THE passage yesterday of the Criminal Records Amendment (Historical Homosexual Offences) 2014 bill through NSW Parliament yesterday marks the end of a long chapter in our efforts to have the rights of gay and lesbian people recognised in the state.

Until 1984 in NSW, gay men were convicted and even imprisoned for so-called “unnatural offences” such as the “abominable crime of buggery” and “indecency between male persons”. It is possible that lesbian women were also convicted for “unnatural offences” under these laws.

Yesterday’s bill establishes a scheme enabling people convicted of consensual homosexual conduct, prior to decriminalisation in 1984, to have their criminal records extinguished. The new scheme will also cover people who were convicted under unequal age of consent laws, which were in place until 2003.

Present for yesterday’s debate in the Legislative Council were Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone, well-known as the first male couple in Australia to kiss on television in 1972 (also known for many other important acts of advocacy, including de Waal’s fine documentation of the early history of gay and lesbian people in NSW).

Bonsall-Boone was convicted of having consensual sex in 1957, at the age of 19. As recently as 2001, his convictions were raised as an issue when applying for a teaching job. Fifty-seven years after he was convicted for an act which in retrospect, should never have been illegal, he now has the opportunity to clear his record of this injustice.

The bill passed both houses of Parliament unanimously, a remarkable achievement given the diversity of world views held by members. Sitting next to me in the public gallery was Robert French, one of the key figures in the 1984 campaign to decriminalise homosexuality. Robert mentioned that the last time he had been inside the Legislative Council was 30 years ago, for the decriminalisation debate.

We were moved by the good grace and sensitivity voiced by speeches from members of all major parties. However, when Fred Nile, one of the staunchest opponents of gay and lesbian law reform this state has seen, rose and offered his support for the bill, Robert turned in amazement.

He recounted how Nile had voiced vocal opposition to decriminalisation in 1984, and the pride he felt when his own father, Barney French MLC, strongly criticised Nile.

The times indeed have changed – this time even long time opponents were on our side.

We particularly acknowledge the contribution of Coogee state Liberal MP Bruce Notley-Smith, who introduced the reform as a private members bill, and Nationals MLC Trevor Khan, who led the debate in the Legislative Council.

To every single Member of Parliament who supported this reform, and all the activists who have fought for justice since 1978 (and long before), we express our gratitude and admiration.

Justin Koonin is the convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. Twitter: @NSWGLRL

(Image credit: Ann-Marie Calilhanna; Star Observer)

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