The WA Government has apologised to hundreds of Western Australian men convicted under historical laws banning homosexual acts, with the state’s premier describing it as “active discrimination that ruined lives.”
The state decriminalised consensual homosexual activity in March 1990 but those prosecuted under previous laws still have the convictions on their criminal records today, affecting their employment, travel and adoption.
Labor Premier Mark McGowan also introduced legislation that will allow people prosecuted over homosexual offences to apply to have their convictions expunged.
He said for decades, the “unjust” laws against homosexual acts were used “to shame homosexual men, to deny their human rights, and to deny their humanity.”
“On behalf of the Government of Western Australia, I am sorry for the hurt, for the prejudice, for the active discrimination that ruined lives,” he said.
“These laws were state-sanctioned discrimination and the uncomfortable truth is they were also the foundation upon which much current homophobia is built.
“I feel a sense of deep sadness that many victims of these unjust laws are not alive today to hear this apology.”
The WA government estimates 200 to 300 Western Australians still have such convictions. Under the proposed laws, those men – and relatives of those who are now deceased – will be able to apply to have them expunged if it’s determined the offence would not be a crime if committed today.
Liberal opposition leader Mike Nahan supported McGowan’s speech and gave his party’s in-principle support to the expungement legislation.
He said the historic laws had exposed decent and otherwise law-abiding community members to “discrimination, alienation, entrapment, blackmail and criminal elements” as well as “serious psychological and emotional distress and reduced opportunities in life.”
LGBTI group Rainbow Rights WA last year petitioned the Western Australian Government to make such an apology.
“This apology will send a clear message that a state government that once condemned gay men, is now a state government that values its LGBTI+ community,” RRWA chair Jonathon Mann told Out in Perth.
“These men lived and loved in a pervasive political and social climate of state sanctioned homophobia.”
One of the group’s members, Neil, recalled the laws creating a constant state of fear in the community, including “fear of persecution for being gay; fear of gay bashings and the inevitable victim blaming; fear of entrapment; fear of embarrassing your family; the constant anxiety of knowing that society thought of you as a criminal… conviction or not.”
GLBTI Rights in Ageing, an advocacy group for WA’s gay seniors, said the historical laws “effectively criminalised whole generations of gay men.”
“The discriminatory laws therefore had a deleterious effect on all gay men, not just those who were convicted and charged,” the group’s chair June Lowe said.
“Sadly, these laws also negatively affected the heterosexual society, in that they reinforced uncompromising attitudes which marginalised gay men.”
Australia is still grappling with the residual effects of that mindset and the same-sex marriage postal survey had shown the LGBTI community was still battling against stigma and discrimination, Lowe said.
“For these reasons, the premier’s apology and the introduction of the expungement bill has enormous healing potential, for all gay men and also for the wider community,” she said.
“Acknowledging that historical discriminatory laws were wrong and taking steps for reparation invites everyone to let go of past hurts and hurtful behaviours and work towards a society that celebrates diversity.”