Queer life in Aotearoa today is a result of work that began 50 years ago at a small student forum.
This article is part of a series marking 50 years of gay liberation in Aotearoa. Click here to read more.
Sometimes a movement needs a firebrand, a charismatic person who will step up and ignite a flame. On March 15 1972, Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe), an out and proud lesbian, strode onto the stage at the University of Auckland’s student forum and laid down a challenge for her fellow students: “Who out there is crazy enough to come and do this with me? Let’s start gay liberation!” The spark came to Ngāhuia after she had been awarded a scholarship to study in the United States and was denied a visa by the consul, who labelled her a sexual deviant to her face after she stated that one of her aims was to study gay power in the US. Straight after the meeting she stormed to the weekly student forum and made a fiery speech, rousing her fellow students to action. At a meeting held six days later attended by over 40 students, Auckland Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was born.
Radical and provocative, GLF activists fundamentally altered queer life in Aotearoa, and 50 years later, we are still benefitting from changes they fought hard to make. It’s important to resist popular ideas that Gay Liberation started with the 1969 New York Stonewall Inn Riots (a nonetheless seminal event in the history of global queer activism) and suddenly changed the world overnight, and instead work to understand and uplift the radical histories on our own shores, and to tell the stories that extend back many centuries.
In Aotearoa, the Gay Liberation movement of the 1970s sought to free people from the homophobic shackles imposed by British colonisation following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, which led to the adoption of British laws, including the law which criminalised sodomy. The closed, heterosexual rigidity of the incomers, heralded by the arrival of the missionaries two decades earlier, could not have been more different to the fluid sexualities of te ao Māori, in which sex was openly celebrated in waiata, stories and carvings, intersex babies were taonga, and gender diversity and same sex attraction and encounters were acknowledged.
These divergent worlds were on vivid display in 1830s Pēwhairangi, the Bay of Islands, in what seems to have been broadly reciprocal sexual relationships between Pehi, Tohi, Kohe and numerous other Ngāpuhi youths and the missionary William Yate. By engaging in mutual masturbation and oral sex with the lads in exchange for rings and tobacco, Yate had committed unpardonable sexual sins and was dismissed from the missionary society after a public scandal. For Pehi and the others, this was unremarkable sexual behaviour only slightly complicated by the fact they received gifts. There was no shame. Yate shows us that colonial Pākehā were no strangers to same sex attraction either, notwithstanding what British law and society at large dictated, yet the shame was vast.
Despite the chilling effect of criminality and social oppression, people still lived what we would understand today as queer lives. Throughout the 19th and for much of the 20th century, it was much “easier” for men to have same-sex relationships than it was for women due to social, economic and legal inequalities – few women were financially independent and thus able to live a life of their choice. The public world was open to men and closed to most women, whose lives were confined to private and domestically-centred worlds. A far greater degree of freedom meant that men could have sex with each other in public and private places, in towns, cities and the country, in a way women could not. This male freedom was nevertheless highly mediated by the illegality of male homosexual acts. It is no coincidence that court records are a goldmine for historians of queer lives.
The 20th century saw a gradual loosening of social restrictions and the increased entry of women in public and independent life, particularly after the second world war. Queer communities began to quietly flourish. Gay liberation could never have occurred in Aotearoa without the prior existence of these communities, the “kamp men and women, the fairies, butches, queens, dykes, transsexuals, transvestites, and hustlers” who risked imprisonment, physical abuse and social condemnation in order to live their authentic lives. Community building was itself an act of survival and resistance and laid the groundwork for future activism. There were the kamp Māori women of 1960s Wellington (they didn’t call themselves lesbians back then), who banded together for safety, solidarity and socialising; the femme fairies in beautiful dresses dolled up with wigs and false eyelashes on the arms of butches clad in masculine attire, breasts strapped – female couples passing as heterosexual to avoid a hiding; the queer trailblazer Carmen Rupe, who employed transvestites, transexuals, drag queens, gay men and lesbians at her famous coffee lounge and other Wellington establishments in the 60s and 70s. Or many decades earlier, the circle of beautiful men gathered by chemist Robert Gant and photographed in homoerotic splendour in late 19th and early 20th century Masterton.
Out of informal community building came the earliest recorded gay organisations in Aotearoa. The Dorian Society was the first, founded in 1962 as a social club for gay men in Wellington. In 1963, the Dorian established a legal subcommittee to work on public education and law reform, which later evolved into the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society (NZHLRS). Cautious about privacy, the gay activists behind the NZHLRS remained largely anonymous, instead relying on prominent heterosexual allies to advocate their message of tolerance. Gay liberation marked a radical departure from the politics of groups like the NZHLRS, who in their early years never preached full support of gay life. It was part of the broader radical ferment that coalesced in the 1960s and was of a piece with women’s liberation, peace movements and locally, the tino rangatiratanga movement, all of which sought total societal revolution.
GLF groups were formed in Christchurch and Wellington later in 1972, and more around the country sprang up in the years following. Auckland GLF’s core aim was to “fight for liberation so that people are not only permitted to explore their sexual identities but are actually expected to”. They felt sexual oppression began in the “suffocating tightness of the nuclear family” and the rigid gender roles needed to uphold capitalism, arguing that “consequently anyone who doesn’t act according to the male or female roles defined by society is looked on as unnatural, and subjected to discrimination and suffering.”
Auckland GLF prioritised education and visibility, urging queer people to come out. They marched down Queen Street, donned sandwich boards reading “I support GLF, ask me about it!”, crashed meetings of fundamentalist groups, lobbied for legal change, picketed conferences, had “heaps and heaps of parties”, and did lots and lots of talking: to schools, rotary groups, the media, government organisations and more. Meetings were a central feature of the movement, ranging from annual nationwide conferences through to a bevvy of local weekly meetings. Consciousness-raising workshops aimed to educate activists as they explored what it meant to belong to an oppressed minority group and how they could fight against it, and a “Welfare Cell” was established to counsel queers through the collective trauma of oppression.
“Zaps” were a popular form of protest adopted from the US and defined as both confronting and humorous. At the first GLF action – “Gay Day” held on April 11, 1972 – activists took to the streets dressed up as Batman, Robin, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde and enacted a mock court trial. Santa Claus condemned each defendant, chanting “ho ho homosexual, sodomy laws are ineffectual!” Zaps, like guerrilla theatre, were a fun way to engage and challenge the public. Other forms of zaps included taking vanloads of activists to flounce around towns outside of the main city centres – places like New Plymouth, Napier and Palmerston North – in order to disrupt the heterosexual dominance of the streets. Activist Judith Emms recalled that they would “strut down the main street trying to be as obvious as possible, and hold hands and try and get followed to the pub”.
Actions like this were scary: being out could lose you your job, your friends, and your family, not to mention expose you to physical violence. Emms remembered attending her first Gay Pride March in Wellington in 1972, “and the fear was indescribable…there were six people on this march, and I think 40 police. I had a duffel coat, a hat, a muffler and for this whole period I used another name.”
Burn-out was real, and turnover high. At one point, there were only four activists involved in Auckland GLF. By 1976, many groups had folded, and divisions grew stronger. The National Gay Rights Coalition was founded in 1977 by activist Robin Duff in an attempt at unity, and though it had a significant impact on the movement, it too had all but dissolved by 1982. What happened to the energy that characterised the beginnings of the GLF? Perhaps, as with other GLFs overseas, pursuit of a single issue and pressures for unanimity meant movement splits had big repercussions.
Although in theory activists sought inclusivity – the word ‘gay’ was used broadly to name a community that was racially diverse and involved homosexuals, bisexuals, asexuals, intersex people and trans people (though they used different terms, such as “non-sexual” and “trans-sexual”) – in practice GLF was a predominantly white, middle-class, cisgender movement. GLF encouraged members who suffered “additional oppression to that suffered because they are gay (for example, women, Maoris [sic], Pacific Islanders, transvestites and trans-sexuals, and blatant gays)” to form their own caucuses within the movement. However, the extent to which this actually happened was limited.
In response to GLF’s rampant sexism, many lesbian feminists formed their own organisations; Sisters for Homophile Equality formed in 1973 and the Gay Feminist Collective in 1974. Racism, classism, and cissexism were superficially acknowledged by GLFs. Ngāhuia herself only remained in the movement for a year, directing her energy instead towards Māori activist group Ngā Tamatoa. Ngāhuia reflected that for takatāpui, Māori self-determination was the priority. For trans people, especially working class, Māori and Pasifika trans women, the necessity of focusing on survival meant that their resistance and activism occurred in more unconventional ways than in joining formal organisations like GLF, and their membership was often unwanted.
Ultimately, GLF was unable to acknowledge and work with the power of the communities that had already formed. Gay liberationists tended to view the working-class communities led by takatāpui who had made gay liberation possible as apathetic to political work. And with increasing focus specifically on homosexual law reform, those who were not cisgender lesbians and gays were soon neglected. Burn-out, in-fighting and discrimination within the movement meant that many of the original ideals of Gay Liberation got lost, as newer groups formed and replaced the GLF as the central pillars of gay organising.
In spite of these not-insignificant issues, Aotearoa’s GLFs fundamentally altered the relationship between queer New Zealanders and public space. These activists shattered the veil of silence and secrecy, forcing New Zealanders – queer and “square” alike – to reckon with gay liberation. Homosexual law reform in 1986 wouldn’t have happened without them. We stand on the shoulders of the gay liberationists, the lesbian feminists, the trans trailblazers, the kamp folk, whose bravery in the face of very real violence and oppression deserves our recognition and honouring. There is no linear road to progress – the struggle for liberation for all peoples wages on. In this struggle, it is important that we look back on our history, learn from our queer ancestors, and feel strength knowing that just as they fought and failed and succeeded and tried again and created change, so too will we continue to fight, learn, and build.