Doing wrong may not be enough to warrant an apology because that wrong may not have caused any harm.
Causing harm is also not sufficient because that harm may have been justified or mitigated by circumstances.
But when wrong and harm meet, as they did 20 years ago at Salamanca Market, there’s no escape from the need to say ‘sorry’.
In August 1988 the newly-formed Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group established a stall at Salamanca Market to take its case for the decriminalisation of gay sex to the people of Hobart.
At the time, Tasmanian law punished private, consenting adult gay sex with a maximum penalty of 21 years gaol. It had only been a few years since that law was last enforced. Not surprisingly, virtually no-one in Tasmania, with the courageous exception of Bob Brown, had publicly identified themselves as gay. It was a frightening thing to set up a gay rights stall in an environment like that, and clearly not just for those of us staffing it.
In September a single complaint saw the Council ban our “political” and “sexual” stall from its “Family Market”. We defied that ban, thinking it discriminatory (stalls belonging to the Wilderness Society, the Democratic Socialist Party, and a firm selling sexually-explicit t’shirts were left unmolested). The Council brought in the police and over 7 consecutive Saturday mornings ordered the arrest of anyone staffing the stall, found in the possession of our petitions or posters, identified as gay, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (in the mayhem, one man, unconnected to the stall, was arrested while buying some onions).
All up 130 arrests were made, while hundreds more protested on the Market’s grassy verges. Those arrested were taken to Liverpool St Police Station, subject to police taunts and processed by officers wearing rubber gloves. Some were kept in cells for indefinite periods. Some were bailed under the condition that if they returned to the Market they would face gaol. The Council backed this up with its own lifetime Market ban on all those arrested.
As the arrests went on and the protests grew, national and international attention began to reveal the Council’s true motives. One Council representative admitted on national television that it was right to have one law for heterosexuals and one for homosexuals. On the 7.30 Report, another Councillor justified the Council’s ban on the display of pink triangles (a symbol used to designate homosexuals in Nazi Germany, and co-opted by the modern gay rights movement) on the basis that they represented the illegal practice of “sodomy”.
Finally, in the week before Dec 10th – the fourtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Town Clerk, Barrie Southorn negotiated a deal which saw the Council back down and allowed the stall to continue. It has been there ever since, gathering signatures and distributing information about law reform.
More details about those tumultuous events can be found in chapter of two of Pink Triangles, Miranda Morris’ book about the early years of the gay law reform debate published by UNSW press in 1994.
A copy of this chapter is included below as a PDF.
But what concerns us now is whether what the Council did was wrong enough, and harmful enough, to require an apology.
That the Council did no wrong
There are still those who maintain the Council did no wrong. They say the Council was simply responding to public concern about sexually-explicit material, that it was within its legal rights as manager / owner of the Market to have market-goers removed or arrested, and that it had moral and legal authority on its side in a state where homosexuality was still against the law.
On every point these people are wrong.
There were no sexually-explicit materials on the gay law reform stall. There was a poster about decriminalisation which inspired one, anonymous complaint. If the Council received any more complaints than this, it was after its decision was made. It’s true that the Council claimed Market “ownership”, but it was later found that the HCC had not properly gazetted the Market, and had no legal basis upon which to have anyone removed or arrested. Most spurious is the claim about the illegality of homosexuality. Our stall did not advocate for an illegal activity. It advocated against that activity being illegal.
But even if I am wrong, even if the stall staff did distribute materials that described or depicted gay sex, as some unrepentant Aldermen still maintain, such actions did not justify arresting people, threatening them with gaol and banning them for life. A solution could have been reached by more moderate means, like negotiations at Town Hall, but the Council showed no interest in discussions or negotiations until it was forced. Whatever was on our stall, the Council’s actions were a grossly disproportionate response. As a reaction to what was actually there - a card table with a few petitions and photocopied flyers about sections of the criminal code – the Council’s actions violated fundamental human rights standards and were anti-democratic. By any measure, what the Council did was wrong.
The final refuge for those who believe the Council did no wrong, is to argue that it thought it was doing the right thing by the standards of the time, even if changing standards would make the same actions wrong today. We could call this “the Stolen Generation excuse”. We also shouldn’t forget “the John Howard excuse”: those who weren’t there have no responsibility for what happened and are under no obligation to apologise for it.
The SG excuse is not relevant here. In 1988 the principle of homosexual decriminalisation had prevailed through most of the western world for 20 years, the principle of free speech for 200, and the principle of markets as community meeting places for 2000. Tasmania was not so exceptional that it could ignore them all.
The Howard excuse is also not relevant. Some Aldermen and council staff involved in the fracas are still in office. Most of the other officials, arrestees and protesters are still alive and still in Hobart. All of us still recall the pain and trauma we felt then.
It’s to that pain and trauma I’ll now turn.
That the Council did no harm
Those who declare the Council did no wrong, also argue that it caused no harm.
This case seems to be based on the assumption that those arrested at Salamanca Market were hardened activists, not only inured to official mistreatment, but actually seeking it out for their own political purposes.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Those of us who formed the Gay Law Reform Group were young, and relatively inexperienced at human rights campaigning. We had no idea when we established our stall that it would invite such a fierce reaction.
The arrests drew to our aid people who had previously experienced civil disobedience, including on the Franklin River five years before. But even they were taken aback by the Council’s over reaction.
All of us took a great risk being involved in the protests and arrests, and suffered to a greater or lesser extent through public exposure and incarceration.
In retrospect it’s also easy to say that the arrests benefited the cause of gay law reform. The charges were eventually dropped while gay law reform rocketed up the political agenda. But at the time it was impossible to know this would be the outcome. It was equally likely that we would all end up in Risdon Prison, and gay law reform languish as an impossible cause.
When I reflect on the harm that was done, my thoughts always turn to those young gays and lesbians whose arrest was also their coming out. Some lost everything – their family, friends and job – to defend a cause they believed right. Indeed, Salamanca was a kind of mass coming out for the Tasmanian gay and lesbian community. And like most comings out it too was traumatic and painful. Things got better, as they usually do, both for individuals and for the community. But even so, the pain remains until amends are made. Just as many of the parents, friends and colleagues of those arrested in 1988 have since apologised for their hard-heartedness, so the Council should also apologise for the trauma that accompanied the gay and lesbian community’s first steps out of the closet and into the mainstream of Tasmanian life.
Why ‘sorry’ matters
For me, and many other members of the gay and lesbian community, there are three very simple reasons for seeking a Council apology for banning the gay law reform at Salamanca Market in 1988, and arresting those who defied this ban.
The first is to lay a foundation for reconciliation between those who were arrested and those who, often unwillingly, did the arresting.
The second is to send out a message of hope and inspiration about how much Tasmania has changed for the better since that awful time.
The third is to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.
But before we reach the stage where an apology is made, we have to revisit the events of 1988, and recall some of the pain caused by those events.
At first glance this may seem counterproductive to the cause of reconciliation. It may seem far from inspirational.
But if we are to reach the point where an apology is offered and received in the most meaningful way, it is important for us to consider, as I have done here, why apologies are made at all, the events for which an apology is sought, and objections to such an apology.
When we do, it becomes clear that a generation after the Salamanca arrests, it’s time for an apology to be offered and accepted.
Julian Punch has issued a statement expressing his concern about my “undiplomatic” and unrepresentative statements on the issue of an HCC apology.
For the record, the Hobart City Council’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender liaison group (which Julian helped establish) was unanimous in its support for an apology. When it endorsed an apology the liaison group included representatives from all major GLBT groups. I take its voice to be representative.
The group made it clear that the purpose of an apology should be a positive one – fostering reconciliation and sending out a message about how much Tasmania has changed. This is the message that has shaped my advocacy on this issue.
Clearly, there is strident opposition to the idea of an apology. If Julian seeks to be representative of the wishes of the GLBT community he will direct his energies to overcoming that opposition, rather than attacking those who share his goals.
For Rodney Croome’s media comments on an apology visit
For Julian’s Punch’s response visit
Download Miranda Morris’s history of the Salamanca arrests:: Pink_Triangle_-_Chapter_2_-_Salamanca.pdf
When should we say ‘sorry’?