Twenty-six years ago, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was signed into law by the Governor General (11 July 1986).
This historic piece of legislation, introduced by Labour MP Fran Wilde in March 1985, decriminalised sexual relations between men aged 16 years and over. This was after a close vote in parliament. Forty-nine members voted to pass the Bill while 44 voted against it. The Act came into effect in August 1986.
Fierce debate had raged over the 14 months leading up to this moment. Supporters of the bill and gay rights upheld the proposed new law on the grounds that it extended equal human rights to homosexual New Zealanders. Opponents argued that the decriminalisation of homosexuality would result in social mayhem. They used evidence from the bible to support their view that the law should not be changed.
The idea of ‘gay rights’ inflamed intense passions on both sides – the word ‘gay’ now invoking more than just something that was ‘light-hearted and carefree’. It was no longer an apolitical word, as featured in the name of a popular dance at socials and balls, ‘the Gay Gordons’.
There were many public meetings, marches, and rallies, both for and against the Bill. In September 1985, a petition signed by up to one million anti-law reformers was presented to parliament. The petition was later found to contain far fewer signatures than the organisers had claimed.
The eventual passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill into law represented a partial victory in a longer battle to see that discrimination due to sexual orientation was made illegal. This landmark was finally reached in 1993, when the Human Rights Bill passed into law.
The recognition of rights paved the way for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities to freely express their identities in public – even reclaiming formerly derogatory terms such as ‘queer’ – without the fear of official persecution.