The Victorian Government delivers an apology that rights historical wrongs

The Victorian Government made a formal state apology to people convicted under unjust laws against homosexual acts on 23 May, 2016.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy, Anna Brown welcomed Premier Daniel Andrews’ speech and said the apology recognises the harm that these discriminatory laws have caused.

“Sex between consenting adults should never have been criminalised. This apology is a powerful symbolic act that helps to repair the harm caused by these unjust laws and affirm the value of gay, lesbian and bisexual people’s sexuality. It’s extremely pleasing to see the Victorian Government showing leadership on this issue,” said Ms Brown

Until 1981 in Victoria, gay men were convicted and even imprisoned for offences ranging from “buggery” and “loitering for homosexual purposes” to indecency and offensive behaviour offences. In some cases, individuals who would today be treated as victims of sexual abuse were charged with criminal offences. Today, unknown numbers of men (and possibly women) live with the shame, stigma and barriers to work, volunteer and travel caused by a criminal conviction for conduct that is lawful today.

Ms Brown has provided legal assistance to men who have been unfairly burdened by criminal records imposed when unjust laws criminalised sexual relations between men. Having these manifestly unjust convictions erased has helped end the stigma, shame and practical difficulties they have inflicted for decades for some men.

In 2014 the Victorian Government legislated to erase the criminal records of homosexual men who were convicted for having consensual sex in the past when it was illegal. This came after the release of a major report, authored by the Human Rights Law Centre in partnership with Liberty Victoria, the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Gay & Lesbian Health Victoria and the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC). A key recommendation of the report was that the Victorian Government and Victoria Police should issue a formal apology for past discriminatory laws and practices targeting same sex attracted men in Victoria.

Response from LGBTI community leaders

Long-time gay rights advocate Jamie Gardiner has been campaigning for equality for more than 40 years and heartily welcomed the apology.

“The apology is a major milestone in a long journey from persecution to protection, indeed celebration, of the equal dignity of all. The now long-repealed anti-gay laws—laws that in 2014 both sides of Parliament agreed should never have existed—did great harm not only to the men (and some women) whose convictions can now be expunged, posthumously even, but also to their families and friends,” said Mr Gardiner.

“The arbitrary enforcement of bad laws on the few served to terrorise the many. The apology is thus for all of us, given by the State of Victoria on behalf of all of us. And a promise: never again,” added Mr Gardiner

Sean Mulcahy, Co-Convenor, Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby said this apology marks 35 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Victoria. “For years, many gay and bisexual men have had to live with a conviction for something that should never have been a crime”. “This apology,” said Mr Mulcahy “is a sign that those times when we saw homosexuality as a crime are so far past us now and is a symbol of how far we have come. Now we live in a state that embraces the diverse sexual orientations and gender identities that make up our community. This is another step in the long journey towards equality for LGBTI Victorians.”

William Leonard, Director, Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria, said today's apology was an historic moment for all Victorians. "It is important to recognise the deep hurt and pain that homophobic and hateful laws caused individual gay men convicted of what today are lawful sexual activities. This hurt is indicative of the damage that homophobic and transphobic discrimination continue to inflict on LGBTI people, including higher rates of anxiety, depression and self harm,”

“It is also important,” said Mr Leonard "to recognise the symbolic weight of the Premier, Daniel Andrews, heart felt apology. It represents public affirmation of the dignity and value of LGBTI people's lives and a commitment to a Victoria free from prejudice and bigotry of all kinds,"

The CEO of the Victorian AIDS Council, Simon Ruth, agreed, adding, “We hope this apology will help begin to repair the legacy of persecution and shame experienced by a lot of men in Victoria’s gay communities. Sadly, many of the men the Victorian Government is apologising to today aren’t alive to see this.” Mr Ruth continued, “To go from decades of violence and criminalisation into the trauma and death of the AIDS crisis, as many gay men did, seems unimaginable. For the generations of gay men who suffered at the hands of criminalisation, today is a day to reflect and to heal, and to remember those who couldn’t be here with us to see it.”

Response from men affected by wrongful convictions

Noel's story

Prominent Indigenous Australian Noel Tovey was convicted of 'buggery' nearly 60 years ago at the age of 17 years. You can read more about Noel's story here. Noel was one of the first men to have his conviction expunged under the new scheme that became operational in September 2015.

"“It’s good to know at the age of 83 that I am no longer a criminal in the eyes of the law and society,”

"The apology by the Premier is really about the young gay men and women of today. This is really only the beginning,"

Terry’s story

The police locked me up in Richmond and got two confessions out of me. I was 18.  The years went by, and I got over it, but it always came back to haunt me. When I wanted to go overseas, when I applied for a liquor licence, when I wanted to start my own business, there was that dreaded question:  "Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?" It took me years of part time study to become a chartered accountant, and when I was almost finished, I got that question again. "Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?" I lied, of course. I wasn't going to let all those years of study go to waste. The phone rang a few years later. "It's a call for you – it's personal." It was an inspector from the St Kilda Police Station. He'd found me out.  With that question always lurking over our heads, we always had to ask ourselves – just how far can I go today?"

On the apology Terry Kennedy said:

“This Apology from the State Government finally acknowledges to the Gay Community that the past laws relating to homosexual behaviour were wrong and oppressive. The laws were unjust and caused much pain and suffering to all gay men who incurred a criminal record as a result of sexual conduct that today is no longer illegal. Until recent expungement, my criminal record of more than 50 years was always there – always hanging over my head. I hope the Apology will encourage others to take the steps to have their criminal records expunged. I thank this Government for bringing this significant legislation into law.”

Tom’s story

I was a very naïve 14-year-old boy back in 1977 when I was sexually abused by a male employer who was in his 40s. After telling my story to police my employer was charged and later pled guilty, but I was also charged with 2 counts of gross indecency as well as the 1 count of buggery. To this day, I have never been able to understand why I was charged with a criminal offence. I was a minor, and a victim of sexual abuse.

In response to the apology Tom Anderson said,

"After almost 40 years I am glad to be able to attempt to finally put to rest this event in my life.  This event has caused me untold anguish, anxiety, stress and trauma throughout my life and the formal state apology goes a long way to hopefully easing that in my future. It has been a long and at times very painful and traumatic campaign leading up to this apology and only time will tell the true effect and closure it will bring me.  That being said it is with a sense of gratitude and great joy that I accept the apology and wish to thank family, friends and others for all the support and love that they have given me in getting this far,"

Read opinion piece: Same-sex apology draws a line in the sand

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The men with convictions featured above have very limited availability for media interviews. Any requests should be directed to Michelle Bennett on 0419 100 519