With government apologies to the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians (victims of abuse in institutionalised care), and now calls for an apology to the Chinese community for the historical wrongs committed against them, the case for an apology to the victims of our now repealed sodomy laws grows stronger.
Last week the Star Observer was contacted by Patrick Sayers, a retired businessman who was heavily involved in the fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the early ’80s, and who believes such an apology is now due.
Most younger gay men could barely imagine what Mr Sayers’ generation lived through. Not only did the law say you could be imprisoned for up to 14 years for being intimate with a person you loved, but there were the violent police raids on private parties and gay bars.
Gay men were denounced to police by spying landlords while politicians, the church and the media trumpeted the views of a hostile society that viewed gay men as mentally ill perverts and willful, unrepentant sinners.
Sawyers was fired from a high-flying job and knows men who underwent electric shock therapy in crude attempts to redirect their sexuality, or killed themselves rather than face the public shame of a criminal trial.
Many more who were not touched directly by the law still suffered the feelings of stigma and fear they enforced. In NSW homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1984 — meaning every gay state resident over the age of 43 began their love lives as a criminal in the eyes of society.
There are precedents to such an apology. The Spanish government has apologised and begun compensating homosexual victims of the fascist Franco regime, while British Prime Minister David Cameron has publicly apologised for his and his party’s support for the Section 28 law that banned the so-called promotion of homosexuality in British local government settings.
Closer to home, Hobart City Council apologised 20 years after the arrests of more than 100 gay and lesbian activists who tried to set up a gay law reform stall at the Salamanca Markets over seven weeks in 1988 in what was one of the most sustained acts of civil disobedience in Australian history.
But while such apologies for other groups have fallen to the federal government, Sayers believes our apologies would be best delivered by state governments as it was under their criminal codes that gay men were persecuted.
One thing is for sure — for government apologies to be taken as sincere they must be well considered, and any apology process must include education and engagement with the general public so the wider community understands just what is being apologised for and why.