State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 87 May 2011

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Graham Carbery
Towards Homosexual Equality in Victoria

The Subject of Homosexual law reform was first raised in Victoria in 1969 when members of the Humanist Society and the Rationalist Society prompted public debate on the issue. The Humanist Society conducted a survey of 100 homosexual men and published The Homosexual and the Law, a pamphlet setting out the case for reform. When Society Five, Victoria's first openly organised homosexual group, was formed in 1971 it quickly established a sub-committee to look at the question of law reform. The committee succeeded in raising the profile of homosexuals' demands by writing letters to the press, speaking on radio, and sending speakers to a range of professional and community groups. The people who went public in those times did so at considerable risk, because the attitudes of many people were far from enlightened. Even heterosexuals who argued that the law should be changed risked being labelled as being homosexual, and any homosexual who dared to 'come out' faced the very real threat of losing their job and friends.
Society Five's law reform committee also developed a network of supportive contacts in political parties and churches and in the space of four years achieved considerable success. They managed to have motions of support for reform adopted by the policy-making bodies of the two major political parties in Victoria – the Liberal Party State Council in 1974 and the Labor Party State Conference in 1975 – and by the Synod of the Anglican Church in 1971, the Presbyterian Church of Victoria's State General Assembly in 1974 and the Methodist Church of Australasia's General Conference in 1972.
The first parliamentary move towards homosexual law reform in Victoria occurred when, in October 1975, Barry Jones, who was at that time a member of the Labor Opposition in the Victorian Parliament, introduced a private member's bill into parliament. Titled the Crimes (Sexual Behaviour) Bill 1975, the 'Jones Bill ' was only a partial reform because it only proposed to decriminalise those homosexual offences mentioned in the Crimes Act, i.e. buggery (anal intercourse) and gross indecency (which at that time in Victoria usually meant oral sex and/or masturbation). The bill did not propose removing the offences which were most commonly used against male homosexuals at that time, i.e. soliciting for homosexual purposes and loitering for homosexual purposes, both of which were in the Summary Offences Act. The bill also proposed an age of consent of 18 for sexual conduct between males, whereas the age of consent for equivalent heterosexual sexual conduct was 16. Although the bill was introduced into the Legislative Assembly, it was not debated and did not proceed beyond the first reading stage.
It was in 1976, largely in response to the inadequacies of Barry Jones' bill and the general lack of interest shown by politicians in the issue of law reform, that homosexuals in Victoria began to lobby politicians in a more organised way. The Homosexual Law
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Pamphlet advocating 'Equality for Homosexuals', issued by the Homosexual Law Reform Coalition, 1978.

Reform Coalition (HLRC), representing the spectrum of gay groups then in existence in Melbourne, was formed. Its role was to speak to the public, and to Government, with a strong and united voice calling for equality for homosexuals under the law.
A few months after its formation, the HLRC gained widespread publicity when it highlighted the provocative way in which police sought to enforce the law against male homosexuals.1 Throughout the summer of 1976-77 police arrested more than 100 men for homosexual offences at Black Rock beach, a well-known meeting place. Young policemen were sent to Black Rock to act as decoys and entrap suspected homosexuals. They were dressed in swimwear and acted provocatively by posing as homosexuals and engaging other men in conversation. When the policeman was satisfied the person was homosexual an arrest was made. Most of the men arrested were charged with loitering or soliciting for homosexual purposes. The level of criticism of police tactics by the media and members of the public following the Black Rock arrests led to calls for the law to be changed. The Age published an editorial supporting the principle of homosexual law reform under the heading 'Sex laws ought not have bias'.2 The Premier Rupert Hamer (Liberal) responded by asking the Attorney-General Haddon Storey to consider the matter. In early 1977 another attempt was made when Jack Galbally (Labor), Leader of
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the Opposition in the Legislative Council, introduced a Private Member's Bill that was in effect a second attempt by Barry Jones. The 'Jones/Galbally Bill' was an equality bill, based on the South Australian reform of 1975. It proposed an equal age of consent, 16, and repeal of all specific homosexual offences in both the Crimes Act and the Summary Offences Act. The Jones/Galbally bill also contained provisions for a three-year differential age scale formula, which allowed a person of 14 or over to consent to sexual activity with a person not more than three years older than him or her – effectively a means of legalising sex between young people of comparable age. This bill had a second reading in the Legislative Council on 23 March 1977, but like its predecessor did not go any further.
In mid-1977, Haddon Storey met with a delegation from the HLRC but indicated that he was not satisfied there was community support for the HLRC's proposal for equality between homosexual and heterosexual sexual conduct. Following its meeting with the Attorney-General, the HLRC contacted Irving Saulwick, pollster for the Age, who agreed that when he next conducted a poll to test attitudes towards homosexual law reform, the question put would be whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement: 'sexual acts between persons of the same sex should be treated by law in the same way as sexual acts between persons of different sexes'. The results of the poll were published on 10 May 1978 and showed that 57% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, while only 30% disagreed. The HLRC now had hard evidence to show that public opinion supported equality under the criminal law for homosexuals and that a change was needed.
Despite continued lobbying from the HLRC and others, it was not until late 1980 that the Hamer Liberal Government introduced legislation to remove homosexual offences from the criminal law. In keeping with recommendations by the Premier's Equal Opportunity Advisory Council,3 the bill had much in common with the South Australian legislation of 1975, treating homosexual and heterosexual conduct equally. A common age of consent was adopted (18 years in general, with various exceptions), the offence of 'the abominable crime of buggery' was abolished, as were the summary offences of soliciting and loitering for homosexual purposes.
In an attempt to limit the extent of homosexual law reform, dissidents within the Liberal Party succeeded in having a last-minute amendment included in the act. This amendment created a new summary offence of 'soliciting for immoral sexual purposes'. Even with the inclusion of this amendment nine members of the Liberal Party still crossed the floor and voted against their own party's reform.4 The Labor Party voted unanimously to support the bill. The Crimes (Sexual Offences) Act 1980 was passed on 23 December 1980 and came into effect on 1 March 1981.5
The above article is an edited extract from the author's, Towards Homosexual Equality in Australian Criminal Law: a brief history, second edition, Parkville, Vic.: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives Inc., 2010.

1

John Rentsch and Gerry Carman, 'Police go gay to lure homosexuals ', Age, 12 January 1977, p. 3.

2

'Sex laws ought not have bias', editorial, Age, 22 February 1977.

3

See 'Report of the Equal Opportunity Advisory Council to the Honourable R.J. Hamer, E.D., M.P., Premier of Victoria, The Decriminalisation of Consensual Homosexual Offences', undated, copy held by Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Articles, monographs and pamphlets collection, item 880 (unpublished).

4

For a full account of the parliamentary debate on homosexual law reform in Victoria, see Hansard, 11 December 1980, pp. 5010-5081 and 17 December 1980, pp. 5468-5475 (for Lower House Debate) and 3 December 1980, pp. 4090-4137 and 4 December 1980, pp. 4259-4300 and 17 December 1980, pp. 5468-5474 (for Upper House debate). For a gay viewpoint on the debate, see Adam Carr, 'The Great Homosexual Debate', Gay Community News, vol. 3, no. 1, February 1981, pp. 10-12.

5

This was not the end of the campaign for legal equality. As a result of persistent lobbying by homosexual activists, the Cain Labor Government introduced legislation in 1986 that repealed the offence of soliciting for immoral sexual purposes. The general age of consent in Victoria was lowered to 16 in 1991 with the passage of the Crimes (Sexual Offences) Act 1991).