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Why Daniel Andrews’ World-First Apology to Gay Victorians Matters

Today, the state premier will stand up in parliament and say sorry to those sentenced under the state's homosexuality laws.
May 24, 2016, 4:48am

Thirty-five years after homosexuality was decriminalised in Victoria, the state's premier Daniel Andrews has made a formal apology in parliament to gay Victorians who were convicted under these laws—a move that's thought to be a world-first.

Being gay was a criminal offence in Victoria up until March 1981. For having sex with their partners, men could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for "buggery." Just two decades earlier, those charged under the state's sodomy laws even faced the death penalty. Some women were also charged; however, the law's focus was largely on gay men.

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Vic. Premier — ABC News 24 (@ABCNews24)May 24, 2016

The discrimination was systemic—police would often raid gay venues, and even trick men into "outing" themselves by pretending to be gay. One case in 1977 saw 68 men arrested on beaches around Black Rock and Sandringham. The "police had watched homosexuals through binoculars before going to the beach," reported The Age.

"Posing as friends, [the officers] ask leading questions, presumably with the intention of eliciting incriminating evidence of the 'homosexual intent'," a spokesperson from the Homosexual Law Reform Coalition explained in the article.

Aboriginal dancer Noel Tovey, 84, was convicted under these laws at just 17 years years after he was arrested in a police raid at a party. "I was the youngest person in the room. I was very naïve. I knew having sex with men was against the law but I didn't understand why it was a crime," he said. "[My friend] Max was singing an aria from La Traviata when the police arrived.

"It's ironic when I think about it. Eventually I would have been forgiven by everyone if I had murdered Max, but no one could forgive me for having sex with him."

As Noel explained to the ABC, he was told he'd be able to go home if he signed a confession. Instead he was charged with "the abominable crime of buggery" and shipped off to serve time at Pentridge Prison.

Even after decriminalisation in 1981, people convicted under these unjust laws were made to live with a criminal record. Many found it affected their ability to get a job, a home, start businesses, and even just live safely in the community.

That changed last year in September when the Andrews government announced that gay and lesbian Victorians could apply to have their criminal records expunged if they were charged for "consensual sex and fraternisation."

"These laws cast a long, dark shadow of prejudice that still stands today, and our apology is one small but meaningful way to right that historic wrong," Premier Andrews said, speaking at the Midsumma Pride March earlier this year.