Some women cross-dressed and passed as men. They did this to access male employment and rates of pay at a time when few women could become economically independent due to their lack of educational and employment opportunities. They may be regarded by some scholars as transgendered rather than as lesbian. They usually came to attention if they were charged with crimes like vagrancy or false pretences.
Bertha Victor/Bert Rotciv
‘Bert Rotciv’, who was arrested in Sydney for vagrancy in December 1906, was the pseudonym used by Bertha Victor of Hokitika. Dressed in men’s clothes, she was described by Truth as ‘the she-male ex-New Zealander’.1 Victor continued to cross-dress once back in New Zealand because she wanted to do men’s work.
When exposed, cross-dressing women were seen as deviants whose behaviour was outside what was normally expected of women. When reporting on Deresley Morton / Peter Stratford, a New Zealander who lived as a man in the United States, NZ Truth wrote: ‘Occasionally there emerges from the ranks of humanity a rare type of freak whose idiosyncrasies find expression in a code of behaviour and outlook that outdoes anything that is attributed to the puppets of sensational fiction. No psychological freak intrigues the public imagination more than does the man-woman, that rare specimen who occasionally draws the light of publicity on to incredible escapades.’2
In 1945 ‘Mr X’ and her wife were charged with making a false statement under the Marriage Act. Mr X lived as a man, had her breasts removed, and registered as a male under the National Service Regulations for war service. Mr X’s wife knew she was female before they married and it was reported that they were happy together. The couple was ordered by the court to remain apart as a condition of a probationary sentence, and to undergo psychiatric treatment.
Dressing in the 21st century
As choices of clothing have become more flexible from the 1960s, many lesbians now choose to wear items like trousers without this being regarded as cross-dressing. Strictly gendered clothing is not required in most New Zealand workplaces. And though equal pay has not yet been achieved, women have better access to education, and to employment opportunities and pay previously available mainly to men. More women are now able to achieve economic independence, and to choose to live as lesbians if they wish.