MUCH has changed since Noel Tovey was convicted of having gay sex more than 60 years ago. The prison he was sent to has closed. The law that made sexual activity between men a crime no longer exists.
But Tovey believes that his criminal record remains in the Victoria Police database, and that he is still smeared with a ''buggery'' conviction he has no way of removing.
For an unknown number of older gay men, historical convictions for consensual sex continue to cast a shadow over their lives. Despite Victoria decriminalising gay sex in 1981, these men are still prevented from applying for some jobs, such as teaching, or taking on volunteering roles.
''It was the era of the witch-hunt for any gay man,'' says Tovey, a high-profile indigenous dancer, of when gay men were regularly arrested for ''homosexual acts''.
''If a man smiled at you in a toilet, you were afraid to smile back in case it was a policeman waiting to arrest you,'' he says.
Parties were spoken about in whispers to avoid police attention, Tovey recalls. It was at one such party that he was arrested.
After police raided the party, at the home of Max du Barry in Albert Park in 1951, Tovey, then 17, says he was taken away for questioning.
''I was at a party given by one of Melbourne's then infamous female impersonators,'' he says. ''Everyone fled except me … and I was taken to the police station and coerced into writing a confession.''
After an alleged police beating, Tovey says he was forced into confessing he had had sex with du Barry. ''I'm not saying I hadn't had sex with men, I had. But I hadn't had sex with Max,'' he says.
Tovey pleaded not guilty in court but the jury found him and du Barry guilty of buggery. Tovey spent months in Pentridge Prison awaiting his trial and was eventually released on a good behaviour bond.
Once out of prison, Tovey, then Noel Morton, changed his name in order to apply for
national service. Until then he had led his life as Noel Morton, but his mother revealed after his release that on his birth certificate his biological father's name, and his original surname, was ''Tovey''. In this way, Tovey believes, he has been able to fudge his past over the years and seek to do things that having a sex conviction would normally preclude.
Tovey, now 79, hopes telling his story will add weight to the campaign led by the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and Liberty Victoria for new laws to expunge these old convictions. They are calling for legislation that explicitly addresses the removal of convictions for consensual sexual activity between men.
The campaign comes after laws were passed in the UK earlier this year to allow thousands of men with convictions for consensual sexual activity to apply to have their criminal records cleared.
The state government has told Fairfax Media it is considering legislation to erase such convictions. Last year Prahran MP Clem Newton-Brown approached Attorney-General Robert Clark on the issue.
Mr Newton-Brown said that after reading Tovey's autobiography, Little Black Bastard, he realised historical convictions were still an issue for men today.
''When I first started researching this issue I thought it would be a symbolic thing, particularly for the families of people who had died with a conviction, but through the course of the year it became apparent that it's not just symbolic and could still affect people's lives,'' he says.
Mr Newton-Brown is working on a reform proposal and is concerned that older gay men continue to suffer emotionally. ''Emotionally, there is the burden of a conviction to live with. The mental health of older gay men doesn't get a lot of attention to begin with.''
Tovey thinks such reform would be healing. ''I think it's important for all the gay men charged for doing what came naturally to them,'' he says.
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