Last week I covered a news story about how Britain had recently passed a law that would retroactively pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who had been prosecuted for ‘indecent acts’, also known as homosexual sex. At the time of writing I said: “work on this issue still needs to be done”. Admittedly I was referring to Northern Ireland and Scotland, but the same is true around the world; men convicted of the crime of having sex with other men should have those convictions overturned. For a number of years activists in New Zealand had been lobbying the government to get exactly that, and on Thursday the government agreed.
New Zealand Justice Minister Amy Adams has said that the government will set up a process where people can ask to have their convictions overturned, with each application being individually assessed. According to the New Zealand Herald, the Justice Ministry estimates that this change will impact 879 gay and bisexual men. As Ms Adams said in a brief press conference, homosexual acts were decriminalised in the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Act, and anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people were adopted in 1993.
As one of the most socially accepting places in the world, New Zealand has been at the forefront of LGBT liberation over the last thirty years, and naturally this should be applauded. However, this doesn’t mean that work didn’t need to be done. As was the case in Britain, historic convictions for consensual gay sex can still appear on criminal records, and as such when employers require a criminal background check for potential employees, this conviction will be on that list. Indeed in some cases this conviction will be the only reason some of these men have criminal records in the first place. This move is unquestionably a positive step forward, but this is not the case for the wider region.
Just take the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau. These three islands have interesting political systems and situations, but it would be fair to say that all have close ties with New Zealand. In all of these territories marriage of same-sex couples, same-sex adoption, and the right to change one’s gender are not legally permitted. Quick research will demonstrate the extent of the challenges faced by activists in these territories. They have a huge mountain to climb, and will need help from all over the world to support their struggle.
The lingering consequences of discriminatory laws are numerous, but the stain on their character is something that can be easily rectified through a scheme like this. It is now incumbent on us to pressure governments in countries where these laws used to exist, so quash these convictions are quashed. Historic injustice cannot ever be fully rectified, but removing people’s convictions for actions that we now agree are socially acceptable will be one way of giving people closure.
But despite this step forward, LGBT people in the region still face discrimination in a number of different jurisdictions and territories. Some will say that few LGBT people live in so it should be less of a priority. I would counter that view by saying that because fewer people live in these territories, they will have fewer allies and as such we need to double down. Activists in these areas may feel like there is little hope because their task is great and there is little press coverage of their fight. Do not lose hope. There is an army of activists across the world who can mobilise to support your cause. New Zealand has led the way, and ideas cannot be confined to national boundaries.