MELBOURNE (AFP) - An Australian state on Tuesday (May 24) formally apologised for "shameful" historical laws that saw people jailed for being gay, admitting the "state-sanctioned homophobia" ruined lives.
Until 1981 in Victoria state, thousands of gay men were convicted and even imprisoned for up to 15 years for offences ranging from buggery and loitering for homosexual purposes to indecency.
Activists said that in some cases, individuals who would today be treated as victims of sexual abuse, were instead charged.
"To our knowledge, no jurisdiction in the world has ever offered a full and formal apology for laws like these," Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told state parliament in Melbourne, as the rainbow flag flew over the building.
"So please, let these words rest forever in our records. On behalf of the parliament, the government 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."
Being gay is no longer illegal anywhere in Australia. South Australia state was the first to decriminalise male homosexuality in 1975, with Tasmania the last in 1997.
Victoria is the first to apologise, with survivors able to apply to have their convictions quashed.
"This won't erase the injustice, but it is an accurate statement of what I believe today - that these convictions should never have happened," added Andrews, who described the laws as "nothing less than official state-sanctioned homophobia".
Rights groups applauded the formal apology.
"This apology is a powerful symbolic act that helps to repair the harm caused by these unjust laws and affirms the value of gay, lesbian and bisexual people's sexuality," said the Human Rights Law Centre's director of advocacy, Anna Brown.
"It's extremely pleasing to see the Victorian government showing leadership on this issue." Prominent indigenous Australian Noel Tovey, who was convicted of buggery nearly 60 years ago at the age of 17 years, said he felt relieved.
"It's good to know at the age of 83 that I am no longer a criminal in the eyes of the law and society," he said. "The apology... is really about the young gay men and women of today."
Sean Mulcahy, co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, called Andrews' statement "a symbol of how far we have come".
"Now we live in a state that embraces the diverse sexual orientations and gender identities that make up our community," he said.