LGBT people have been part of New Zealand society since long before colonisation, but that doesn’t mean they have always been accepted. LGBT people have fought for equal rights in New Zealand for decades, and this fight has built the foundations for the rights and acceptance that LGBT people now live within. A fight that can and should continue.
Before colonisation people in same sex relationships within Māoridom were not only accepted, but revered in their communities. Historical evidence of the diversity of Māori sexuality can be found in artworks, written documents, and oral accounts.
Colonisation and the introduction of European Christian norms and laws brought change; in New Zealand pre-1986 and before the homosexual law reform it was illegal for men to engage in consensual sex acts with another man. Those convicted under this law were subjected to hard labour and lashes. New Zealand history has many cases of men being charged with buggering. While it was not illegal in New Zealand for women to have sexual relations with other women, lesbians were seen by much of society as to not exist. Some prominent gay men were involved in literary subcultures, including Frank Sargeson; however even in subcultural circles homosexuality was not always accepted, let alone in the rest of New Zealand.
A cultural shift in the 1960s saw increased numbers of LGBT people come out and be open about who they were. Dr Nicola Jayne came out in 1978 while living in the UK. “I was definitely out, I did not care what society thought. To society as a whole we were mainly invisible. I remember instances when I thought I was obviously and openly a Lesbian, then something happened or was said which made it obvious that say, someone I worked with, was not aware that I was.” While lesbians did not face the same legal repercussions from their sexuality they did experience violence from wider society. Jayne experienced explicit and ‘casual’ homophobia within New Zealand society at this time. “There could be an undercurrent of violence; for example, an arson in a women’s coffee shop on upper Willis street which the police did not seem to take seriously.” This was about to change, as the 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of activist groups that promoted an acceptance of being gay, and who aimed to repeal the law that made male homosexuality illegal.
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While overseas Pride movements were talked about in New Zealand, there was still a sense of isolation. Dr Jayne felt that these movements had limited influence here. “There was a feeling in England when I came out that we were following what was happening in the US. In New Zealand this feeling was not as strong. It was as if we took what was happening or being talked about elsewhere and made it our own.”
Dr Alison Laurie, on the website Pride NZ, stated that “after WWII, members of the pride movement in New Zealand were interested in legal change, they were interested in providing some kinds of social opportunities for people, and they did want greater acceptance, but they didn’t really have an analysis of the society or they never spoke about actually radically changing society. That was something which came with the new baby-boom generation.”
A central aim for gay male activists was to change laws. The first formal organisation that advocated for a law change was the Dorian Society, created in 1961 in Wellington by Kees Cooge, Jack Goodwin, Claude Tanner, and John Mackay. These men had lived overseas and witnessed Pride struggles, and they had seen the possibilities there were for the movement in New Zealand. Women were not welcome as members of the Dorian; it was an organization for men. This split is emblematic of queer activism at the time, with men and women not organising together.
The Dorian Society sort to repeal the law forbidding male homosexual acts by forming a legal subcommittee. This was influenced by the success of the British Homosexual Law Reform Society and their role in the passing of the 1967 Seuxal Offences Act that legalised male homosexuality. The Dorian Society followed their example and included people who were not gay into the fight.
Despite the goals of theses activists homosexual law reform failed to get through parliament three times over the following two decades. Finally, male homosexuality was legalised on July 9, 1986 with the bill passing by 49 votes to 44. The governor-general gave assent to the legislation two days later, and it came into effect on August 8 that year. 1986 saw the repeal of The Offences Against The Person Act and signalled a cultural shift—being gay in New Zealand was now legal.
While the main goal of gay men at this time was the legalisation of homosexuality, many lesbian activist groups sought to address the broader issues that LGBT people faced. Dr Jayne explains that lesbians and feminist groups shared the ideals and goals to “change the world, revolution; to explore new ways of living, loving, spirituality, language, art” and that “everything was questioned.”
Another key influence on the acceptance of queer people in New Zealand were Gay Liberation groups. These groups sprang up in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch after the academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was denied a visitors permit to the US on the grounds that she was homosexual. Gay Liberation held rallies and pushed for the acceptance of LGBT people in New Zealand and around the world.
New Zealand now openly celebrates being gay every year, with events like Out In The Park in Wellington and the Big Gay Out. Being gay in New Zealand is now more widely accepted, with politicians such as John Key participating in the Big Gay Out and banks such as ANZ decorating their ATMs in celebration of pride. However this does not mean all members of the LGBT community are happy with the establishment’s involvement in queer events. Many have called ANZ’s involvement in New Zealand pride events “pink washing”, a term referring to action used to make a business who discriminates against queer people look more queer friendly.
Recently, during the 2015 Pride Celebrations in Auckland, a transgender women had her arm broken in an altercation with police. The altercation occurred after a protest organised by activist group No Pride In Prisons at the involvement of uniformed police officers in the Auckland Pride parade. The spokesperson of No Pride in Prisons, Tim Lamusse, said in a statement at the time, “we wanted to highlight the fact that the queer, Māori, and Pasifika communities are disproportionately harassed and targeted by police.”
While New Zealand has come a long way from punishing queer men with lashes, pride events cannot be complacent in forgetting history by allowing those who promote the oppressive structures of heteronormativity to be part of the celebration. Queer history is ours and yours, Pride needs to be a place where the most vulnerable members of the queer community can come forward and have their voices heard.