Some of the lessons of that turbulent time are worth remembering. The first is that it takes a determined individual to make changes happen. Fran Wilde did not realise she would unleash a turbid social torrent with her bill. It is to her credit that she stuck with it through 14 gruelling months in the face of hatred and barbarity. Those who opposed the bill, of course, included the merely frightened and uninformed as well as the cruel, the demented and the reactionary. But it was these forces that made the most noise. Perhaps the most contemptible, amid all these clashing voices, were those who backed the cause of reform, but claimed the country wasn't ready. One of these, typically, was Robert Muldoon. The bully was always a coward.
In the event, the extremists on the anti-gay side helped their enemies to victory. Norman Jones, the likeable but irrational MP from Invercargill, was so shrill in his diatribes that his opponents looked sane and reasonable merely by opposing him. A pro-gay meeting on the 10th anniversary of the reform toasted the late MP's health. Thanks for all your help, Norm! There are deep lessons here. The reasonable man, said George Bernard Shaw, bends his will to the world, but the unreasonable man insists the world bend to his: therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. Shaw meant this to apply to the enlightened leader. It also applies to the benighted one who is fighting progress.
But homosexual law reform could not have occurred without deep social change. No leader is so strong that they can force changes on a society fundamentally unready for them. The law change was a late product of the liberalising forces that started to transform New Zealand from the 1950s. These kinds of changes make ash of ancient orthodoxies that once seemed as hard as marble. It is astonishing how little is left of these monuments once the change comes. There is no serious movement to revert to the darkness, even among the Right (Brian Tamaki and his flock are a powerless lunatic fringe). Why, even the flinty Lockwood Smith once said he regretted voting against Fran Wilde's bill.
The critics predicted doom for the family, boys' schools and army. Nothing of the sort happened. If anything, the law reform strengthened the family. There is nothing family-friendly about a law that allows innocent family members to be jailed, sacked or thrown out of home on the basis of their personal sexual preferences. The anti-gay culture sometimes split families and led to the suicide of vulnerable young people. A law that fights against this is good for the family. Nor has the change led to anarchy in the dorm or barracks.
There is still work to do, of course. An odd anomaly in the law prevents gay couples from adopting children, although single gays can do so. Green MP Metiria Turei's member's bill would fix that gap, some years after the Law Commission recommended it. But the Clark government is running scared on social reform. It has dropped its 2002 pledge to fix this bit of the antiquated Adoption Act of 1955. It is now too scared to pick a fight with the silly and backward-looking folks of Winston First and United Future. That is a pity, because it is absurd to deny adoption rights to gay couples, who will be as good at parenting as heterosexual couples. Of course there are plenty of New Zealanders who are still prejudiced against gays, and a desperate few who actively hate them. Changes in the law and the spread of enlightenment, alas, leave the worst of us unchanged.