. The people threw him out, electing a gay law reform supporter in his place. Meanwhile the sitting member in Devonport, an opponent of reform, recorded his lowest vote ever, while the electors of Ulverstone shied away from their town's prominent anti-gay campaigner, Rodney Cooper.
The fate of these men has been reflected in the demise of Tasmania's once powerful anti-gay movement. Apart from a few bitter recriminations against apathetic Christians who should have been supporting them, Tas Alert, The Community and Family Rights Council and For A Caring Tasmania have disappeared without trace.
Their war lost, their belligerancy deeply resented, Brookes and his friends have gone the same way as Hitler, Mussolini and their cronies. The message to the rest of Tasmania is clear: even in the most conservative sections of our society the politics of hate has been rejected and reform endorsed. We now have our best chance ever of achieving a range of important and overdue legal reforms and policy initiatives. Now that the anti-gay right has collapsed there is even the possibility that in areas such as education policy and partnership recognition the island state could begin to set a trend for lesbian and gay equality at a global level. Welcome to the New Tasmania.
*Maintaining the Momentum?
Of course, not everyone agrees that any more change is desirable.
In the 1950s, elites in Western countries did their best to reverse gains made by minorities during the war. Women were forced back into the home, the closet door was slammed shut on gays and lesbians, and blacks were again shoved to the back of the bus.
Some sections of Tasmania's elite are also trying to wind back the clock. Having suddenly realised that their years of obstinate opposition to gay law reform helped create the conditions for massive changes in Tasmanian society, they are attempting to play down the change and again shroud homosexuality in silence.
Powerful conservatives such as ex Liberal MP, Nick Evers, and the former editor of the Launceston Examiner, Michael Courtney, have declared that gay law reform was in fact a pointless diversion from more substantial issues. They have denigrated gay activists and our allies, arguing that the reform had nothing to do with human rights or grass roots activism. Now that the law reform debate is over, they want homosexuality to take up a more appropriate allotment of public time, i.e. as little as possible.
The challenge we face is to disappoint these men by continuing to transform Tasmanian society and foster a strong lesbian and gay community in the absence of the gay law reform debate. On a recent visit to Perth I was impressed by the degree of media debate and community-based activism around that State's discriminatory age of consent laws. This would suggest that high profile law reform campaigns do have a role to play in broader social change. But on the other hand, despite living in a jurisdiction that is resplendent with legal rights, activisits in Canberra are successfully using preparations for a national lesbian and gay conference in 1999 to activate their community.
One of the most important lessons we have learnt from the past nine years of campaigning is that, when it comes to social change and community building, the way we relate to the society in which we live, and the extent to which we seize the available opportunities for community activism, are more important than the particular legal, policy or social reforms we pursue at any given time. It doesn't matter what we campaign for. What matters is how we campaign. If we can hold to this truth in the coming months and years, Tasmania's lesbian and gay community will continue to be at the forefront of social change in Australia.
This article was published in the Melbourne Star Observer in July 1997.
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