It’s only 25 years since being gay stopped being illegal in Australia

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5/1/22

When Tasmania decriminalised homosexuality on 1 May 1997, it became the last Australian state to do so. Today, LGBTIQ+ advocates there say there’s still work to be done, particularly to protect Australians who are transgender and intersex. The late 1980s were tough for Rodney Croome. Aged in his 20s and not long after coming out as gay, he decided to become an LGBTIQ+ advocate in his home state of Tasmania. “I discovered then, that because I was gay, I lived in a police state,” he says. He recalls going to a gay community meeting and learning not to use his surname as police informants could be hidden within the group. He was also told police could be waiting outside to add attendees’ car registration plates to their so-called “pink list”. Tasmania’s state law at the time still criminalised homosexuality, meaning sex between men was punishable by more than 20 years in prison. The rest of Australia had decriminalised it. The last time a person was charged with homosexuality offences in Tasmania was the mid-1980s, Mr Croome says, but the law “was still used as a justification by the government and others to discriminate”. The worst example came in 1988 when he and a small group of advocates set up a stall at Hobart’s iconic Salamanca Markets. They were armed with nothing but a table and a petition and were asking people to sign in support of decriminalising homosexuality. “When the Hobart City Council found out we were there, they called the police and had us all arrested,” Mr Croome says. “There were more than 130 people arrested over seven weeks … the biggest act of gay rights civil disobedience in Australian history.” Richard Hale, a founding member of the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group, was arrested twice during that time. “We never knew from week to week exactly what would happen … and some people were treated quite roughly,” he says. “When you’re in the paddy wagon by yourself … or you were held in a police cell for a long time and you didn’t know what was going to happen next, those things were quite scary.” Anti-gay rallies continued into the 1990s in Tasmania, Mr Croome says. He attended some in Ulverstone, a town on the state’s north coast, to counter demonstrate. “Hundreds of people would go along and listen to hatred and bile about us. I remember hearing those people shouting, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’” “Ulverstone was labelled as ‘Australia’s most homophobic town’ in the international press.”

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