Skip to main content

Premier Daniel Andrews meets with members of the gay community on May 24 in Melbourne, before apologizing for laws that once made homosexuality a crime in the state of Victoria.Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Daniel Andrews's apology to men in Victoria, Australia, who were criminally convicted for being gay was deeply moving. "Over the course of decades," the Premier declared in the state parliament on May 24, "a powerful prejudice was written into law, a prejudice that ruined lives. A prejudice that prevails, in different ways, even still."

"… On behalf of the government, the Parliament and the people of Victoria, for the laws we passed, and the lives we ruined, and the standards we set, we are so sorry. Humbly, deeply sorry." (In Australia, the states are primarily responsible for criminal law.)

That apology is thought to be the first delivered in any legislature by a head of government for prosecuting and persecuting homosexuals. Now the Liberal government is studying whether Justin Trudeau should make Canada the first country to do the same.

(British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 offered a government apology for the gross indecency conviction of Alan Turing, who helped break the code of the German Enigma machine during the Second World War. Mr. Turing later apparently died by suicide as a result of that conviction. Mr. Brown's apology applied only to Mr. Turing.)

Victoria is not acting alone. Germany is moving to redress the wrongs committed under Paragraph 175.

That clause, first made law in 1871, criminalized homosexual acts. It was used with murderous effect by the Nazis, and remained in full force in West Germany until 1969, when consenting homosexual acts between adults in private were decriminalized.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Heiko Maas announced the German government would expunge the records of an estimated 50,000 men convicted under Paragraph 175 between 1946 and 1969 and offer compensation to the survivors.

"The burden of guilt lies with the state because it made the lives of so many people so difficult," said Mr. Maas. "Paragraph 175 was from the very beginning unconstitutional. The old convictions are unjust [and] do huge injury to the human dignity of each convicted man."

The minister made the announcement immediately after receiving a report recommending such an apology. A similar report will be landing on the desk of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould in mid-June, written by EGALE's Klippert committee. EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere) advocates for the rights of sexual minorities in Canada; the committee named itself after Everett Klippert, the only Canadian labelled a dangerous sexual offender simply because he was gay.

That conviction, upheld in 1967 by the Supreme Court, prompted the debate that finally led to the decriminalization of homosexual acts in Canada in 1969. Now EGALE and others are hoping that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will pardon and offer redress to the thousands of homosexual Canadian men who were convicted of gross indecency for acting on their sexuality.

Opponents of such an apology warn that it could expose the government and taxpayers to expensive lawsuits from past victims. Such concerns are misplaced. There are laws and legal precedents limiting the liability of governments that apologize for past wrongs. And compensation can, and perhaps should, take the form of government funding for education and research.

As for the argument that this generation should not be bound by the actions of past generations, that assumes that this generation is itself without prejudice, that homosexual, bisexual and transgendered Canadians don't confront stigma and shame. The suicide rates for gay teenagers alone disprove such a claim.

Mr. Trudeau will be marching in Toronto's July 3 Pride parade in Toronto, the first prime minister to march at Pride. It would be strange if he were to do so without having decided on whether to grant a pardon.

In his apology, Premier Andrews said this: "I learnt that two women were convicted for offensive behaviour in the 1970s for holding hands on a tram … If you are a member of the LGBTI community, and there's someone in your life that you love – a partner or a friend – then do me a favour: Next time you're on a tram in Melbourne, hold their hand."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe