‘Lesbian’ is the oldest and most commonly understood word for women’s same-sex relationships. From the 1970s it began to be used positively by the lesbian-feminist movement, and replaced other terms. Some women called themselves ‘kamp’ (a description also used by gay men) from the 1950s. In the 19th and early 20th centuries terms like ‘lady-husband’ and ‘bluestocking’ were sometimes used to describe women in same-sex relationships. The term ‘Sapphic’ appears to have been widely understood – in 1905 Truth reported the cross-dressing case of ‘Bert Rotciv’ with the headline ‘The Sapphic singularities of Boy Bertha’.
In 1904 Alla Atkinson wrote a letter to her sister Dorothy Richmond and mentioned Blanche and her companion, whom she referred to as Blanche’s ‘lady-husband’: ‘Blanche & her German friend were on the Papanui ... she rushed away to get lodgings for herself & friend at Wanganui without seeing all her relations ... she looks well, but old rather & very gentle-eyed – she is a dear creature – we all feel rather burdened by the lady-husband.’1
Before social, economic and legal reforms improved women’s access to education, employment and housing in the late 20th century, few women had the economic independence which was essential for living a lesbian life and establishing a same-sex domestic relationship. Many women’s lives were lived in the private rather than the public sphere, and opportunities to meet others or organise networks were limited.
There was also a class difference – middle-class women had more access to education and well-paid employment than their working-class counterparts, so were more easily able to set up what might be regarded as lesbian households.
Mary Taylor, a businesswoman in Wellington in the mid-19th century, never married, and had passionate lifelong friendships with two women, Ellen Nussey and the writer Charlotte Brontë. She was committed to being financially independent, and argued that ‘a woman’s first duty, like a man’s, is to earn a living’. Women who did not earn their own money could be ‘driven into matrimony merely for maintenance, or may have to starve when the husband is gone.’ 2
Despite these obstacles, some women from the 19th to mid-20th centuries developed lesbian relationships and led lesbian lives, though most did not publicly (or even privately) identify themselves as lesbian.
Some Māori historians believe that lesbian relationships and behaviours were accepted in many Māori communities before European colonisation. The introduction of English law and Christianity by colonisers placed legal and moral restraints on all same-sex sexual behaviours. Male homosexual practices were regarded as criminal from 1840. This was formalised by the English Laws Act 1858.
Lesbian sexual practices were not criminalised in England – or in New Zealand. The Crimes Act 1961 introduced lesbianism into the law to a limited extent by criminalising females over 21 who indecently assaulted girls under 16.
In 1935 musical conductor Eric Mareo was convicted of murdering his wife, Thelma. During the trial Thelma Mareo’s lesbian relationship with the dancer Freda Stark became public. Eric Mareo testified that ‘his wife’s desires were met by association with women’3 and the defence showed the jury nude photos of Stark in a failed attempt to discredit her as a witness. In later life Stark became a celebrated elder of the lesbian community and her life was documented in a play and in films.
The absence of lesbian sex from criminal law did not mean that lesbian relationships were accepted. Women who transgressed accepted codes of behaviour and gender could still be punished. Young women who engaged in socially unacceptable sexual behaviour – including lesbian practices – could be sent to government institutions such as the Te Oranga Girls’ Home at Burwood in Christchurch. Lesbians were sometimes committed to psychiatric hospitals for treatment – homosexuality was defined as a personality disorder by psychiatrists until 1973.
Vaguely worded codes of conduct for some occupations, using terms such as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘improper’ behaviour, could be used against women suspected of lesbianism. Prominent and negative media coverage often associated lesbianism with crime.
It is difficult to know to what extent 19th- and early 20th-century women’s relationships with one another were sexual. Close physical contact between women may be interpreted as affectionate and platonic by some but as sexual by others.
Some lesbian historians point out that it is not always possible to know whether and how often women had sex with one another and that anyway sex is not the only way of deciding if a relationship can be regarded as lesbian. They see women who had lifelong domestic partnerships, who purchased houses together, willed property to one another, socialised in networks of other committed female couples and were finally buried together, as leading lesbian lives.
Lesbian friendship circles were the earliest form of lesbian community. They existed within occupational networks, including teaching, nursing, the post office, telephone exchanges and the armed forces, while others included women from a range of occupations or recreational interests.
In 1947 Elsie Andrews published a book of poetry. In a poem called ‘In days to come’ she referred to the home she shared with Muriel Kirton: ‘This rooftree dear / has brought such happiness to us / No other tenants has it known / The house, the land, they are both ours / The trees, the flowers / The title deeds are ours alone / and all the household goods to boot / Each table, picture, sofa, chair / Has been with care / Exactly placed our need to suit.’1
In the mid-20th century a circle of female couples in Eastbourne, near Wellington, included teacher Margaret Magill and her partner, accountant Mimie Wood, who lived together for over 40 years. Magill, principal of Thorndon Normal School, was the first woman president of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and Wood was secretary, accountant and librarian of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Margaret’s sister Ada Magill, a shorthand typist, and her life-companion Molly Gore were also part of the circle.
Some married women had lesbian relationships.
Writer Katherine Mansfield had passionate relationships with women from a young age. Ida Baker was Mansfield’s close companion from 1903, and their relationship continued after Mansfield’s marriage and until her death in 1923.
Freda Stark, born in 1910, had affairs with married women. In later life she said that some women ‘live terrible lives with dreadful old uninteresting men … and they never get any excitement from them … We can whisk them away up to dizzy heights … It’s amazing, the ordinary women who turned out to be lesbians and nobody ever knew.’2
Anna (Bessie) Spencer, founder of the Country Women’s Institute (CWI), and Amy Large Hutchinson were friends and companions for over 65 years. They met at Napier Girls' High School, where Spencer taught and was headmistress from 1901 to 1909. Large was matron of the boarding hostel where they lived together.
In 1907 Large married a family friend, Frank Hutchinson. Spencer retired and lived with them at their estate at Rissington, north-west of Napier. Frank Hutchinson died in 1940 and the two women lived on at Rissington before retiring to Napier.
Community women’s groups gave lesbians the chance to meet one another. There were over 300 women’s groups established before the 1970s, as well as recreational and cultural groups and church, family or private networks. All acted as meeting places for lesbians.
Lesbian women sometimes found one another by advertising in the personal columns of newspapers. The meaning behind this notice, published in the Evening Post in 1961, would have been clear to those who knew the work of English lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall: ‘RADCLYFFE HALL, books by, life of etc. Wish contact persons interested in same. T206 Evg. Post’.1
There is little evidence of publicly visible lesbian communities before the Second World War. Modern homosexual identities and communities developed with urbanisation. By the 1950s there were ‘kamp’ communities in the main cities. Lesbians mainly socialised at private parties at home, especially when renting or purchasing housing became possible for more women as incomes increased.
Restrictive hotel and bar licensing laws (particularly before the extension of opening hours in 1967) meant lesbian bar culture developed later in New Zealand than in countries overseas. Lesbians in New Zealand learned about overseas communities by travelling and by subscribing to overseas lesbian magazines such as Arena three, which was published in England.
There were coffee bars and hotel lounge bars where lesbian women met, including the Royal Oak in Wellington, the Occidental in Auckland and the British Hotel in Lyttelton. Coffee bars included the Ca d’Oro in Auckland and Carmen’s Coffee Lounge and the Tête-à-Tête in Wellington. Gay men also congregated in these spots.
The first lesbian social club was the KG Club in Auckland, which opened in 1972. Club 41 opened in Wellington in 1974. Both were started by Māori lesbians – Bubs Hetet in Auckland and Diana Sands in Wellington. More lesbian clubs followed in these and other cities.
Some women cross-dressed and lived as men. They may be regarded by some as transgendered rather than as lesbian. Unlike early male cross-dressers, who mainly wore women’s clothing in private settings, cross-dressing women often lived as men in public. They usually came to attention if they were charged with crimes like vagrancy or false pretences.
‘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.
As lesbian and gay people have become more visible in the community, public cross-dressing has become more socially acceptable. In the early 21st century it was relatively common to see women wearing men’s clothing, partly because the social restrictions on women’s clothes have eased. These women may not see themselves as cross-dressing.
The 1970s were a watershed in the history of lesbian and gay lives in New Zealand. Following international trends, women's liberation groups (which included lesbian women) organised from 1970. Gay liberation started in New Zealand in 1972 after protests by Auckland lesbians and gay men when Māori lesbian activist Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was refused a United States entry visa. Gay Liberation promoted homosexual visibility and radical social change.
As in other countries, lesbians founded separate activist organisations. They were disenchanted with the sexism of some gay men and the homophobia of some heterosexual feminists.
The first national lesbian organisation was SHE (Sisters for Homophile Equality), which began in Christchurch in 1973. Branches were founded in Wellington and some smaller centres. SHE Wellington published Circle (1973–86), the first national lesbian magazine. Overseas magazines were exchanged and articles reprinted, introducing readers to new ideas of lesbian feminism. SHE lesbians started a support service called Lesbian Aid and organised the first national lesbian conference in 1974.
Lesbian political groups organised various activities, including publishing, summer camps, sports and social clubs, pickets and demonstrations. Some worked with feminist groups on a range of issues such as abortion rights, rape, women's centres, and peace and anti-racism actions.
In 1980 the Wellington City Council refused to display a Wellington Lesbian Centre banner on buses, although it simply read, ‘Lesbians, contact your local community’. The council said they were against the banner because ‘a small boy might see it and ask his mother what a lesbian was.’ 1
Lesbians worked with gay men to support the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts. Lesbians argued that while male homosexual acts remained illegal, all same-sex relationships had criminal associations. The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986. Lesbians also lobbied for prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This was achieved with the passage of the Human Rights Act 1993.
Important law reforms which improved the lives of lesbians included:
By the early 2000s women could live public lesbian lives, which included living openly with women partners and raising children in lesbian households. Under law, lesbian couples who have children together – through donated sperm or assisted reproductive technology – are both recognised as parents.
Lesbian parents are increasingly common in the 21st century – but some still have to think more than heterosexual parents about how their roles will be publicly understood. In a 2009 study one woman commented that ‘because I wasn’t the birth mother, [for] want of a better word, to me it was extremely important that I developed a strong natural bond with Claudia, and I made that my life’s mission … I never wanted people to be able to come in and go “Oh well, that’s definitely the biological mother … and that’s not.” That was really important to me.’1
However, the law with respect to parenting is not free of discrimination. Only married or single people can adopt children. If couples are in a de facto relationship or civil union then only one partner can adopt. The other partner can become a guardian. After same-sex marriage was legalised in August 2013, married lesbian couples were able to adopt jointly.
Public events celebrate lesbian life, and some give heterosexual people the chance to experience the culture. Wellington’s annual Out in the Square – a gay and lesbian festival – and Auckland’s Hero Parade are good examples. Other public events include the annual Auckland lesbian ball (which has been held since 1983) and the Gay Games and Out Games, which bring lesbians from different backgrounds and localities together.
More low-key social opportunities range from lesbian sports teams to walking groups and book clubs.
The deregulation of radio and television broadcasting in the 1980s created new ways of communicating. The Lesbian Community programme on Wellington Access Radio started in 1984 and is still broadcast in the 2010s. In Christchurch the Lesbian Radio Collective broadcast on Plains FM. Lesbians also featured on the television shows Queer nation (Television New Zealand) and Takatāpui (Māori Television).
The internet has also improved communication among lesbians. There are national and local websites. Some websites have chat rooms where New Zealanders can talk with one another and with lesbians overseas.
The Lesbian Information, Library and Archives Centre (LILAC) in Wellington was opened in 1993. It has the largest collection of lesbian literature in New Zealand. The Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ) is housed at the Alexander Turnbull Library. The collection includes manuscripts, oral histories, memorabilia and published materials on lesbian histories. The Charlotte Museum Trust in Auckland preserves lesbian artefacts.
Early politician Mabel Howard, New Zealand’s first woman cabinet minister, is believed to have been a lesbian, although she did not openly identify herself as such. When Howard appeared smartly attired at the launch of her final electoral campaign in 1963, at the age of 69, an audience member asked if she was getting married. Howard rejoined, ‘Married? I’ve dodged it so far and I will dodge it now.’2
Some lesbians have a high public profile. Marilyn Waring was a member of Parliament from 1976 to 1984 and openly identified herself as a lesbian after she left. In 2005 Labour MP Maryan Street became the first openly identified lesbian elected to Parliament. Well-known entertainers Jools and Lynda Topp (the Topp Twins) describe themselves as ‘out-and-proud lesbians.’3 Other prominent self-identified lesbians include singer Anika Moa and writers Renee, Paula Boock, Miriam Saphira and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.
Coney, Sandra. Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Viking, 1993.
Gunn, Alexandra C., and Nicola Surtees. We’re a family: how lesbians and gay men are creating and maintaining family in New Zealand. Wellington: Families Commission, 2009.
Laurie, Alison J., ed. Lesbian studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2001.
Laurie, Alison J., and Linda Evans, eds. Outlines: lesbian & gay histories of Aotearoa. Wellington: Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand, 2005.
Laurie, Alison J., and Linda Evans, eds. Twenty years on: histories of homosexual law reform in New Zealand. Wellington: Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand, 2009.
Te Awekotuku, Ngahuia, and others. ‘Better out than in: lesbian organising.’ In Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand Nga ropu wahine o te motu, edited by Anne Else: 545–568. Wellington: Historical Branch, Dept Internal Affairs and Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1993.
The Auckland Lesbian Business Association connects businesses in the lesbian community.
The Charlotte Museum Trust collects and preserves artefacts of lesbian culture.
The Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ) are housed in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.
A lending library for women whose primary relationships are with women.
Audio and audio transcripts about lesbian and gay history, from lesbian historian Alison Laurie.
NZHistory.net’s coverage of gay law reform in New Zealand.