Thinking Broader Than Our Border


Stephen Rainbow responds to last month’s opinion piece by asking the question: When did the battle for gay rights begin and end with what was achieved in New Zealand?

Marking thirty years of Homosexual Law Reform will be an occasion for much reflection, as mentioned in express editor Amy Jane Bedwell’s opinion piece “Never Forget Where We’ve Come From.” My view is that arguments about whether HLR was a result of “disrupting norms”, and the risk that what we have achieved has made us complacent, are definitely First World problems. When did the battle for gay rights begin and end with what was achieved in New Zealand?

We have made extraordinary progress here, for sure, but only in the last month a Bangladeshi gay leader was hacked to death. As recently as this year in territories with sharia law in place homosexuals have been routinely hunted down, tortured and murdered in the most cruel and bizarre ways. Multinational businesses operating in Indonesia have been forced to change the ways they do business and even same-sex emoticons have been attacked by a rising tide of anti-gay rhetoric and measures.


Less dramatically when I addressed gay leaders in Tokyo recently on NZ’s reform experience the main challenge that emerged to progress in Japan is the almost complete invisibility of gay people. Most Japanese people claim not to know any homosexuals. And this in a country of 130 million people! Worse still, recent surveys show that even in this relatively affluent and educated nation, more than 30% of the population think of homosexuality as “immoral” (the equivalent figure for countries like NZ and the UK is less than 10%).

A short distance away in China, where with a population of 1.4 billion it might be expected that there is at least 7 million homosexuals, little progress has been made in terms of the acceptance of homosexuality. The consequences of this Chinese attitude can be felt here in NZ where there are significant numbers of young gays who find returnring to China difficult because of their sexuality, and who often suffer because of the pressure to get married, especially where they are the only male in a family.

Throughout much of the world there is an increasing polarisation between what might broadly be described as liberal democratic societies, and societies which are not, where – Indonesia being a case in point, but also much of the Middle East, apart from Israel – anti-gay sentiment is actually growing. Even within liberal democratic societies the influence of immigrants with anti-gay attitudes means that the progress that has been made for gay people may come under increasing attack.

None of this is to say that we should not pause to celebrate the remarkable achievements that have been made for gay people in NZ. But of all the groups of people here in NZ, one of the most globally connected is the queer community. This alone should constantly remind us of the plight of gay people everywhere, a plight that often threatens gay people’s lives, let alone their capacity to love. Let’s not forget that just across the Tasman, in spite of one of the most visible gay communities in the world, people of the same sex can still not marry, an extraordinary anomaly in a country which is so close to us physically and culturally!

So while I think it’s important that we celebrate the 30th anniversary of HLR, I think it’s also important that we also stop for a moment and reflect on the fact that what we have achieved in NZ for gay people is something many gay people in the world can literally only dream of. We owe it to gay people everywhere to realise that the battle for gay peoples’ right to live and love does not stop at our border.