By Michael Stevens - 10th June 2016
I was a very active criminal in this country up until the age of 25, when Homosexual Law Reform passed.
It gets harder now to remember just what that world was like, but being a criminal simply for whom we loved or lusted after had a major effect. Our lives could not be lived in the open. We had to worry about police raids on our social spaces.
When I came out in the late 70s the Empire Tavern in Auckland was a gay bar, and I remember it being raided by the police when I was about 17 or 18. Given I was such a regular customer from the age of 16, I was very lucky not to be there at the old Victoria Spa the night it got raided and men were lined up outside in their towels and publicly humiliated by the police. It seems hard to imagine that could happen now, but it did then.
I think we didn’t care that much about breaking other laws such as the ones around drinking age, as we could see how stupid and mad the laws that they used to persecute us were. Being gay, and realising I wasn’t some sort of monster, but that society officially saw me as one, all these contradictions made me develop a contempt for the law and social acceptability that continues in a some fashion today.
It’s easy to romanticise the past, to look back and think of stronger communities and energy going into common causes, and to an extent that is true. We were more united, lesbians, trans people, gay men, and others who didn’t fit in the “normal” box, we stood up for each other and looked after each other because we hung out together.
If you went to a club or a bar, there’s be a huge range of people there, a bohemian mix that we just don’t see anywhere now that I’m aware of.
But being illegal meant many people paid a terrible price. Men could be arrested and sent to prison for having sex with other men. Being illegal meant many, probably most of us in fact, didn’t tell our families, didn’t tell our school-friends, and certainly didn’t tell our workmates or bosses. The pressures of living in a world that regarded us with unveiled contempt led to alcoholism, depression, and suicide. Many gay men and lesbians married to try and turn themselves straight, or at least to “pass”. I knew people who lost careers and families for coming out. I knew men who’d been arrested for being gay.
But even as a young gay man in that time I could see change coming. I had my first year at university in 1979, joined Gay Liberation, and that was the year of the Freer Amendment, a piece of legislation that aimed to de-criminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults if they were over 20. I was 17 or 18, so I would have stayed a criminal. Luckily most of the gay organisations around the country also rejected it deciding we needed full equality or nothing.
But I remember some voices saying we should take it as a first step and then keep working to full equality. I understand where they came from – if you’d been subjected to decades of abuse and persecution, then any relief, any sign of change must seem attractive.
As young radical always are, we were dismissive of the voices of those older men desperate for any sign of change. We were smug and self-righteous in our attitudes to a large extent, and tactically speaking I still think we were right, but we were also far too young to understand the years of pain and often terror they had lived through.
I was quite deliberately out from a young age, and this cut me off from many avenues of ordinary life. I would only work in certain places where I could be out, or live on the dole, as one could back then. I nearly always lived in all gay flats, I felt cut off from my family, my life was shaped in many ways by the fact I was gay, I was out, and society still had that heavy weight of official condemnation hanging over us, simply for being who were naturally were. There was a mini gay ghetto in Auckland at the time, and we all looked to cities like London or San Francisco as places where we could go and be ourselves.
It made no sense, and looking back it seems like madness we were ever subjected to that level of cruelty.
I was lucky in the mentors I met, at first through University, people like Dr Ian Scot who was involved in Gay Liberation, and became the first openly gay man to run for Parliament for a major party, standing for Labour in 1981. Dr Don McMorland, the legal scholar who helped co-author the Homosexual Law Reform Bill is another person who in my youth at University gave me a sense that we could be more than society then allowed us. God knows what they thought of us mad kids running around the place.
Our collective LGBTTI culture is very bad at handing down knowledge and transmitting our history, but these two men in my mind stand out as people who deserve our respect and honour for the bravery they displayed in much much harder times than we live in now.
I am lucky in that I still have some of my closest friends from that era, even though we are scattered around the world now. While many died of AIDS, those that are still alive are close, deep friendships and we can look back and laugh and shake our heads at what we got up to then.
I left New Zealand before Law Reform happened. And when it did happen it barely made a blip on my radar, living and working in Istanbul as I was then. Interestingly, in Turkey I was not a criminal, there were no laws against same sex activity, even though socially it was not accepted to be public about it.
For me, life before law reform was my youth; it was hard, it was fun, it was shaped by a sense of being an outsider and an outlaw. How could you respect the police or politicians or anyone in authority when they were so obviously wrong, and when we all knew that some of them were some of us? The hypocrisy was at a level that can’t be imagined today.
This awareness, along with the other political movements of the era, led me to have an abiding sensitivity to injustice to others.
I look back now, and I don’t feel angry, or sad, more a sense of wonder that society could have been shaped that way, and grateful that it is so different now. And I still have very little respect for authority.
Originally published by GayNZ.com; republished with permission.