In December 2019 the University of Tasmania conferred an honorary doctorate on Rodney Croome in recognition of his achievements. This is Rodney’s address following the conferral.
Your Excellency, Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor members of the University, graduates and diplomates, esteemed guests …
Thank you to the University of Tasmania for this great and humbling honour, all the more so because of my long association with the University since I was an undergraduate.
My partner Rafael, my mother Bev, and some of my dearest friends, are here today to share this moment with me. To you, along with all those who can’t be here, including my late father, I say ‘thank you’, ‘thank you’ for your love, your support, your respect, your patience and your faith in me.
I also want to pay tribute to those teachers at High School in Devonport and here at University who showed me all change begins with knowing what might be possible, and that such knowledge comes from interpreting and applying the lessons of those who have gone before us.
In 1987, as a shy University of Tasmania history student, I came out as gay man into an island society that was deeply antagonistic to LGBTIQ equality.
In Tasmania, sex between men was a crime punishable by 21 years in gaol.
Tasmania was the only state that stigmatised transgender people as criminals by outlawing cross-dressing.
There was a blanket silence about LGBTIQ people that had lasted since colonial times when homosexuality and gender transgression was intimately associated with the hated stain of convictism.
At the first gay community meeting I attended I was warned there might be police outside waiting to write down the car registration numbers of those leaving the meeting to add to their ‘pink list’ of ‘known homosexuals’.
When we set up a small stall at Salamanca Market asking for signatures on a gay law reform petition, the stall was closed down and we were all arrested.
When gay law reform was first proposed in Parliament, angry, hateful protest rallies were conducted across the state.
While other Tasmanians believed they lived in a democracy, LGBTIQ Tasmanians lived in a police state.
It was a police state most Tasmanians were then happy to maintain. Polls showed almost 70% support for criminalising homosexuality, well above the national average.
Now, let’s move forward to today.
Tasmania has the most progressive LGBTIQ human rights laws, not only in Australia but in the entire world.
Our Anti-Discrimination Act provides stronger protections for LGBTIQ people than its counterparts elsewhere.
Our relationship laws recognise a broader range of personal relationships than in other places.
Our gender laws provide stronger recognition and protection for transgender and gender diverse people than the equivalent laws of almost any other country.
Our state parliament led the nation on marriage equality.
Our police now have the policies so inclusive they are a global model.
We have led the other states when it comes to apologising for the past and healing old wounds.
These changes in laws and policies have been matched by changes in hearts and minds with Tasmania returning a vote in the marriage postal survey that was above the national average and second only to Victoria among the states.
In a generation, as the Vice Chancellor has noted already, Tasmania has gone from worst to best.
We have every reason to call ourselves the Rainbow Island.
The history of this spectacular transformation is long and sometimes painful.
It was only possible because many people worked together to pool their talents and encourage each other, people from across the political, religious and cultural spectrum who put fundamental values of equality and inclusion above their traditional differences.
It was only possible because we took risks that more cautious people warned us against,
… because we told truths that were hard for some people to hear
… because we protested the old laws, and the attitudes behind those laws, bravely, forthrightly but always respectfully, and
… because we refused to accept compromises that might have made the climb less steep.
Most of all it was only possible because we told our personal stories about what it meant to be treated like second-class citizens.
We had faith that if we reached out to our fellow Tasmanians they would heed us.
Based on that faith we travelled across the island and spoke about our lives to whomever would listen.
We opened our hearts to others and explained what it meant, not only to be discriminated against and stigmatised, but to be told you don’t belong in the place that has shaped who you are.
We refused to react in kind to the fear and anger so vocally striding the stage of Tasmanian public life. We looked beyond the prejudices of those around us and instead saw in our fellow Tasmanians people who, deep down, wanted to do the right thing. We educated, and never berated.
If I am proud of anything more than how far we have come, it is that our faith in our fellow citizens was well-founded.
Among the lessons taught by Tasmania’s transformation, there is one particularly pertinent to us today. Many of us feel pessimism or despair about the great problems of our age. We fear there is nothing we can do about spiralling climate change, escalating inequality and creeping authoritarianism.
When you feel discouraged and powerless, recall how this tiny corner of the planet defied every expectation to pull itself up by its rainbow bootstraps and re-invent itself.
Take heart that, if an island that once tore itself apart over LGBTIQ equality can become a beacon of inclusion to the entire world, there is nothing inevitable about the problems we face, profound change is possible, and each of you can be part of that change.
Have faith in other people and in the future. Always remember there is another word for hope, and that word is Tasmania.
Rodney Croome AM is an LGBTI rights activist and academic. He worked on the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania, and was a founder of Australian Marriage Equality. He has worked on LGBTI discrimination and parenting law reform, and on LGBTI issues in education, health and policing.