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Decriminalisation of Homosexuality 30th Anniversary

(Matter of Public Importance, 28 May 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)


Before I commence my contribution to debate I join the Acting-Speaker in welcoming Michael and Mitchell to the House this evening. I also thank the member for Marrickville for introducing this matter of public importance and for the longstanding commitment to the GLBTI community of both the member and her husband. Thirty years ago this month legislation was introduced in New South Wales that removed the act of consensual homosexual sex from criminal law. Tonight I speak about how those shameful laws impacted on gay men, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, and of how far we have come thanks to the hard work and dedication of community activists and their allies in this place.

Criminalisation of homosexual sex was an appalling moral approach to law that protected no-one and harmed many. It institutionalised homophobia, discrimination, violence and abuse. Even after criminalisation was removed, endemic homophobia and violence continued for more than a decade with many gay bashings, hate crimes and murders occurring in Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Gay bashings and hate crimes coincided with a history of discriminatory policing, including entrapment, abuse and victimisation of crime victims, brutality, cover-ups and inadequate resourcing.

The first mardi gras was a gay and lesbian rights activist protest held on 24 June 1978. While protest organisers got police permission, this was later revoked and police broke up the march and arrested participants. Those who were there—"the 78ers"—have told me of the shocking police brutality that left permanent psychological scars and added to a long-term mistrust of police. Some of this remains despite the recent reforms that have seen massive improvements in police and LGBTI relations. The names of those arrested at that first mardi gras were published in the Sydney Morning Herald, outing people and having a major impact on their personal and professional lives. That publication should apologise.

Criminalisation meant many homosexual men were imprisoned and received criminal records. The public exposure caused many to lose their jobs, careers, homes and families, with lasting repercussions for all their lives. Gay men coming out and pushing for reform did this at considerable personal risk, with sex between men considered sexual assault and punishable by 14 years prison. State-sanctioned homophobia meant LGBTI people were actively oppressed, and humiliated by social and cultural organisations and institutions. Education, health services and workplaces were not safe places to be openly gay or "different". While the experience for many transgender, intersex and bisexual people are not simply a result of homophobia, many were labelled and mistreated in similar ways.

There is a long history of diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness and social deviance, of harmful treatments, isolation and segregation policies and denigrating concepts of homosexuality that have resulted in serious and enduring health and mental health impacts. A history of discrimination and forcing many to live in the closet had appalling impacts on their health and wellbeing. Liberal member of Parliament John Dowd tried to introduce a decriminalisation bill in 1978, but it did not get through the party room. How proud John Dowd would be to know that the Liberal member for Coogee will soon introduce legislation to expunge the criminal records of gay men who were charged during that time.

Labor member of Parliament George Petersen tried in 1981, but debate was prevented by the then Speaker. He reintroduced the bill as a private member's bill but it was defeated. After a number of failed attempts, then Premier Wran introduced decriminalisation as a private member's bill in 1984 and it passed, putting New South Wales on the path to further reform, and to acceptance and inclusion. At the time decriminalisation had already occurred in the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory. Reformist members of Parliament like Jan Burnswoods continued to push for equal age of consent as the 1984 bill included a higher age of consent for sex between same-sex partners. It was only in 2003 that a Carr Government bill achieved this.

We have come a long way since with the removal of discrimination in de facto couple laws including workers compensation, superannuation and taxation, and a State based register to protect same-sex relationships. [Extension of time granted by leave.] Clover Moore's Homosexual Anti-Vilification Bill made it illegal to incite hatred of lesbians and gay men and empowered the Anti-Discrimination Board to investigate complaints. Her same-sex adoption bill allows same-sex couples to adopt their children as a couple, protecting families. There has been significant progress in health, welfare and policing policy and programs to address homophobia.

We have come this far thanks to courageous campaigns by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] people and their activist allies, who lobbied and protested for law reform and equality. These groups include the Campaign Against Moral Persecution [CAMP], Lesbian and Gay Solidarity, the Homosexual Law Reform Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, the AIDS Council of New South Wales [ACON], the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power [ACT UP] and the AIDS Action Committee. I pay special tribute to Lex Watson, who recently passed away. His life will be celebrated in a service in Parliament this Friday. For over 40 years Lex championed LGBTI law reform, health and welfare advocacy.

Campaigns for acceptance and inclusion, equal treatment under the law and the removal of discrimination continue. Loving and committed same-sex and gender-diverse couples are still unable to marry in Australia, despite widespread community support for marriage equality. We need to remove sanctioned discrimination in all areas of the law, particularly in service provision, employment, education, disability care and aged care. Transgender, intersex and sex and gender diverse people still face legal and social discrimination, and I am committed to fighting this. In some parts of the world gay men and lesbians still have no rights and live with the constant threat of violence and imprisonment. I acknowledge Australian gay and lesbian activists advocating for change across the globe.

The removal of the provocation defence for "gay panic" murders is another recent reform that sends a message that homosexual lives are equal to others. The House will soon consider a private member's bill from the member for Coogee, Mr Bruce Notley-Smith, to expunge criminal convictions recorded by gay men for engaging in consensual homosexual sex. This is vital to healing wounds and righting our homophobic past. I congratulate the member for Coogee for introducing this bill. The House should also apologise to LGBTI communities for our shameful history.

The LGBTI community is grateful to have so many strong advocates in both this House and the upper House. I commend the Hon. Penny Sharpe, the Hon. Helen Westwood, the Hon. Trevor Khan and all of The Greens members, including Dr Mehreen Faruqi who holds the portfolio; and Bruce Notley-Smith and Carmel Tebbutt, who introduced this matter of public importance. I join members of this House in acknowledging our history of homophobia, transphobia and discrimination and confirm our commitment to work with LGBTI communities and advocates to move towards a future of equal treatment, inclusion and opportunity.


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