Saturday, July 01, 2017

Tyranny in a democracy

The government has announced a scheme that will allow men with historic convictions for homosexual acts to apply for pardons. Before 1986 homosexuality was illegal in New Zealand, and as recently as 1980 police raided a gay sauna in Auckland and arrested thirty men, eight of whom suffered convictions. 
There’s no appreciable difference, in ethical terms, between the persecution that gays experienced in New Zealand for many decades and the persecution that political dissidents and intellectuals suffer in totalitarian states.
A famous victim of New Zealand’s anti-gay tyranny was the writer Norris Davey, who was arrested for having sex with another man in a Wellington boarding house in 1929 after police broke into their room and caught them in the act. Sargeson and his partner were convicted of indecent assault; the other man was sent to jail, but Sargeson avoided jail after his uncle promised to keep him in isolation on his King Country farm for a couple of years. 
After this period of ‘rehabilitation’ Davey changed his name to Frank Sargeson, moved to Auckland, and started a new life. But he always feared identification and persecution as a homosexual, and he was understandably secretive about his relationships and paranoid about the police for the rest of his life.
Before 1986 many gay men like Sargeson had to live in fear of arrest and exposure, in the same sort of way that the inhabitants of dictatorships must live in fear. The legal persecution of homosexuals in New Zealand shows how a state can act tyrannically toward a minority even in the midst of a reasonably open and democratic society.
There’s a parallel between anti-gay laws and the Suppression of Tohunga Act, which was passed in 1907 and forbade Maori from practicing their pre-Christian religion.  The first people prosecuted under the Act were a Whanganui healer named Paku and his wife. A Pakeha woman named Mary Curry who offered herbal remedies for various complaints to Maori patients was the next to go to jail. 
I doubt whether many twenty-first century Kiwis are aware of the blunt attacks on basic freedom rights – the right to sex with another consenting adult, the right to practice whatever religion one chooses – that are part of the history of their country. But if we remember that police once burst into the bedrooms of consenting adults, and that Maori healers were once sent to prison, then we can be vigilant in defence of our liberties today.

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