Trans women – whakawāhine (Māori trans women) specifically – were the backbone of the communities from which the gay liberation movement grew, writes Will Hansen.
This article is part of a series marking 50 years of gay liberation in Aotearoa. Click here to read more.
Trans activist and deeply committed Aotearoa gay liberationist Sandy Gauntlett wrote in the late 1970s of her frustration that cisgender gays “conveniently overlooked” the role of trans people in gay liberation. While the Gay Liberation Front itself may not have been founded by trans people, trans women were the “initial impetus” behind the gay movement: for it was trans women – whakawāhine (Māori trans women) specifically – who were the backbone of the communities from which the movement grew. Whakawāhine were community matriarchs who ran and staffed the coffee lounges, bars and night-time venues where the seeds of gay liberation germinated. In Gauntlett’s view, trans women were “the very first freedom fighters in the gay movement”.
Ideologically, the various chapters of the Gay Liberation Front were, at least initially, trans inclusive. When gay liberation first splashed into Aotearoa in 1972, gay liberationists demanded the right of everyone to “sexual self-determination”. In an early issue of the Auckland Gay Liberation Front’s newspaper, Gay Lib News, activists deplored the “suffocating tightness of the nuclear family,” which had resulted in “anyone who doesn’t act according to the male or female roles defined by society” as being deemed “unnatural, and subjected to discrimination and suffering”. Meanwhile, Victoria University of Wellington’s Gay Liberation Front branch declared in its manifesto that “those within the movement who face additional oppression”, including “women, Maoris [sic], Pacific Islanders, transvestites and trans-sexuals and blatant gays,” should be given “every encouragement to form special caucuses or sub-groups to present their cause to the movement”.
Despite a desire to make these special caucuses a reality, it appears they never did develop, and it’s not entirely clear why. In an interview conducted in 1973, when she was 24 years old, Gauntlett was described as working in Wellington to “help form an organisation for transvestites and transsexuals as part of Gay Pride Week”. She advocated for state-funded gender-affirming medical care; for unisex bathrooms and the rights of trans people to use the bathrooms of their choice; for an end to legal discrimination, and an end to trans women being sent to men’s jail cells (all issues trans communities are still struggling with today!).
At the 1974 annual Gay Liberation conference, Gauntlett led a group of trans people, plus one intersex activist, in a panel on trans and intersex struggles. In a report on the conference for Victoria University student magazine Salient, the author describes Gauntlett’s group as being “suspicious” because they had “no idea whether the gays wanted them.” The diverse group had decided on using the word “drag” as “the most acceptable all-inclusive term,” and on their behalf Gauntlett “pledged the support of drags in the movement.” Despite her initial nerves she eventually won over conference goers, achieving “a vote of confidence”.
Though they weren’t given nearly as much acknowledgement as trans people, intersex people were also a vibrant part of these movements, and often collaborated with trans activists. At this conference, an intersex person named Michelle joined Gauntlett’s “drag” panel, giving a speech about intersex oppression. Following Michelle’s talk, one participant said “We should look into this, if it’s reasonably common.” The author describes how a trans activist “exploded” in response: “‘Reasonably common! If there’s only one in a million we should help them!” The report noted that “the response of the participants showed that they thought so too”.
The Gay Liberation Front also actively worked alongside trans organisations. Hedesthia, a trans advocacy group founded in Lower Hutt in 1972, was an early supporter of gay liberation, and in turn members were frequently asked to speak at conferences, invited to gay liberation dances, and gave educational panels alongside gay activists at hospitals and schools. Hedesthia was given Associate Member status by the National Gay Rights Coalition, an umbrella organisation created in 1977 which sought to sew unity among the diverse gay activist community. Suzan Xtabay, Hedesthia’s national co-ordinator, declared that trans people had:
“…a responsibility to all gay people to support them, because any advantages that are finally won, wrested from the establishment WILL benefit all of us…it’s our cause, YOUR cause, and don’t any of you forget it. Hedesthia HAS a place in the Gay movement, and so have ALL of its members.”
Reactions to trans people from cis activists varied, ranging from the acceptance demonstrated above, through to confusion, outright exclusion and violence. Though many gay liberationists were supportive, others struggled to extend their liberatory politics to gender diversity. One anonymous Hedesthia member, who marched in the Auckland Gay Liberation Front’s first protest down Queen Street, remembered being heckled by “butch lesbian separatists” during a workshop Hedesthia gave on trans issues at a Gay Liberation Conference. She felt that instead of embracing trans people, the gay community were “shunting them out”. But the white, middle-class members of Hedesthia continued to be invited to conferences; it was the trans sex workers, mostly Māori and Pasefika, who really faced the brunt of discrimination within the gay liberation movement, and society more generally.
And yet, it was the Māori and Pasifika trans sex workers who were the backbone of the communities which birthed Gay Liberation. Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku, the very spark of Gay Liberation in Aotearoa, specifically named three whakawāhine – Māori trans women – as the leaders in an inherited “Polynesian tradition” of queerness: from “the Mahu of Hawaii, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas, of the Fa’afafine of Samoa, of the Fakaleiti of Tonga, of the Carmens, and Shirelles and Natashas of Aotearoa.”
The Carmen who Te Awekotuku referred to is, of course, trans trailblazer, sex worker, community advocate, performer, and business woman Carmen Rupe. Rupe, who in 1966 challenged the courts and won the right to wear “women’s” clothing – eight years before Auckland’s Gay Liberation Front, and three years before the famous New York Stonewall riots. Rupe, who in 1976 was dragged in front of the Parliamentary Privileges Committee by Muldoon for daring to speak of the existence of queer Parliamentarians. Rupe, who in 1977 ran for the Wellington mayoralty, the first out trans person in Aotearoa – and potentially the world – to do so.
Rupe, who most significantly of all, helped build trans and queer community. Through her venues like Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge and The Balcony, she created spaces where queer people could socialise, as well as be employed. New Zealand Prostitutes Collective community liaison Chanel Hati has described how incredible it was for her young trans self to see someone like Carmen being so unapologetic: “this trans woman got out there, with her big titties out, not shy…she broke down the barriers of conservative ideals about what being trans, or being gay, or being anything other than the norm is…we stand on her shoulders.”
More recently, academics such as Dr Elizabeth Kerekere and Dr Clive Aspin have corroborated this point. In her work on takatāpui activism, Kerekere describes whakawāhine as “at the forefront”, naming Georgina Beyer and Mama Tere Tahere-Strickland as 1990s examples. Aspin argues that Māori, and “transsexuals especially”, have “played a major role in the gay community development that preceded AIDS and which has been fundamental to our fight to stop the epidemic”. Like Gauntlett, he also highlights the several venues “run and frequented” by trans people like Rupe: “it is worth remembering that these were people who courageously carved out a niche for themselves in the face of considerable societal prejudice” and often brutal police harassment.
Beyond celebrity Carmen, many more whakawāhine and trans sex workers dared to carve out spaces for themselves. Chrissy Witoko’s venues, most notably the Evergreen in Wellington, were renowned as safe spaces for queer people, and the Evergreen was even used as an organising space for gay and lesbian activists as well as a sex worker drop-in centre. Chanel Hati described the way trans sex workers practiced mutual aid, housing each other and pooling resources in an era of harsh housing and employment discrimination. Trans households were a central feature of community building. Hati remembered it was “just the normal thing to do”, to take others under one’s wing, and how, though certainly not utopian – infighting occurred, as it does among any group of flatmates – households became a “family away from family”.
Trans sex worker and community matriarch Dana de Milo has also identified how trans people played a unique role in gay liberation as the “face of gayness”. Speaking to Caren Wilton for her book My body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change, de Milo explained that trans women, especially trans sex workers, were the most visible members of queer communities, and therefore copped the brunt of anti-queer oppression and violence. The “white gay guys”, meanwhile, could “hide behind their men’s kākahu” (clothes) and did not have to admit if they were gay; for trans sex workers, there was little choice. For their place on the frontlines, trans sex workers were rewarded with scorn; deemed the “bottom of the gay heap, even though we were the face of it” as many cisgender lesbians and gays strove to distance themselves from this community that was so demonised.
It is worth remembering that before any New Zealanders were gay or trans, we were “kamp”, an identity that was more dynamic and amorphous. Kamp communities in Aotearoa were so developed that, as early as the 1930s, they even had their own language. Professor Welby Ings identified kamp language as a hodge-podge of “prison slang, pig Latin, Polari, gay slang, [te reo] Māori and localised dialect”, popularised by the kamp sex workers and seafarers. Though within this language there were certainly more specific ways of referring to different kinds of kamp people – there were butches, fairies, arthurs and marthas, queens of all different sorts – the distinctions between cis and trans kamp people were blurred. Before she knew she was trans Carmen herself identified as kamp, writing in her memoir of these “three aunties” who her particular kamp circle revolved around. “Hinemoa and Freda both had Māori ancestry; Auntie Mamie was from Rarotonga”, and all three “went to great trouble and effort preparing for their parties”, the centre of this kamp community. These kamp communities, in turn, formed the foundation out of which gay liberation sprung.
The history of trans involvement in gay liberation is not a straightforward one of either unity or exclusion. But the important detail is that trans communities were there, were actively a part of gay liberation, and their stories need to be preserved. Remembering their contributions does not to obscure the work of cis activists. Rather it reveals how deeply us queer people, us “kamp folk”, are tied together. Our movement is strengthened by our solidarity.