Throughout New Zealand’s history many men have formed primary intimate and sexual relationships with other men. In the 21st century some community leaders and media personalities – including five MPs in 2010 – were openly gay men. Society was not always so open – until recently many aspects of gay life in New Zealand were hidden, and in the 2000s some gay men still concealed their sexuality. In spite of their relative invisibility, many gay men have made important social and cultural contributions over the years.
Early Māori same-sex relationships
Little is known about same-sex relationships among Māori before 1840, although we do know these existed. Some scholars argue that early Māori carvings depicting homosexuality suggest that same-sex relationships may have been accepted.
European colonists were shocked to see Māori carvings showing male genitalia and same-sex relationships. Many such images were destroyed or shipped to overseas museums. A waka huia (treasure box) in a Florence museum portrays two male figures joined at their penises – which serve as the (well-used) handle of the waka huia.
European settler society was masculine, particularly in rural areas where men far outnumbered women. Settler masculinity was complex – it could be harsh and stoic, but also fluid, caring and affectionate. Some male friendships developed into sexual relationships. In the fledgling cities of the 19th century, those who sought relationships with other men managed to find them. Men met in many public spaces: the streets, hotels, concert halls, gardens and sports clubs. Some found erotic adventures on public ‘beats’, such as parks, town belts and public toilets.
From 1840 New Zealand adopted the British law against sodomy (anal sex), punishable by a minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment. The Criminal Code 1893 outlawed all other sexual activities between men as well. Still, most gay men conducted their sexual relationships out of reach of the law, unless they approached an unwilling partner who subsequently laid a complaint. As the cities grew, so did the numbers of convictions for sex between men.
Early 20th century
During the First World War some military men began relationships with other men at home and abroad. Aucklanders met near the Ferry Building, Cantabrians had the Square, and Wellingtonians picked up other men on Lambton Quay. Men of all types met at work, while those with cultural interests met (and sometimes performed) in the theatre – such as Wellington Repertory Theatre. It was possible to assemble a social network of sympathetic folk – for instance, the homosexual writer James Courage went camping with friends in Peel Forest, Canterbury.
Norris Davey found himself in trouble with the law in 1929. Davey’s former sexual partner, artist Leonard Hollobon, had reported to the police that he was being blackmailed, possibly because of his sexual activities. When police questioned him, Hollobon confessed that he had had sex with a number of men, including Davey. Hollobon went to prison, but Davey was released on probation. He had to change his name because of the stigma of the case, and as Frank Sargeson became one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors.
After the Second World War some exclusively homosexual social circles developed in the main cities. Many men spent their weekends in the company of their homosexual peers. They travelled between cities for parties, and socialised at the beach and the races, and in private homes. These were discreet networks, but some of these partnerships, and many of the friendships, endured for decades.
The news media became interested in the new homosexual ‘sects’ and ‘circles’, reflecting the networks’ increasing size and the growing visibility of bars frequented by gay men: the Waitemata in Auckland, the Royal Oak in Wellington and the British Hotel in Lyttelton. Coffee-shop devotees frequented a range of exotically named establishments: the Ca D’Oro in Auckland, the Tête-à-Tête in Wellington and the Sirocco in Dunedin. These venues, and the social groups that frequented them, were bolstered by post-war urbanisation. Many young Māori men joined the gay urban cultures.