The Night the Bill was Passed
"The motion is that the Homosexual Law Reform Bill be read for a third time. All as of that opinion will say 'Aye,' those to the contrary will say 'No,' - the Ayes have it. The Noes have it? Division called for, ring the bells!"
By 9.48pm, the atmosphere was electric in the packed public gallery of Parliament. Every seat was taken, most by lesbians, gay men and our friends. Stern-looking opponents - many of the women in the headscarves of the Exclusive Bretheren - sat in the Speaker's Gallery, and one bearded religious nutter near the back on the right. Though we were almost sure we had won, our elation was still tinged with tension.
Outside, at the foot of Parliament steps (scene of the "Nuremberg Rally" nearly a year before) a group of Catholics said the Rosary around a statue of Mary in a glass case, lit by kerosine lanterns, as they had done for the previous 18 months - whether the Bill was being debated or not.
Supporters and opponents had been at work all day mustering their troops. Since Homosexual Law Reform was a Private Member's Bill, MPs were not "whipped" into line, but the mover, Fran Wilde (Labour, Wellington Central) was able to use her experience as Junior Government Whip to organise her support. Four members had flown in specially for the vote. It was fortunate that the Speaker, Dr Gerald Wall, could not vote: 10 years earlier he had unsuccessfully moved an amendment to make it a crime (punishable by two years in gaol) to tell anyone under 20 that homosexuality is "natural".
Taking the Bill through the House had proved a chess-game, with elaborate juggling of principle and tactics. Fran Wilde described the basic tactic as "buying time", but ploys had included gay men inviting Lockwood Smith (National, Kaipara) to a dinner party the night of a key vote, after a threat to spring him had failed.
The previous Wednesday, the Dominion had predicted a final vote on the Third Reading debate that evening, and an end to the 18-month debate that had racked the country almost as much as the 1981 Springbok Tour. Instead, George Gair (National, North Shore) had cast the deciding vote against closure in a cliffhanging 43-42. Had the closure motion, "That the motion be now put" been passed, the Bill itself could easily have been lost, with nine Members stuck outside Wellington by its proverbial weather.
This week, passage of the Bill was surer, but a narrow margin, one or two votes, was still expected. Fran's numbers man Trevor Mallard (Labour, Pencarrow) predicted 47-46.
Opponents were bitter, and Graeme Lee (National, Hauraki), John Banks (National, Whangarei), and Merv Wellington (National, Papakura) attempted to delay the inevitable by dragging out the preceding debate, ironically a rubber-stamp Bill that would empower the Auckland Domain to be used for a Papal Mass later in the year. Thus Prime Minister David Lange was to ask John Banks, "Are you for the Pope or against him?"
Their grim little filibuster exhausted, the last debate on Homosexual Law Reform began. George Gair - somewhat self-importantly, but sincerely - told how he opposed the age of consent of 16 but would vote for the whole Bill (less the human rights provisions, already defeated) "because change is long overdue" and finished by calling for reconciliation. He sat with his head in his hands as John Banks (National, Whangarei) poured abuse on him, describing his speech as "shallow humbug and weak rhetoric, of negligible substance."
He was followed by the Bill's other hardcore opponents, Norman Jones and Merv Wellington and six others, but nothing could stop the final vote.
"Lock the doors! ... The Ayes will go to the right, the Noes will go to the left."
As Members returned, Trevor Mallard held up a hand toward the gallery by prior arrangement with spread fingers - five votes. The majority, 49-44, had been increased by the surprise support of Ian McLean (National, Tarawera) as well as George Gair.
When the Speaker announced the figures (Mallard was out of sight of half of us) at 10.10pm, the gallery exploded with cheers, tears, hugs and kisses. The nutter pointed at Fran Wilde and loudly pronounced God's curse on her. The Speaker ordered him removed, to which Robert Muldoon (National, Tamaki) added "Get the poofters out, too!" - for which a solitary figure was to be seen dancing on his grave soon after his death in 1992.
The poofters were happy to leave and surged into the foyer, where Fran Wilde (after a TV interview) made a short speech of thanks (interrupted by the nutter, who got short shrift from the crowd) before she retired to her office with her central core of workers in the Bill's (now the Act's) support, for some celebratory refreshment - including at least one bottle of Chateau Gay.
Alone or together, gay men and lesbians slept better that night.
"Normal" Norman Jones (National, Invercargill) was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Bill, seldom speaking of it without dwelling on "sodomy". It was his caricature on "Bigot Busters" T-shirts. When Fran Wilde said during one debate that he was obsessed, he inscrutably replied, "Yes, and it's a magnificent obsession!" When Bill Logan lobbied him, he said he had "tunnel vision on the subject." His opposition differed from most others', being without rancour or, apparently, internalised homophobia.
"Magnificent Obsession": romantic novel about selfless love by Lloyd C. Douglas, filmed in 1935 with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, and again in 1954 with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
Thanks to Roger Swanson and Phil Parkinson of LAGANZ, and to Malcolm McKinnon, Kim Saffron, Margaret Shields and Des Smith. Written by Hugh Young. .
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