Gay rights watershed recalled

LAUNCESTON-born gay rights activist Nick Toonen remembers Tasmania as an often hostile, tough and repressive place to live in the late 1980s.

Mr Toonen said there was a real sense among the gay and lesbian community that people needed to hide, or leave, because they were afforded no protection.

Draconian laws criminalising homosexuality strangled Tasmania, Mr Toonen said, and the North and North-West of the state often played host to organised public anti-gay rallies.

"They were pretty nasty affairs with hundreds of people piled into town halls being whipped into a frenzy by conservative politicians," Mr Toonen said.

"There were a lot of people who wanted to be violent or seen to be violent, and there was certainly a lot of violence in their words."

However, Mr Toonen said it wasn't all doom and gloom, with some members of the community supporting the gay and lesbian community.

"That said, it certainly wasn't a comfortable time for a lot of people, and my colleagues and I felt it was important to do something that would affect change," he said.

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of a watershed decision made by the UN Human Rights Committee, condemning Tasmania's laws criminalising homosexuality.

The human rights violation had been brought to light through a submission made by Mr Toonen three years earlier.

The UN committee found the state's laws, which defined homosexuality as a crime punishable by up to 21 years in prison, breached international human rights standards.

Their decision prompted the federal government to enact legislation overriding Tasmanian laws. The state's laws were scrapped altogether three years later.

"I was doing it as an individual on behalf of all the people affected by the laws," Mr Toonen said.

"We did it not just for us, or for the wider community, but for future generations as well."

Mr Toonen said April 11, 1994 felt like yesterday and a world away, all at once.

"A lot of time has elapsed and a lot has happened since so in some ways it feels remote," he said.

"But because it was such an intense time and the emotions were so high, that sense of pride, excitement and achievement stays very fresh."

Mr Toonen said the landmark decision had paved the way for many great advancements in Tasmania over the past 20 years, but there was still much more work to be done.