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Story: Lesbian lives

Some 19th- and early 20th-century women formed passionate friendships, and sometimes lifelong partnerships, although few women had the resources to live independently of men. From the later 20th century lesbians were increasingly ‘out’ and proud, and some chose to have children.

Story by Alison J. Laurie
Main image: Club 41 poster, 1970s

Story Summary

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Living a lesbian life

Before the later 20th century most women were financially dependent on men. Few women had enough money to live as lesbians, independent of men. However, some women had relationships with one another – although they may not have seen themselves as lesbians.

Controlling lesbianism

Lesbianism was accepted in many Māori communities. However, European colonisers did not accept lesbianism, and made male homosexual acts illegal. Lesbian acts were not criminalised, but lesbians sometimes lost their jobs, or were sent to psychiatric hospitals for treatment.

Early relationships

In the 19th and early 20th centuries some women formed long-term relationships. They bought houses together, lived together, socialised with other female couples and were buried together. Some married women also had lesbian relationships.

Meeting places

Publicly visible lesbian communities developed after the Second World War, with ‘kamp’ (gay) communities in the main cities. Lesbians often socialised at private parties, or met in particular coffee lounges and bars. The first lesbian social clubs opened in the 1970s – the KG Club in Auckland and Club 41 in Wellington.


Some women cross-dressed – dressed (and sometimes lived publicly) as men. ‘Bert Rotciv’ was the name used by Bertha Victor of Hokitika, who was arrested in Sydney for vagrancy and exposed as a cross-dresser. In the 21st century there were fewer restrictions on women’s clothing.

Lesbian activism

From the 1970s lesbians were involved in the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement. They also set up their own organisations. Lesbians and gay men worked for gay rights. Gay male sex was decriminalised in 1986, and from 1993 it was illegal to discriminate against lesbians and gays. From 2005 same-sex partners could form civil unions, and from 2013 they could marry.

Lesbian lives in the 21st century

In the early 21st century many women live openly in lesbian relationships, often raising children. Under law, lesbian couples who have children together are both recognised as parents. Public events such as the Big Gay Out in Auckland and Out in the Square in Wellington celebrate lesbian life. Well-known lesbians include performers the Topp Twins, ex-Labour MP Maryan Street and singer Anika Moa.

How to cite this page:

Alison J. Laurie, 'Lesbian lives', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 December 2017)

Story by Alison J. Laurie, published 5 May 2011