Same-sex apology draws a line in sand

We shouldn't underestimate the human toll of the 'homosexual conduct laws.'

"I have to tell you, through no fault of my own, I am gay." These were the first words 80-year-old "John" said as he sought assistance to remove a 1963 conviction from his criminal record.

It's easy to forget that until March 1981, homosexual conduct was a crime in Victoria.

Many thousands of men like John (not his real name), and some women, were charged, convicted and even imprisoned for crimes ranging from "the abominable crime of buggery" and "gross indecency" to "loitering for homosexual purposes" and offensive behaviour.

In some particularly disturbing cases, individuals who would today be treated as victims of sexual abuse were charged with criminal offences.

We shouldn't underestimate the human toll of these laws. Convictions for homosexual offences have restricted employment, volunteering and travel opportunities for decades. More fundamentally, these convictions are a source of ongoing grief and deep personal shame for the individuals affected.

They are a reminder of a time when their very identity and relationships were open to legal and medical abuse and public ridicule.

Peter McEwan was a 17-year-old when he was convicted of a homosexual offence in 1967.

As Peter recounts: "I had no idea what was happening to me, I was utterly alone … totally at the mercy of the police process."

Peter's name was printed on the front page of The Truth newspaper. "I was at a Catholic boys' school and suddenly I was utterly humiliated in front of everyone."

His mother was harassed and abused by the neighbours.

Peter fled overseas and only returned when, as he put it, "I found a way to accept myself with pride."

John and Peter share with many others a deep and abiding sense of hurt, humiliation and abuse.

Noel Tovey, like Peter, was 17 when he was arrested for buggery in 1951. Like Peter,

his story appeared in the daily papers. Noel spent time in Pentridge Prison and, on release, found himself cut off from family and friends.

"People were afraid to associate with me … I was a known criminal and they could have been charged with consorting."

These laws had a profound impact on the everyday lives of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

They were the legal cornerstone of a society that treated people who were attracted to those of the same sex as sick, immoral or criminal. Individuals were forced to deny a fundamental part of who they were, to pass as heterosexual for fear of persecution and social isolation.

Older gay men and lesbians carry the weight of this history with them, not as a cultural relic or curiosity but as integral part of who they are today.

Decriminalisation in 1981 was a step forward but didn't go far enough. Then attorney-general Hadden Storey expressly said: "The government realise that there are consensual sexual acts which are regarded by many as immoral, and which are not made criminal by this

Bill. The Government does not condone such acts, much less regard them as acceptable."

Victoria only properly began to deal with the legacy of discriminatory criminal laws in 2014. Along with other community groups, we advocated for a scheme modelled on the UK to enable individuals to have their convictions "expunged" from their criminal records together with a formal apology for past wrongs.

The Napthine Government introduced legislation in October 2014 that enacted such a scheme. The reforms were championed by former member for Prahran Clem Newton-Brown and were passed with unanimous support from the parliament.

Today, Daniel Andrews will formally apologise to the victims of these unjust laws, and put this dark chapter of Victoria's history to rest. The State will acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm caused.

You can't undo the actions of the past, but for those convicted, the apology can help to heal old wounds.

By acknowledging the impact of these homophobic laws, the premier pays respect to the victims of these laws but also to Victoria's sexual and gender diverse communities.

As members of Victoria's LGBTI community, we welcome this moment. Today, we can draw a line in the sand and look forward to a future built on trust, accountability and mutual respect.

The apology today is not only about coming to terms with the injustice of the past. It affirms our dignity as human beings. It will help to reduce the stigma and shame felt by a new generation of same-sex attracted people struggling to find their place in a world that remains hostile, in many respects, to their existence.

This isn't just about saying what people get up to in the bedroom is their own business. It is

about publicly acknowledging and valuing the diversity of sexual expression, recognising that a person's sexuality is not an "add on" but is central to their very humanity.

It is only through this affirmation that men such as John can begin to feel free to stop apologising for their existence and find their place in the world.

William Leonard is Director GLHV@ARCSHS, La Trobe University. Anna Brown is a LGBTI advocate and Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.

This article first appeared in The Age

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Image credit; Beelzebub