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Thirty-five years after homosexuality was decriminalised in Victoria, the state government has issued a formal apology for the ‘prejudice that ruined lives’. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Victoria’s apology for homosexual criminality laws

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews and Noel Tovey (seated) outside Parliament House on Tuesday.
Credit: MATTHEW WADE

On Tuesday the rainbow flag flew over Victoria’s parliament. The assembly’s public gallery was full. Men long burdened with convictions under old anti-gay laws took their seats. Some made it with the aid of walking frames. It was a historic day – no state in the world has made a formal apology for such laws. 

“Speaker, it’s never too late to put things right,” Premier Daniel Andrews began. “It’s never too late to say sorry – and mean it. That’s what brings us all to the heart of our democracy here, in this parliament, where, over the course of decades, a powerful prejudice was written into law. A prejudice that ruined lives. A prejudice that prevails in different ways, even still.”

The apology was the culmination of a bipartisan effort on Spring Street. The previous government, led by Denis Napthine, declared in 2014 that men convicted for homosexual sex – before its decriminalisation in 1981 – could apply to have their convictions expunged. “It is now accepted that consensual acts between two adult men should have never been a crime,” Napthine said. 

One of the countless men convicted was the acclaimed Indigenous dancer and choreographer Noel Tovey, who was prosecuted as a 17-year-old in 1951. Tovey was at a cabaret club when police raided the premises. At the police station, Tovey was forced to sign a confession of his homosexuality and was charged with “the abominable act of buggery”. He served time in Melbourne’s notorious Pentridge prison, and upon his release fled the country. He was now, technically, a sex offender. It was in Europe that his talents, and professional status, flourished. “For some men, it was safer overseas than it was here,” opposition leader Matthew Guy said in his apology speech. 

Following the speeches, Tovey made his way across the road to a reception held at the grand Windsor Hotel. At the microphone, he told those gathered that when he returned from overseas he “didn’t want to live in Melbourne because of the ghosts of the past. They were horrific.” There were plenty of them. In the summer of 1976-77, for example, Victoria Police launched a major sting operation against homosexual men. It was, in effect, a program of entrapment. Chief Inspector Eric Sutton explained to the media at the time how his officers would “watch homosexuals with binoculars before they went to the beach” and adopt a “particular walk” to attract offenders. This was not a campaign that police wished to keep from the public – it was evidently a source of mirth and pride. Senior police joked that their officers were good actors – “unlikely looking policemen” who were so good
at their deception that their “bottoms were pinched”. 

David Menadue lived this reality. “I had several unpleasant experiences with the police,” he tells me. “Mainly on beats.” Menadue is now in his sixties, and the founding member of Living Positive. In 1995 he received a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to those with HIV/AIDS. 

“Beats were our dirty secret as meeting men in parks was considered highly shameful by society and I guess we felt that internalised shame as well,” he says. “But we had few other places to meet. One time I was just sitting in my car near a beat and got hauled out of it by two cops. Good cop, bad cop routine. Good Cop: ‘We won’t harm you if you just tell us what you’re doing here, who you are, where you work.’ Bad Cop: ‘Or if you don’t co-operate we’ll take you back to Russell Street’, which was code for a bashing. Then, after 10 minutes of this, the Good Cop turns on me: ‘And mate I’d give up your job if I was you. I wouldn’t want my kids to be taught by a deviant like you!’ Pure hate; our feelings didn’t matter.” 

It wasn’t just arrests and police harassment that the men at the Windsor Hotel recalled. It was an entire social apparatus that was coalesced against them. A state that had tacitly encouraged beatings and moral hysteria. Peter McEwan, who was arrested while in high school, told the ABC this week: “I was told by the church that I was sinful and the law that I was illegal; by the psychiatrist that I was sick; by the media that I was a pervert.” 

Paul Kidd is a gay activist, and another man who sat in the public gallery to watch the premier’s speech. When Kidd was coming out in the early ’80s, he remembers an older gay man giving him some advice: If the police ever kick in the door to your bedroom, tell them that you were being raped because then only one of you will go to jail. “Laws criminalising gay sex were intended to create an environment of shame and moral opprobrium around homosexuality, and they worked,” Kidd tells me. “Until recent times, gay men had to conduct themselves socially in secretive or at least less visible ways, not just because of the fear of prosecution but because of the fear of persecution. And that continues today. If you’re not a gay man, you probably can’t understand the way that your senses get instantaneously heightened when your boyfriend reaches over and holds your hand in a cafe or on the street. Even after all these years since decriminalisation, and despite the immense social change that’s happened, you automatically start looking out of the corner of your eye in case that innocent expression of affection brings trouble.” 

These laws led to lobotomies, exile and suicides. To label them historic injustices is to presume that the grave injuries they caused are somehow past and not enduring. 

A ‘happier year’

In 1914, the great English novelist E. M. Forster finished writing a small book about two men in love. It was called Maurice, and it would not be published – on its author’s insistence – until 1971, a year after Forster’s death. Scribbled upon the original manuscript are the words: “Publishable – but worth it?”

The book was dedicated to a “happier year”, and in an afterword to the novel written in 1960, Forster realised the book’s greatest trespass was to imagine gay lovers living contentedly. “A happy ending was imperative,” Forster wrote. “I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway that two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows … Happiness is [the book’s] keynote – which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish … If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well.” 

One wonders if this might be the happier year that Forster imagined. Here was the state acknowledging its destructiveness, and symbolically transferring the shame from the hearts of the men in the public gallery to the parliament itself. Here was the state acknowledging its encouragement of a toxic furtiveness – the same force that repressed publication of Maurice – and desiring instead Forster’s happy ending. 

“Speaker, as part of this process, I learnt that two women were convicted for offensive behaviour in the 1970s for holding hands on a tram,” Andrews said this week. “So let me finish by saying this: If you are a member of the LGBTI community, and there’s someone in your life that you love – a partner or a friend – then do me a favour: next time you’re on a tram in Melbourne, hold their hand. Do it with pride and defiance. Because you have that freedom.” 

There were now tears in the public gallery. This peroration about the tram seems likely to become the memorable distillation of the speech. “I think a lot of gay people reacted especially positively to the premier’s comments about holding hands on the tram,” Kidd told me. “Those comments showed he understands there is so much more to the apology than simply addressing the legal harms done to people who were arrested and charged. 

“With those words encouraging people to hold hands on the tram, the premier sent a really strong signal that the apology is about creating a more accepting society.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Apology collected". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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