Three Tasmanian activists were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours list for their work in advocating the rights of gay men and lesbians. Nick Toonen and Richard Hale were awarded Medals of the Order of Australia and Rodney Croome was made a Member.
The awards are important, Croome told the Star, because they show that human rights is a legitimate field of endeavour. In 15 years we have gone from being banned and jailed to being honoured.
The radicals will be challenged because we are receiving such a mainstream award, laughed Richard Hale. The conservatives will be challenged by the recipients.
The activists have spent 15 years advocating gay and lesbian rights. In that time, they have enlisted the aid of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Australian High Court in overturning discriminatory legislation. Until 1994 it was illegal for gay men to have sex in Tasmania.
The case had to be taken to the UN by an individual. There were a lot of specific issues. For example, in signing a lease I agreed not to use the premises for illegal purposes. If I had sex with a man in my home, my landlord could legally evict me, Toonen recalled.
Their work required a great deal of personal exposure. In their efforts to decriminalise gay sex in Tasmania, the three men completed statutory declarations about their sex lives. These were witnessed by a justice of the peace and delivered to the police.
Croome and Toonen were at that time in a relationship, and became used to answering questions in the media about their sexual practices.
All this time we have been fighting against entrenched beliefs. When you have a victory you realise that you can effect change -“ obstacles are not invincible, Hale said.
Toonen believed that a fundamental change has occurred in the awareness of gay and lesbian issues in Tasmania.
We engaged with so many people on a grassroots level that over 15 years there has been a profound shift in values. When the law changed, it was like a dam bursting -“ there were so many new initiatives, Toonen said.
The Tasmanian parliament will soon consider reform to 130 laws that discriminate against same-sex couples.
According to Croome, there is still a lot of work to do. Even with legal equality there is still a great deal of prejudice in the community. Our job is not complete. I hope this award encourages young activists to make a fuss, wave placards and get out there, he said.
Also honoured with an OAM was Pat Kennedy for her work with the Western Suburbs Haven, a support centre in Blacktown for people living with HIV. I had to write the OAM after my name for the first time today -“ I felt so pretentious! she laughed. The work means so much to me that it seems odd I might be rewarded for it.
The Haven provides convalescent respite care, alternative therapies such as massage and social gatherings for people living with HIV.