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Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986

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Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986
New Zealand Parliament
  • An Act to amend the Crimes Act 1961 by removing criminal sanctions against consensual sexual conduct between males, and consensual heterosexual anal intercourse, while protecting minors.
Citation1986 No 33
Passed byHouse of Representatives
Passed9 July 1986[1]
Royal assent11 July 1986[2]
Commenced8 August 1986[2]
Administered byMinistry of Justice
Legislative history
Bill titleHomosexual Law Reform Bill
Introduced byFran Wilde
Introduced7 March 1985[1]
First reading8 March 1985[1]
Second reading13 November 1985[1]
Third reading9 July 1986[1]
Committee report8 October 1985[1]
Related legislation
Human Rights Act 1993 (New Zealand)
Status: Current legislation

The Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 is a New Zealand Act of Parliament that broadly legalised consensual sexual practices between men as well as consensual anal sex regardless of partners' gender. It removed the provisions of the Crimes Act 1961 that criminalised this behaviour. The legislation established a uniform age of consent, setting it at 16 for both same-sex and opposite-sex partners.

Before Homosexual Law Reform, male homosexual acts had faced severe legal penalties in New Zealand, evolving from capital punishment to life imprisonment and hard labour. Despite initial attempts at decriminalisation in the 1970s, it was not until the landmark 1986 Act that consensual same-sex activities were decriminalised, marking a significant progressive shift in the country's approach to LGBT rights.


Buggery or sodomy became illegal in New Zealand when the country became part of the British Empire in 1840 and adopted English law making male homosexual acts punishable by death. The Offences Against The Person Act of 1867 changed the penalty for buggery from execution to life imprisonment. In 1893 the law was broadened so that all sex between men constituted sexual assault even if it was consensual. Penalties included life imprisonment, hard labour and flogging. Sexual practices between women have never been legally prohibited in New Zealand, but all anal intercourse, including heterosexual, continued to be prior to the 1986 Act.[3]

In 1961 the penalties for male homosexual activity were reduced, reflecting changing attitudes towards homosexuality.[citation needed] Shortly afterward the Dorian Society and later the Wolfenden Association were formed to campaign for legalisation of male homosexual sex. In 1968 a petition signed by 75 prominent citizens and calling for legislative change was presented to (and rejected by) Parliament.[3][dead link]

The first parliamentary attempt at decriminalisation was made in 1974, with National MP Venn Young's Crimes Amendment Bill. This would have legalised sexual activity between men over the age of 21, but was defeated 34 to 29, with 23 abstentions. Warren Freer proposed similar legislation in 1979 and 1980 but this did not receive support from gay activist groups, who felt that a different age of consent for gay and straight sex would perpetuate discrimination and homophobia.[4]

The debate for the 1986 bill lasted 16 months. Arguments brought by the opposition was that the bill would "ruin families" and spread AIDS.[5] A petition and protest was held in 1985 by the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, which claimed to have received 800,000 signatures. Many of the signatures, however, were discredited by Parliament.[6][7]

Legislative history[edit]

The bill which would have become this act was introduced by Labour MP Fran Wilde in 1985. The bill originally was composed of two parts: Part I, which removed criminal penalties for those engaging in male homosexual acts and anal intercourse, provided it was consensual between people over the age of 16 (which was the age of consent for vaginal sex in New Zealand); and Part II, which provided anti-discrimination protections for lesbians and gay men.

Committee stage[edit]

During consideration of the bill by the Committee of the Whole, two amendments concerning the age of consent for male homosexual activities (one setting set such an age at 20, and another setting it at 18) were rejected. Ironically, the staunchest opponents of the bill (who wanted homosexuality to remain illegal for people of all ages) voted against a higher age of consent: they thought that, by preventing the passage of a "compromise" amendment, they would have ultimately prevented the passage of the bill altogether, as they believed "nobody in their right mind would vote for a third reading for the bill with the age of consent at 16".[8]

The committee also decided, by a majority of 18 (31 Ayes to 49 Noes), to remove Part II from the bill.


The bill, as amended, passed narrowly (49 Ayes to 44 Noes) on 9 July 1986, after an attempt by opponents to invoke closure and end debate had been defeated on 2 July by one vote (41 Ayes to 42 Noes); the bill might have failed if a vote had been taken then as several supporters were kept away from Wellington by bad weather. Three National MPs voted for the bill, and other National MPs (including Doug Graham) would have supported the bill if it had been in danger of defeat.[3][9]

Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 – Third Reading[10]a
Party Voted for Voted against Present (Speaker) Absent
Labour (55)
National (38) - -
Social Credit (2) - - -
Totals 49 44 1 1
a. Political Affiliation of each MP is based on the information from the prior election. The following MPs (who were originally from one of the two main parties) would eventually join or find their own political parties are:
b. National MP Maurice McTigue succeeded the late Labour MP Basil Arthur in a 1985 by-election.
c. Both of these MPs were incorrectly labelled as affiliated with the Labour Party (NZ).


Although Part II did not make it into the final version of the bill, its provisions were eventually enacted into law seven years later by the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993. Full equality to LGBT+ New Zealanders was finally granted on 17 April 2013, when by 77 votes to 44 same-sex marriage in New Zealand was legalised, receiving royal assent on 19 April. It entered into force on 19 August the same year.[11]

On 10 April 2018, the Criminal Records (Expungement of Convictions for Historical Homosexual Offences) Act 2018 came into effect, joining a range of similar statutes in other countries that pardoned or expunged convictions for homosexual offences prior to decriminalisation.[12][13]


The bill was subject to substantial debate and faced fierce opposition from the Salvation Army, as well as Christian political activists such as Keith Hay, Peter Tait and politicians such as Norman Jones (National MP for Invercargill). A Coalition of Concerned Citizens was created by the group to distribute a petition against the Act, that on submission to Parliament was claimed to have garnered more than 800,000 signatures, making it the largest petition in proportion to New Zealand's population up to that point.[14] However, some petition sheets contained several signatures in the same handwriting, and some of the boxes were nearly empty, thereby discrediting the petition and causing the Parliamentiary Petitions Committee to reject it.[15][16]

Despite the Coalition of Concerned Citizens threatening electoral reprisals, the Fourth Labour Government was re-elected for a second term of office, losing only one constituency seat to the National Party Opposition in 1987.

In accordance with surveys conducted amongst its membership, the Salvation Army continued to oppose law reform, including same-sex marriage in New Zealand, but later expressed regret for the hurt that its participation in the petition had caused.[17] In a joint statement written in 2012, attempts at rapprochement were welcomed by the Rainbow Wellington LGBT+ group.[18]

When National MP Lockwood Smith gave his valedictory speech in February 2013 after 30 years in Parliament, he listed voting against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986 as his biggest regret:[19]

I faced the classic dilemma of voting according to my own judgement or the opinion of those I was elected to represent. As a new member, I opted for the latter and I've always regretted it.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Queer History New Zealand Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History PART 4 – Before Homosexual Law Reform
  2. ^ a b Queer History New Zealand Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History PART 5 – From Law Reform to the present
  3. ^ a b c Setting the scene: Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand
  4. ^ Birth of the gay movement – homosexual law reform
  5. ^ Stokes, Melissa (2 December 2023). "Newsmakers: The Labour MP who fought to decriminalise gay sex in NZ". 1 News. Retrieved 3 December 2023.
  6. ^ "Petition against law reform". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 6 December 2023.
  7. ^ Dudding, Adam (30 June 2016). "Thirty years on from NZ's tumultuous gay law reform bill". Stuff. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  8. ^ "Gay law reform: a tactics masterclass".
  9. ^ Bassett, Michael (2008). Working with David: Inside the Lange Cabinet. Auckland: Hodder Moa. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-86971-094-1.
  10. ^ "Homosexual Law Reform Act". Archived from the original on 31 March 2018.
  11. ^ "Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill – New Zealand Parliament". New Zealand Parliament. Archived from the original on 10 November 2019. Retrieved 31 July 2023.
  12. ^ "Bills (proposed laws)". Retrieved 31 July 2023.
  13. ^ Gledhill, Kris. "Legislation note: Criminal Records (Expungement of Convictions for Historical Homosexual Offences) Act 2018" (2018) NZCrimLawRw 2; (2018) NZCLR 2. New Zealand Criminal Law Review. New Zealand Legal Information Institute.
  14. ^ (14 September 1985). Petition against homosexual law reform presented at Parliament, Wellington, New Zealand. Reference EP/1985/4285/25-F. National Library of New Zealand.
  15. ^ Homosexual law reform – Reforming the law (Page 4). Ministry for Culture and Heritage
  16. ^ Brickell, Chris. (2018). Gay Men‘s Lives – Gay activism and law reform: Petition against law reform. Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. (accessed 31 July 2023
  17. ^ Hutson, Ian (Salvation Army Officer) © 2002, updated October 2017. THE SALVATION ARMY AND THE 1986 HOMOSEXUAL REFORM BILL IN NEW ZEALAND. The Salvation Army.
  18. ^ (2012). SALVATION ARMY – A SIGNIFICANT STEP FORWARD. Website: rainbowwellington.org.nz.
  19. ^ Trevett, Claire (14 February 2013). "Departing veteran tells of regret over gay vote, MMP". The New Zealand Herald. p. A8. Retrieved 14 February 2013.


  • Laurie Guy: Worlds in Collision: The Gay Law Reform Debate in New Zealand: 1960–1986 Wellington: Victoria University Press: 2002: ISBN 0-86473-438-7
  • Laurie Guy: "Evangelicals and the Homosexual Law Reform Debate: 1984-5" Stimulus 13:4 (November 2005): 69–77.[1]
  • History Group, Out and About: Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand, http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/node/2198.

External links[edit]