Righting the Wrongs

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Editorial: Otago Daily Times

19  February 2017

Gay men who have been haunted for more than 30 years by convictions for homosexuality are now able to have their records wiped clean from official documents.

The Government announced last week it wants to introduce a scheme allowing gay men with convictions, or their families, to apply to have their convictions expunged. Officials have estimated about 1000 people may be eligible to apply to have their records wiped.

The select committee which considered the petition heard from Kiwi men who said they were still haunted and traumatised by their convictions. Only men convicted of sexual offences which are legal now can apply to have their records wiped.  The change in attitude has been a long time coming for those men, some of whom will have died. They lived with a criminal record because of their sexuality — with possibly their work and travel plans interrupted because of who they were, not what they were capable of achieving.

While lesbian sex was not criminalised in law like gay male sex, lesbians played a prominent role in homosexual law reform campaigns, in order to support gay men, and because they too faced social discrimination.

The move announced by Justice Minister Amy Adams comes after a petition was introduced to Parliament last July, asking the Government to officially apologise to those convicted before homosexuality was legalised in 1986 and being a process of reversing those convictions.

The policy change comes after Britain agreed last year to pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted under obsolete legislation. It is known as the “Alan Turing law” after the World War 2 code-breaker who was posthumously pardoned in 2014 for his 1952 gross indecency conviction. It will seem an impossible situation for some young New Zealanders to realise the angst their older relatives faced when they discovered they were gay. These men were living a life of deceit in the dark spaces of New Zealand society.

Ms Adams is confident of wide cross-party support when she introduces the legislation to Parliament before the election.

Dame Fran Wilde was the Labour MP who championed the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Act. She remembered last week how difficult the battle was to pass the legislation. Also, she believed New Zealand was not ready in 1986 to quash those convictions. At the time, supporters of the reform were so focused on changing the law, the idea of quashing the convictions was not on the cards and it was unlikely to have made it through Parliament.

There will be no financial compensation for those convicted, and most believe that is the correct decision. Working out how the convictions affected individual men is not possible. Ideally, the changes proposed by Ms Adams should have been introduced earlier but it is at least happening now. There was no precedent for the policy and the Government wanted to make sure it properly considered any constitutional or other consequences. Ms Adams apologised on behalf of the Crown and said Parliament might consider a further apology. Concern has been expressed  some of the men may again suffer the trauma as they go through the formal process to have their convictions quashed.

Rawa Karetai, who chairs Rainbow Wellington, says some of the men have suffered so much it may be retraumatising for them to have to go through the application process. A better approach, he says, would be to hold a systemic review of all historical convictions. The stigma some of the people have been living with  means they have tried to push

such thoughts to the back of their mind. They are still living with the fears of the stigma. Some men simply do not want to talk about what they had been through.

Ms Adams says the intention is to not make the process at all onerous. It is hoped, for the sake of the men prepared to take advantage of the process, she is correct.