“I have no doubt that we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms.”

  • Oscar Wilde, 1897 {quoted in Cooper 2014}


‘Hell can freeze over before they get homosexual acts legalized in this State’

  • John Bennett, Tasmanian Attorney-General {quoted in Morris p30}.


Today, 1 May 2017, marks twenty years since homosexual acts were finally decriminalised in Tasmania, through a bill finally passed through their upper house, the notoriously reactionary Legislative Council. During the Nineties, gay activists fought an epic battle for nearly a decade, in order to bring an end to these laws. Sometimes fighting against seemingly impossible odds, they never gave up.

These were the laws, in the Tasmanian Criminal Code, 1924:

  1. Any person who –
  1. has sexual intercourse with any person against the order of nature;
  2. has sexual intercourse with an animal;
  3. consents to a male person having sexual intercourse with him or her against the order of nature,

is guilty of a crime

Charge: Unnatural sexual intercourse.

  1. Any male person who, whether in public or in private, commits any indecent assault upon, or other at of gross indecency with, another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with himself or any other male person, is guilty of a crime.

Charge: Indecent practice between male persons.

{Morris 1995, pp6-7}


‘This law had destroyed men’s lives’ {Brown 2014, p67}. He and other gay men campaigned against the laws, with a courage and strength that defies all negative stereotypes about them, fighting like Greek warriors. However, they were not the only ones who took this side in the argument. There were those with a commitment to human rights, for whatever reason, and those who simply regarded the laws as an anachronism by the end of last century. This was particularly true if they lived in other Mainland states, or countries, where their sodomy laws had been abolished.


There was another side to the debate, who presented their arguments vociferously. These were arguments such as that of Chris Miles, a politician and Baptist lay preacher, who claimed: ‘homosexuality was not acceptable in any society, let alone a civilised one’ {Morris 1995, p35}. He clearly was not a scholar in classical Greek History. There was the gem from Jack Breheny, the Ulverstone councilor, whose comparison hardly flattered either, with ‘representatives of the gay community are no better than Saddam Hussein’ {Sainty 2016}. Then there was the pronouncement by John Bennett, the Attorney General that ‘Hell can freeze over before they get homosexual acts legalized in this State’ {Morris p30}.


Finally, there was George Brookes, a leading campaigner to retain Sections 122 & 123, and a member of the Legislative Council, whose views were not atypical. For a law that already carried 21 years’ prison time, seven years longer than it ever had in any other state, he stated: ‘I believe we ought to be tightening up the laws, making them a little more drastic than they are now, a little more draconian, and maybe we would influence a few more of them to take the plane north’ {quoted in Milliken 1992}. He continued: ‘Do not let them sully our state with their evil activities’ {Morris p97}.


The gay activists would counter this with the memorable slogan: ‘We’re here, we’re queer. . .and we’re not going to the Mainland’ {Croome @ Fidler 2013}.




The year any campaign began for gay law reform in Tasmania was 1976, a year after South Australia became our first state to decriminalise homosexual behaviour {Carbery p}. The first group was called the Tasmanian Homosexual Law Reform Group, established in Launceston, where their first meeting was held at the Women’s Liberation Centre on 10 March 1976 {Carbery p37}.

Bob Brown, then a doctor in northern Tasmania, would come out in June 1976 {Carbery p37}. He appeared on the ABC program This Day Tonight {Carbery p37}, and a reporter from the Launceston Examiner drove out to his Liffey home, the headline was ‘Doctor Says He’s Gay’. He claimed that this was the first time he had heard this term {Brown p31}. This may have been a boon for the law reformers, but Brown would pay the price with ‘the angry homophobic tirades from wound-down car windows, the subtle innuendos from political opponents, the cowardly sniggers from people passing in the street’ {Brown p32}. He received letters from many people. ‘Censorious citizens from near and far quoted St Paul and advised I change my ways or burn in Hell. Even more men and women wrote thanking me for this breakthrough news and telling me of their troubles – or the risk they were taking by writing to me’ {Brown p31}. This would also be used against him in his later political career, with bumper stickers reading ‘ARE THE GREENS FOR NATURE OR AGAINST IT?’ {Morris p35}

As for the THLRG, they were campaigning for an issue which no Tasmanian politician of that era would touch. ‘It was viewed as being political “death”’ {Carbery p38}. In March 1977, the Labor government established a Select Committee on an Inquiry into Victimless Crimes {Carbery p38}. The THLRG made a submission, suggesting the laws were unjust, and should be changed. One of the recommendations of this committee was that homosexual acts should be legalized between consenting adults in private {Carbery p40}.

When such a bill was finally introduced, in late 1979, it was not a government bill, but was introduced by the Labor whip, John Green, as a private members’ bill {Carbery p40}. This led to massive public outrage, expressed in those days by letters to newspaper editors. Any hope that this would lead to law reform, would be dashed by the indifferent Labor government {Croome 2006}. The bill would finally lapse in February 1980, after John Green lost his seat {Carbery p40}.

Bob Brown would be imprisoned only for his activism against damming the Franklin River, after being arrested by a waterfall there, he spent Christmas of 1982 in Risdon Prison {Brown pp55-56}. After 19 days, he was released in 1983, and the day after this was successfully elected as the first Green Independent member into the Legislative Assembly {Bob Brown Foundation}.

In 1987, the Tasmanian Liberal government, under Attorney-General John Bennett {Brown p67}, changed the Criminal Code Act to make everything gender neutral, all instances of “male” or “female” were replaced with “person” {Carbery p39}. Before this, rape was considered a crime only committed by men against women {Brown p67}. However, two laws which were not affected were Sections 122 and 123 {Carbery p40}.

Now a Green Independent, Brown decided to challenge the law when he ‘attempted to use the gender neutral amendment to the Criminal Code to achieve at least a partial reform of Tasmania’s anti-homosexual laws’ {Carbery p40}. He attempted to repeal Section 123, but received neither Liberal nor Labor support for this amendment {Carbery p40}. ‘I was desperate not to let the rare opportunity to remove discrimination against homosexuals go by with no change’ {Brown p68}.

His next move was impulsive, to have Section 123 make unworkable, he moved for it to be brought under the gender neutral provisions of the rest of the Tasmanian Criminal Code, replacing “male person” with just “person”. ‘His intention was to make the section apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual indecent acts and it would not matter whether they took place in public or private. If he had succeeded the section would have been unenforceable’ {Carbery p40}.

Brown claims he did not realise what he had done, until he saw the headline ‘Lesbian Ban Looms’ {Brown p68}. He withdrew his amendment {Carbery p40}, but was forced to deal with the Legislative Council, ‘which had a well-earned reputation as the most hidebound and reactionary upper house in the western world’ {Brown p69}. He struggled to do this because some of the members thought criminalizing lesbianism as well, was a good idea, and he was only able to stop the bill by pointing out to them that the notoriously homophobic Queensland Premier of the time, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, disagreed {Brown p69}.

The laws against homosexual men would thus remain, until someone else had the opportunity to challenge them.




Altman, Dennis & Symons, Jonathan {2016} Queer Wars. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Brown, Bob {2014} Optimism: Reflection on a Life of Action. Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne & London.

Henderson, Emma {2000} I’d Rather Be An Outlaw in Stychin, Carl & Herman, Didi. Sexuality in the Legal Arena: pp35-48.

Hughes, Robert {2003} The Fatal Shore. Vintage Books, London.

Miller, Neil {1995} Out of the Past: Gay & Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. Vintage Books, New York.

Morris, Miranda {1995} The Pink Triangle: The gay law reform debate in Tasmania. UNSW Press, Sydney.

Robinson, Shirleene, Ed {2008} Homophobia: An Australian History. The Federation Press, Sydney.

Smith, Babette {2008} Australia’s Birthstain: The Startling Legacy of the Convict Era. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Willett, Graham {2000} Living Out Loud. Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.






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