The Premier of the Australian state of Victoria has delivered a powerful speech apologising for the state’s historic legacy of anti-gay laws.
Homosexuality was a crime in Victoria until 1981, and under the brutal laws, men often faced extortion, blackmail and jail.
However, the law didn’t simply criminalise gay sex acts – aggressive legislation targeted ‘homosexual loitering’, a term that enabled the wholesale persecution of the gay community just for existing.
In a powerful address today, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews of the Labor Party – a strong supporter of LGBT rights – issued a deep, humble apology for the state’s record.
In it, he delved into the stories of many of the men who were persecuted.
Andrews said: “Here, in this parliament, 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.
“That law was written in our name, as representatives, and as Victorians. And that law was enforced by the very democratic system to which we call ourselves faithful.
“So it is our responsibility to prove that the parliament that engineered this prejudice can also be the parliament that ends it.
“That starts with acknowledging the offences of the past, admitting the failings of the present, and building a society, for the future, that is strong and fair and just.”
He continued: “There was a time in our history when we turned thousands of ordinary young men into criminals.
“And it was profoundly and unimaginably wrong.
“I hold here an article that reports the random arrest of 15 men. ‘Police Blitz Catches Homosexuals’, the headline reads.
“This was published in Melbourne’s biggest-selling weekly newspaper – in December 1976.”
“A decade earlier, in 1967, a local paper said that a dozen men would soon face court for – quote – ‘morals offences’, and urged the public to report homosexuals to the police with a minimum of delay.
“A generation earlier, in 1937, Judge MacIndoe said John, a man in his 20s, was “not quite sane’, and gaoled him for three months on a charge of gross indecency.
“In 1936, Jack, a working man from Sale, faced a Melbourne court on the same charge – and he was gaoled for ten years.
“This is the society we built.”
He continued: “It would be easy to blame the courts, or the media, or the police, or the public… it is easy for us to condemn their bigotry.
But the law required them to be bigoted. Those laws were struck here, where I stand. One of those laws even earned the label abominable.
“And in 1961 alone, 40 Victorian men were charged with it. In the same year, a minor offence was created that shook just as many lives.
The penalty was $600 in today’s terms, or one month’s imprisonment. The charge? Loitering for homosexual purposes.
“This was the offence used to justify that random police blitz in ‘76.”
The politician continued: “I expected to be offering an apology to people persecuted for homosexual acts, but it has become clear to me that the State also persecuted against homosexual thought.
“Loitering for homosexual purposes is a thought crime. And in one summer in 1976, in one location alone, one hundred men were targeted under this violation of thought; something for which there was no possible defence.”
The first responsibility of a government to keep people safe, but the government didn’t keep LGBTI people safe; the government invalidated their humanity and cast them into a nightmare.
“Those who live today are the survivors of nothing less than a campaign of destruction, led by the might of the state.”
The Premier recalled the stories of many men who had suffered injustices under the law.
He said: “Tom Anderson, met his own private terror when he was 14. For weeks, he was routinely sexually assaulted by his boss, a man in his 40s.
“His parents took Tom down to the police station to make a formal statement and get his employer charged.
“And he was… but so was Tom. This child victim of sexual assault was charged with one count of buggery and two counts of gross indecency.
“Can you believe that the year was 1977? Today, Tom carries with him a quiet bravery that is hard to put into words.”
“He told me about the time, just a few years ago, when his home was burgled. He said: ‘I’m a grown man,but the moment the police came around to inspect the house, and I opened the door … I became that 14-year-old boy again… I couldn’t talk. I was frozen. I was a grown man and I couldn’t talk.’
“This was life for innocent people like Tom. We told them they were fugitives living outside the law.
“We gave them no safe place to find themselves, or find each other. And we made sure they couldn’t trust a soul, not even their family.
“A life like that – what do you think that does to a human being?
“What do you think it does to their ability to find purpose, to hold themselves with confidence … to be happy, to be social, to be free?
“Don’t tell me that these laws were simply a suppression of sex. This was a suppression of spirit. A denial of love. And it lives on, today.
“While the laws were terminated in the 1980s, they still remain next to the names of so many men – most of them dead – a criminal conviction engraved upon their place in history.
“I can inform the House that six men have now successfully applied to expunge these convictions from their record. Many more have commenced the process.
“This won’t erase the injustice, but it is an accurate statement of what I believe today. These convictions should never have happene, the charges will be deleted, as if they never existed, and their subjects can call themselves, once again, law-abiding men.”
“Expungement is one thing, but these victims won’t find their salvation in this alone. They are each owed hope.”
The Premier continued: “Here in Victoria, equality is not negotiable. Here, you can be different from everybody else, but still be treated the same as everybody else.
“Whenever that time comes, you have a government that’s on your side.
“You have a government that is trying to make the state a safer place, in the classroom, in the workplace.
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“You have a government that is trying to eradicate a culture of bullying and harassment so that the next generation of children are never old enough to experience it.
“You have a government that sees these indisputable statistics – of LGBTI self-harm, of suicide – and commits to their complete upheaval.
“You have a government that believes you’re free to be who you are, and to marry the person you love.
“And you have a government that knows just one life saved is worth all the effort.”
He added: “As part of this process, I learnt that two women were convicted for offensive behaviour in the 1970s for holding hands – on a tram.
“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.”
He summed up: “Let these words rest forever in our records, on behalf of the parliament, the government and the people of Victoria: For the laws we passed, and the lives we ruined, and the standards we set. We are so sorry.
“Humbly, deeply, sorry.”