Story: Gay men’s lives

Page 2. Gay activism and law reform

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Early reformers

In the late 1950s the first political stirrings to end discrimination against homosexuals began. Some men wrote to the government calling for law changes. In 1958 a British publisher released A way of love, James Courage’s explicitly gay-themed novel. Gay Wellington men established the Dorian Society in 1962. This was primarily a social group, but in 1963 the society’s new legal subcommittee – the Wolfenden Association – argued that male homosexuality should be decriminalised.

One of the early Wolfenden reports suggested New Zealanders required ‘a basic change in our attitudes toward human behaviour in all its manifestations’, along with legal reform.1 This was reinforced by the 1964 murder of Charles Aberhardt, killed in Christchurch’s Hagley Park by six youths out to ‘bash a queer’.2 In the 1960s, also, the police increased their efforts to pursue homosexual offences – including by entrapment of men having sex in public toilets.

Mixed emotions

Male same-sex activity was still illegal during the 1970s, and a young Graham Underhill – later a gay activist – watched a gay rights protest march in Auckland with some trepidation: ‘A small, brave group of people dared to march down Queen Street loudly demanding “gay rights”. I was stunned! I felt such a mix of emotions right at the moment. Part of me wanted to run – as far away as I could – another part of me wanted to be right there in the front of the march.’3

Gay liberation

The 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain re-energised New Zealand reformers. Meanwhile, in the United States, the gay liberation movement emerged after the Stonewall riots of gay and transgendered people in New York City in 1969. Drawing inspiration from US black civil rights and feminist activism, the gay liberation movement sought new freedoms for gay men and lesbians. Attempts at law reform continued, but the movement also encouraged community-building and revolutionary consciousness. According to this approach, homophobia (dislike of homosexuality) and social authoritarianism were the problem, and ‘coming out’ was a solution. To tell others about one’s sexuality was to demystify homosexuality and escape from the stifling confines of ‘the closet’.

The literature of the movement – which brought together gay male and lesbian activism – was sexually explicit and openly advocated a gay life; different authors promoted gay marriage, communes and non-monogamy. Venues where men could have gay sex emerged during the 1970s, successors to the hotels and public baths appropriated for homoerotic uses in earlier decades.

Old discretions gave way to a period of openness and experimentation. There was a new battle-cry:

Gay is good;
Gay is beautiful;
Gay is angry,
Gay is proud.


Beginning in the US from the early 1980s, a number of gay men became ill with fevers, weight loss, pneumonia, skin lesions and unusual cancers. Some died from their illnesses. In 1984 scientists announced that AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the catch-all name for these conditions) was caused by a virus labelled HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), which compromised people’s immune systems. Until it became known that the disease was sexually transmitted, there was widespread public anxiety that it was highly contagious. Some blamed the gay community for spreading the disease, leading to a resurgence of homophobia.

HIV victimisation

Author Peter Wells remembered how the arrival of HIV/AIDS created a public backlash towards the gay community: ‘Every time you picked up the paper there was a new bit of news about how you could catch it. Gay men were being made into victims again. It was like watching the gains of the last fifteen to twenty years being washed away in an afternoon.’4

Gay communities led the New Zealand response to AIDS, and the New Zealand AIDS Foundation was established in 1985. Community organisations printed leaflets offering safer sex guidelines. Gay lobbyists argued that a climate of openness would prevent new infections. Safe-sex campaigns became more sexually explicit, in a deliberate attempt to eroticise the use of condoms.

Law reform

Gay advocates continued to lobby for law reform. In 1985 Labour MP Fran Wilde sponsored the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. This was a two-part measure: the first part would legalise sex between males over age 16, and the second prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. After a noisy and bruising public debate, the first part of the bill passed 49 votes to 44 in July 1986. In 1993 reforms to the Human Rights Act finally prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Civil unions and same-sex marriage

The Civil Union Act 2004 allowed same-sex (and heterosexual) couples to enter into a legally recognised union, which provided much the same entitlements as marriage, but without the right to adopt children as a couple. In 2005 the Relationships (Statutory References) Act gave equal rights and responsibilities to married, de-facto and civil-union relationships.

In April 2013 Parliament passed the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act, a private member’s bill introduced by Labour MP Louisa Wall, which allows same-sex couples to marry. While there was opposition from conservative groups, opinion polls suggested that most New Zealanders, especially younger people, were in favour of the change. The first marriages of same-sex couples took place in late August 2013.

United we stand

Between 2005 and 2014 there were 3,276 civil unions. Of these, 1,470 were lesbian couples, 1,106 were gay male couples and 701 were heterosexual couples. After gay marriage became possible in 2013 the number of civil unions dropped dramatically – from 233 in 2013 to only 63 in 2014. During the same period there were 208,017 marriages.

Continued prejudice

Despite these changes, in the early 21st century some gay people continued to face hostility and discrimination in schools, workplaces and elsewhere. Homophobia can be casual and difficult to challenge. It can also manifest itself in violence. Some gay men continue to be physically threatened, beaten or even killed on account of their sexuality. Only in 2009 did Parliament revoke the ‘provocation defence’ (section 169) of the Crimes Act 1961. Although this applied to all forms of provocation, it impacted on gay victims since some killers had claimed their male victim propositioned them sexually and caused them to lose control, allowing them to be convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

  1. J. B. Peter, ‘The law, homosexuality and the Wolfenden Association.’ Mathieson Papers, LAGANZ MS-Papers-295, Folder 3, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington: 3. Back
  2. Quoted in Laurie Guy, Worlds in collision: the gay debate in New Zealand, 1960–1986, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002, p. 9. Back
  3. Quoted in Chris Brickell, Mates & lovers: a history of gay New Zealand. Auckland: Godwit, 2008, p. 311. Back
  4. Peter Wells, ‘Another “family” film.’ Pink Triangle 64 (March/April 1987), p. 44. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Brickell, 'Gay men’s lives - Gay activism and law reform', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 July 2024)

Story by Chris Brickell, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 11 May 2018