30 Years of equality and freedom

30 Years of equality and freedom

CREATED ON // Friday, 30 May 2014 Author // Jason Bartlett

The 30th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in New South Wales was celebrated at the very building in which the law was changed. Jason Bartlett reports.

Robert French can well remember a time when “the abominable crime of buggery” was enough to send a man to jail – just for having sex with another man.

For the post Will and Grace generation, it can be hard to believe that  love for another man was once enough to see them end up with a criminal record and time spent behind bars.

Heroes of the hard-won campaign for gay rights, including French, gathered at State Parliament on Friday for the 30th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in New South Wales, and to mark the recent passage of a bill finally ending the gay panic defence.

Organised by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, ACON, Inner City Legal Centre and Pride History Group, the event had out politicians including Sydney MP Alex Greenwich and Shadow Transport Minister Penny Sharpe joining veterans of the gay rights struggle to remember the efforts of many in the very building in which the law was changed.

Among the heroes honored was Lex Watson, a devoted gay rights activist who played a pivotal role in gaining rights for the community and who sadly passed away recently.

French, a close friend of Watson’s, was co-convenor of the Gay Rights Lobby during the NSW Homosexual Law Reform campaign. Now 67, and part of the Pride History group, he is a walking encyclopedia about the campaigning years.

French recalled a meeting in new Premier Neville Wran’s office in 1976, where he told a delegation from CAMP NSW it was “up to the gay community to make it an issue.”

“And that is just what we did.”

Years of campaigning followed marked by milestones like the first Mardi Gras protest march in 1978 and the police raid on Club 80 in 1983.

“For many of us the years from 1980 to 1984 seem to be those in which we put our lives on hold as we engaged in endless rounds of meetings, of talks and discussions, of the planning and holding of demonstrations … of endless lobbying,” French said.

“How did we feel? Well, we knew that it was important but, frankly, we were so bound up in process at the time. And sometimes too tired to reflect too much on the big picture.

“I do remember, however, that when it was all over, I had an immense sense of achievement.  I remember sometime after talking to an NZ activist, who had been involved in their struggle… and we both agreed that if HIV got us then at least we would die realising that we (and our colleagues) had made a difference.

“To be frank, we had little cognisance of later generations, other than a vague notion of the long term benefit. We were ‘doing it for ourselves’ because it had to be done. It was a big part of our oppression.”

VIDEO: The LGBTI community gather to mark 30 years of gay law reform at NSW Parliament

For younger activists like current NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Justin Koonin, it is important to mark the 30th anniversary and honor the achievements of a generation of campaigners.

“It is incredibly important that we recognise where we have come from, and acknowledge the fact that our freedom to love was won through the courage of many people who put their own freedom at risk,” Koonin said.

“It is easy for [younger generations] to take our freedom for granted, not having lived through the struggle to decriminalise homosexuality.”

For ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill, the event was a valuable opportunity to acknowledge the work and struggles of our forebears.

“The recent passing of Lex Watson was the catalyst for this opportunity to reflect on the contributions of the people and organisations who have fostered this extraordinary change, and to recognise the debt we owe them for the freedoms and benefits that LGBTI people and communities in NSW enjoy today.”

The Director of the Inner City Legal Centre Dan Stubbs said the 30th anniversary was a good chance to focus on all that had been achieved.

“These changes to the law, some of them were very hard fought and won. We need to celebrate that. This is an opportunity to stop and say we’ve made some progress here, let’s stop and celebrate that we’ve had some really good law reforms.”

[Image] Commemorating 30 years since gay law reform ... (from left) Inner City Legal Centre director Dan Stubbs, NSW GLRL Convenor Justin Koonin, ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill, Mardi Gras CEO Michael Rolik and Robert French from Pride History Group. Photo: Cec Busby

GALLERY: Check out photos from the event below. Photos: Hamid Mousa. View the full gallery here


Jason Bartlett

Jason Bartlett

Jason Bartlett is a Sydney-based journalist.

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