a) Gay Tasmania

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A history of gay law reform in Tasmania

This piece was originally written for the Companion to Tasmanian history.

On May 1st 1997 Tasmania became the last Australian jurisdiction, and one of the last places in the western world, to decriminalise homosexuality.

This fact taken alone suggests Tasmania came late and reluctantly to gay law reform, that the tide of reform, emanating from global capitals like London and New York in the late 1960s, washed up a generation late on Tasmania’s isolated shores.

But taken as a whole, the 20 year struggle for and against gay law reform in Tasmania leaves us with an entirely different impression of a society anticipating future trends in minority politics rather than echoing events of the past.

The decriminalisation of private consenting adult male sexual activity in Britain in 1967 inspired reform-minded politicians together with small committees of hopeful citizens to consider similar changes in Australia.

Couched in terms of the law’s impracticality and championed by advocates with little overt connection to the gay community, reform occurred first in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory in 1972, and then South Australia in 1975.

The pattern was repeated in Tasmania with the formation of a Homosexual Law Reform Committee in Launceston in 1978 and advocacy of change by Labor MHA, Paul Green. Reformers were buoyed by a favourable recommendation from the 1979 Victimless Crimes Report only to have their hopes dashed when reform was shelved by the Lowe state Labor Government.

But even at this early stage Tasmania was showing signs of breaking the patterns set elsewhere.

In 1975 the island hosted the nation’s first lesbian conference. This helped break the long public silence on homosexuality that had prevailed in Tasmania for decades. So did the very public coming out of a Launceston doctor and environmental advocate, Bob Brown, in the same year.

Few other Australian states benefited from such honest public debate on homosexuality and gay law reform so early on. The events of 1975 not only anticipated the intense public debate that would characterise later campaigns for and against reform, but also signalled the major philosophical influences on these debates.

Tasmania would wait almost a decade before its attention was again turned to gay law reform. In March 1988 a small group of reformers began meeting regularly in Hobart, lobbying MPs and airing their concerns at a small stall at Hobart’s Saturday morning Salamanca Market.

Much had changed since 1979. Gay law reform had occurred in Victoria and then NSW. HIV had devastated gay male communities in large urban centres. Australian Governments had responded to HIV with a harm minimisation strategy that worked co-operatively with the gay community and which gave the decriminalisation of homosexuality a new urgency.

In Tasmania social movements including the movement for women’s and aboriginal rights had made great gains. Most important of all, the environment movement had succeeded in stopping the flooding of the Franklin River, electing representatives to state parliament and showing that Tasmania was capable of profound political and cultural change in Tasmania.

Many of the men and women who took up the struggle for decriminalisation in 1988 had either come from or been inspired by Tasmania’s successful social movements. From these movements they had acquired not only an idealism but also a wide repertoire of campaign skills which set them apart from their predecessors in Tasmania and many of their counterparts in other states.

This idealism and these skills were almost immediately put to the test.

Only six months after its foundation, the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group’s Salamanca Market stall was banned by Market manager, the Hobart City Council.

The Council’s rationale – that the stall was too political for its "family market" – was dismissed by gay stall holders who greeted socialist and Amnesty activists every Saturday morning on their neighbouring stalls. The TGLRG defied the Council’s ban and in retaliation the Council called in the police.

Over 7 weeks 130 people were arrested for defending the TGLRG stall. In a heavy-handed response to ever larger and more vocal protests the Council ordered the arrest of anyone found with a copy of a law reform petition, a poster displaying the words "gay" or "lesbian" or the pink triangle, and anyone known to be homosexual. Not surprisingly protests and arrests escalated further.

On December 9th, after inadvertently sparking the largest act of gay rights civil disobedience in Australian history, the Council finally conceded and allowed the TGLRG to have its stall. As well suddenly catapulting the gay and lesbian community and gay law reform into the centre of Tasmanian politics, and inspiring gay law reform campaigns in Queensland and Western Australia that would soon see Tasmania become the last state to criminalise homosexuality, the Salamanca arrest tempered the determination, cohesiveness and campaigning skills of gay law reformers, and foreshadowed the trenchant resistance gay law reform would soon face.

The Tasmanian election of May 1989 resulted in an unprecedented number of Green MPs and a hung parliament.

In an effort to cling to power Premier Robyn Gray’s Liberal Party sort another election on the basis of that minority government would create instability. To demonstrate its point the Liberal Party seized on the Greens and Labor’s shared commitment to gay law reform, as well as the sexuality of Greens leader, Bob Brown. It orchestrating Australia’s largest ever anti-gay campaign, involving letter-writing, pamphleteering with slogans like "Are the Greens for Nature or Against It" and "Labor Homos Ru(i)n Tasmania, and a series of anti-gay rallies, mostly in the north of the state.

At these emotionally violent rallies homosexual people were blamed for a wide range of social and economic problems. The response of gay law reformers was to conduct peaceful protests outside the rallies. Some protesters bussed in from other towns but many were locals. The theme of these protests was the damage done to local communities by the politics of hate. By the end of the year the success of these protests, popular discomfort with anti-gay campaigning, and the confirmation of a Labor minority government, brought an end to these rallies.

The events of 1989 drew battle lines that would last right through until decriminalisation seven years later.

On the one hand a group of dedicated gay and lesbian advocates had emerged with a radically new approach to gay rights. They sort to engage not only politicians and members of the community they represented but all Tasmanians in a dialogue about the need for change. They located their struggle firmly in Tasmania, its history and politics. Their aspiration for a New Tasmania and for their own emancipation had become inextricably linked, something which is clear from slogans like, "we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going to the mainland". This gay sense of place reflected similar developments in places as diverse as Ireland and Eastern Europe at much the same time.

On the other hand equally determined groups of anti-gay activists had also formed, adopting a militant and grass roots campaign style not seen in Australia before. Although a large number of their constituents were fundamentalist Christians, God and the Bible were conspicuously absent from their rhetoric, in an attempt to draw in young families and blue collar workers disaffected by the harsh market and workplace reforms then beginning to sweep Australia. This was not the echo of a dying culture of poofter bashing. It was a new style right wing populism which, in many respects, anticipated Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

The other important result of the events of1989 was a substantial increase in popular support for reform, from a low of 33% in 1988 (the lowest in the country) to 43% by the beginning of 1990. This can be attributed to intense public debate, as well as a public speaking campaign by gay advocates. This slow but steady increase in support for gay law reform was to remain a feature of the reform debate throughout.

After several delays, and much prodding from the community and the Greens, the Field Labor introduced decriminalisation in 1990 as part of a broader HIV prevention package. The following year it was twice separated from this package and overwhelmingly rejected by the state’s powerful and conservative Upper House in angry debates that saw one member call for the re-introduction of the death penalty for homosexuality.

Having anticipated this rejection, gay law reformers prepared an appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, in which they argued that Tasmania’s laws breached Australia’s international human rights obligations, and in which they cited European Court of Human Rights decisions against similar laws in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Lodged on Christmas Day 1991 the case, in the name of TGLRG member Nick Toonen, became the first appeal to the UNHRC from Australia and the first case alleging sexuality discrimination from anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, in Tasmania reform advocates intensified their grass roots campaigning, conducting high profile actions and speaking to Rotary Clubs CWAs and party branches across the state. These efforts saw support for reform continue to rise despite the election of a Liberal Government deeply antagonistic to change in 1992.

After two and a half years of receiving and evaluating submissions from gay law reformers, and state and national governments the UNHRC up-held the claim that Tasmania’s anti-gay laws breached universal human rights standards. It also found sexuality discrimination to be as serious as discrimination on grounds such as race and sex, an unprecedented decision that has re-shaped the global human rights landscape, and contributed to successful gay law reform campaigns in several different countries.

But the most immediately important implication of the UNHRC decision was that it gave the federal government the obligation and the power to over ride Tasmania’s laws.

Thanks to all these ramifications the UNHRC decision, announced on April 11th 1994, suddenly made gay law reform in Tasmania a national and international issue. It sparked a national debate about states rights versus human rights. It drew the attention of Amnesty International which launched its first ever global gay rights letter-writing campaign, and the international press with newspapers like the Observer dubbing Tasmania "Bigot’s Island". This in turn fuelled profound indignation in mainland capital cities about the global opprobrium Tasmania’s laws had drawn on the nation, leading to an unprecedented boycott of Tasmanian produce by mainland consumers.

In Tasmania the UNHRC decision sparked a renewed round of pro and anti-gay campaigning. Leaflets for and against reform were mail-boxed across the state. Rallies for and against reform drew audiences in their thousands. To remind the nation of the real issues at stake a number of gay men turned themselves into police with statutory declarations outlining in intimate detail their illegal sexual activity. Their challenge to the authorities was to enforce the laws or repeal them. The Director of Public Prosecutions refused to act.

Once again gay law reform had become a stage on which Tasmania was playing out its many social and economic tensions. But this time public demands for change could not be resisted. Disregarding the Tasmanian Liberal Government’s refusal to budge the Keating Labor Government passed an Act entrenching the right to sexual privacy for all adult Australians. Not only did this law import an international human right into Australian law for the first time, and spark debate on a national sexuality anti-discrimination law also for the first time, it gave Tasmanian gay law reformers the legal platform they needed to challenge Tasmania’s laws in the High Court.

The new federal legislation was passed on Human Rights Day 1994, exactly five years and one day since the TGLRG won its right to have a stall at Salamanca Market. Within months the High Court had begun to hear a case that the new federal law conclusively over rode the offending Tasmanian statutes.

As well as setting the stage for a High Court challenge to Tasmania’s anti-gay laws, the events of 1994 saw popular support for reform reach a new high in Tasmania of almost 60%. In response community leaders who had opposed change for so long re-invented themselves. After suffering deep electoral set-backs partly attributed to its stance on reform the Liberal Party adopted a conscience vote on the issue and conservative figures began speaking in favour of change.

The new mood was seized upon by the Greens who, again in the balance of power, re-introduced reform in 1996 and 1997. By this time it was clear the High Court case would succeed and that Tasmania’s laws were destined to be conclusively invalidated.

Under intense lobbying from the gay and lesbian community, a broad-ranging coalition of community organisations, Amnesty International, and all three Tasmanian political parties the Upper House agreed by a margin of one vote to pass gay law reform in April 1997. It then dismissed a raft of anti-gay amendments to the new legislation, concluding its debate to thunderous applause from a packed public gallery on May Day.

The long heated and polarising debate about decriminalising homosexuality was thus brought to end. But in this conclusion was a new beginning for Tasmania.

For the gay and lesbian community reform, and the transformation in public attitudes that had led to it, opened up an array of opportunities.

Soon after gay law reform the Tasmanian Parliament uncontroversially passed a new Anti-discrimination Act which, because of its comprehensiveness and lack of exemptions, is considered one of the best in the world. In 2004 it was joined on the statute books by a Relationships Act which is also globally unprecedented in the range of rights and responsibilities it gives to so many different types of significant personal relationship.

In public policy, gay law reform has led to the establishment of five government gay and lesbian liaison committees and the development of innovative policies and programs across areas such as education, health, policing and tourism, all of which is again unprecedented in Australia.

Meanwhile community attitudes continue to grow more tolerant of sexual diversity with opinion polls showing greater support for these latter-day reforms than anywhere else in Australia.

But more important still, gay law reform was a new beginning for Tasmania as a whole. In the words of former Tasmanian Greens leader, Christine Milne, gay law reform was to social change in Tasmania what the Franklin was to the environment – a symbol of a much deeper transformation.

It was no coincidence that in the wake of the national and global scrutiny of Tasmania’s human rights record in 1994 the island’s population dropped for the first time in a century, so did investment and employment. "Bigot’s Island" was also, in the words of the one mainland commentator, "Loser land".

Some degree of prosperity, and with it a sense of common purpose, returned to Tasmania in the years after gay law reform. This reform was not the only cause of this prosperity. But without it a change in Tasmania’s fortunes would have slower and much less dramatic.

Both before and since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997 Tasmania’s response to sexual diversity was more dramatic and intense than any other Australian state. Activists, commentators and academics have speculated about why and no firm conclusions have been reached. What is clear is that this intense debate has reverberated not only throughout Tasmanian society but across the country and around the world.

These ramifications are evidence that far from catching up to the rest of the world, Tasmania during the gay law reform debate was an example of things to come. An obvious parallel is the black civil rights movement in the southern US in the 1960s. The issues of integration were old in the sense that they had been resolved in other parts of the United State decades earlier. But the politics of integration in Alabama and Georgia were new, exciting and echoed around the world. So too did the new gay politics which emerged in Tasmania at the end of the twentieth century.

Rodney Croome.
26.9.04


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Comments

Hey there Rodney,

A very nice piece of writing. I wish to thank you for the huge effort you played in making the reform occur. There is no doubt that the visibility of yourself and other activists and your never give up attitude has left Tasmania a great, forward thinking place. When I began to accept my homosexuality in the late 80's in Tas you were a fantastic role model.

One thing that disappoints me however is the attitude of so many people I meet who still think Tasmania is a backward state full of intolerant people. I always tell them that its not the case, that Tas is the the best state in Australia with the best gay laws. But unfortuantely, they find it hard to believe. I would love to get back and live in my home state once again (and bring my partner) but at the moment my employment keeps me away.

I can never thank you enough,
Brad


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