Frank Sargeson is one of the greatest names in New Zealand’s literary history. But if it hadn’t been for his arrest and two years suspended sentence for homosexuality, the world would never have heard the name.
After his 1929 conviction, partly to hide his record, the then-Norris Frank Davey changed his name to Sargeson. Yesterday, justice minister Amy Adams that men convicted of homosexuality when it was considered a crime, until 1986, will soon be able to have their records cleared.
Adams announced a scheme to wipe clean the criminal records of people convicted of indecency, sodomy or providing a place for homosexual acts. She apologised to those who’d been convicted but said they would not receive any compensation.
The scheme is broadly supported by MPs and is expected to be approved by Parliament in time to start next year.
Adams estimated about 1000 living gay men would be eligible to have their convictions quashed. Families can apply on behalf of the deceased.
In New Zealand, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1986 and same-sex marriage legalised in 2013. Sex between women was never explicitly illegal under New Zealand law.
“There is no doubt that homosexual New Zealanders who were convicted and branded as criminals for consensual activity suffered tremendous hurt and stigma,” Adams told reporters. “We are sorry for what those men and their families have gone through.”
Adams said it was possible to look back and question whether it should have been done earlier.
“We think this is a case where society is strongly of the view now that this should not have been regarded as a conviction, even though that was the law at the time,” she said.
Those with convictions will still need to apply to have them wiped and have their cases assessed. That is because the law at the time didn’t distinguish between consensual and non-consensual homosexual activity, Adams said.
The announcement comes after years of lobbying and a number of false starts.
Green Party MP Kevin Hague raised the issue with former justice minister Judith Collins some years ago. When Adams replaced Collins in 2014, she said she was open to resuming talks.
In late 2015 Adams ruled out any “broad-brush” wiping of historical homosexual convictions, saying 80% of those convicted would still have broken a current law, while it was difficult to assess how many of the remainder would now be legal.
Her issue was with distinguishing between convictions for consensual and non-consensual acts.
Openly gay opposition MP Grant Robertson supported yesterday’s move. “This is really good news,” he tweeted. “Congrats to Amy Adams on righting this long-standing wrong.”
David Seymour, leader of Act, the right-wing conservative party that supports the centre-right government, said it’s “absolutely the right thing to do”.
It’s wrong that some men have been unfairly vilified for three decades based on outdated offences, he said.
One man who could apply to have his record erased tweeted: “Great idea, but it needs to be more than just convictions. Should be all records of arrests, interviews, details taken etc. My name and address was taken a very long time ago on suspicion of being gay. I’ve heard recently that’s still on file against my name.”
If a person’s application is approved, government records will be amended so the conviction does not appear in criminal history checks and they will be entitled to declare they have no such conviction.
Adams said the affected men have suffered the stigma of being labelled criminals, having to mention it on job application forms.
A range of countries have gone through this pardoning process recently. The UK did it last month. Four of the eight Australian jurisdictions allow those convicted of historical consensual male same-sex sexual activity to apply for the conviction to be expunged – South Australia (2013), New South Wales (2014), Victoria (2015) and ACT (2015).