Gay Law Reform

In 1997 Tasmania became the last Australian state to decriminalise sex between consenting adult men in private. This fact taken alone suggests that gay law reform in Tasmania was remarkable for no other reason than it arrived so late. In fact there was much more that was remarkable about a social debate that echoed across the country and around the world.

The first calls for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania occurred in the mid-1970s with the formation of the Tasmanian Homosexual Law Reform Group in Launceston and the coming out of a Launceston-based doctor and environmentalist, Dr Bob Brown. Hopes of reform were heightened by a favourable report from the state's Victimless Crimes Committee in 1979, but dashed soon after by an indifferent state Labor government.

The issue arose again in 1988 with the formation of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group in Hobart. In the intervening years the Tasmanian Green movement, led by Brown, had reshaped progressive politics in Tasmania by successfully appealing to international tribunals, and to local and national public opinion through high-profile media and civil disobedience campaigns. It was no coincidence that gay and lesbian activists followed a similar route.

Within months of the formation of the TGLRG, a Hobart City Council ban on the Group's stall at Salamanca Market prompted weekly protests and arrests that grew into Australia's largest-ever gay rights civil disobedience leading, in turn, to a Council backdown. When the minority Field government's legislation to decriminalise homosexuality was rejected by the Legislative Council the following year, law reform advocates took their case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This case was the first from Australia and the first of its kind from anywhere in the world. The United Nations ruling against Tasmania's laws in early 1994 drew considerable national and international attention, sparking a boycott of Tasmanian produce and a global letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International, and lumbering Tasmania with a reputation for intolerance. The laws were further discredited when authorities refused to prosecute Tasmanian gay men who turned themselves into the police with details of their illegal sexual activity.

The great attention focused on decriminalisation in the 1990s also sparked a well-organised movement against reform, unlike anything seen in Australia before. It organised large and aggressive anti-reform letter-writing campaigns and rallies, using rhetoric adopted directly from the religious right in the United States. Pro-reformers responded with rallies, protests and a community education campaign which saw support for reform increase from 33 percent in 1988 to almost 60 percent in 1997 the highest level of support for gay law reform in any Australian state.

In late 1994 the federal government acted on the United Nations decision by entrenching the right to sexual privacy for all adult Australians. To ensure that Tasmanian laws were invalidated by this reform, advocates launched a High Court action the following year. When in 1996 the Court allowed reform advocates to appear before it, and as popular support for reform continued to grow in Tasmania, the Rundle state Liberal government reversed its traditional opposition to change and permitted a conscience vote. This inspired the parliamentary Greens under Christine Milne to push vigorously for reform. An attempt in 1996 failed but another in 1997 succeeded in the Upper House by one vote.

The achievement of gay law reform in Tasmania finally erased criminal sanctions against homosexuality from all Australian statutes, but as well as bringing one era to an end it ushered another in. The Tasmanian gay law reform debate saw the application of new Green protest methods and ideas to the gay rights movement, the importation of far right cultural politics into Australian political debate, and the location of gay rights firmly within the international human rights agenda, all for the first time.

Further reading: M Morris, The pink triangle, Sydney, 1994; G Willett, Living out loud, Sydney, 2000; R Croome, 'At the crossroads', in C Pybus & R Flanagan (eds), The rest of the world is watching, Sydney, 1990; 'Gay Law Reform and the failure of consensus politics', in M Haward & P Larmour (eds), The Tasmanian Parliamentary Accord and public policy 198892, Canberra, 1993; and 'Achieving justice' in Victorian Law Foundation, A just society, Melbourne, 1998.

Rodney Croome