Throughout New Zealand’s history many men have formed primary intimate and sexual relationships with other men. In the early 21st century some community leaders and media personalities – including Members of Parliament – 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 early 21st century 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the early 21st century gay male life was increasingly visible. On television the magazine-style programme Queer nation ran for 10 years. Māori Television’s Takatāpui was reportedly the world’s first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender programme on an indigenous network. Takatāpui explored aspects of gay Māori history, as well as contemporary experience.
The annual Big Gay Out in Auckland’s Coyle Park, with performers, dancing, food stalls, and occasional handbag-throwing contest, is one of the most high-profile gay social events. The playful, carnival atmosphere echoes earlier events – the Hero and Devotion parties and festivals held in Auckland and Wellington from the 1990s onwards. Drag performances by gay men were often an important part of these events.
In the 21st century the larger cities had many organised leisure options for their gay and lesbian citizens, including film festivals, sports teams, gardening and tramping groups. Some cities offered professional networking organisations, and groups for the parents of gay offspring. For church-goers there were congregations that welcomed gay members. Networks of friends remained vitally important and gay men socialised together in a whole range of private and public spaces.
The social networking site Bro Online was set up in 2008 to provide a forum for takatāpui tāne (gay and bisexual Māori men) to interact with others around the country. It also offered free condoms, sexual health advice, interviews and lifestyle stories.
The internet became increasingly important for gay men. For young men questioning their sexuality, internet chat rooms were a safe space in which to explore the possibilities before meeting others in the ‘real’ world. The internet also transformed the ways gay men explored their identities, accessed information, met one another and kept in touch, in New Zealand and overseas.
While gay men of European and Māori descent now find it easier to express their sexuality, those from some ethnic minorities are less able to do so.
Fa’afafine (men who adopt some aspects of female gender identity) were widely accepted in traditional Samoan and other Pacific societies. In Tonga they are called fakaleiti. Some fa’afafine were also gay. However, the influence of conservative views against homosexuality in Pacific church communities can make it difficult for gay men to come out. Since 2005 the biennial Love Life Fono (conference) has provided support and explored issues of common concern to Pacific gay and transgender communities.
In many Asian cultures a person’s sense of identity is more linked to their family than their sexuality. There may be strong family expectations that a person will marry even if they are homosexual. Some Asians who migrate to New Zealand feel freer to express their sexuality. In 2010 Auckland’s Long Yang Club was a cross-cultural place for Asian gay and bisexual men to meet people.
Until the late 20th century the traditional nuclear family – mum, dad and children – was the dominant family type. Since then, a broader range of family types have become common and accepted, widening parenting choices for gay men.
Gay men are involved in a range of child-raising arrangements. Some are, or have been, married to women with whom they raise their children. Some gay men have been sperm donors to lesbian women, sharing the parenting to varying degrees. However, some people still hold traditional assumptions and prejudices about the types of family that are acceptable.
Because of the small gay population, social research into gay men’s lives is often combined with research on lesbians and bisexuals.
In the 2010s there was no reliable estimate of New Zealand’s gay, lesbian and bisexual population – official statistics on sexual orientation were not collected for privacy reasons. In a 2012 survey of New Zealand secondary school students, the proportion of respondents who reported being attracted to the same or both sexes rose as they matured – from 2% at age 13 or less to 5.2% at age 17 or older. Since 1996 the five-yearly census has recorded the number of people who report living in a same-sex relationship. In 2013, 16,659 people reported this.
Gay and lesbian researchers have lobbied for the inclusion of a sexual orientation question in the five-yearly census, to gain more specific information about gay New Zealanders. But 2006 research found that many people would resist answering such a question and a change in attitude was required before it was included.
The most detailed survey of New Zealand’s gay, lesbian and bisexual population was the 2004 Lavender Islands project undertaken by Massey University researchers. Nearly 2,300 gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents answered questions about their experiences of same-sex relationships and sexual identities. The results highlighted important differences between male and female respondents. For example, males became aware of not being heterosexual at a much younger age than females – a mean age of 11.2 for males and 14.3 for females. Significantly more males (67.6%) reported having anonymous sex (sex with strangers) in the previous 12 months than females (16.6%). Males were also less likely to be in a primary relationship with a same-sex partner than females (40.7% male, 50.0% female) and placed less store on emotional attraction than females did.
While the self-selecting nature of the survey made it unrepresentative – most respondents were highly educated, earned high incomes and were politically active – it provided some insights into the gay community and a base for further research.
Research into gay youth has revealed a wide range of experiences. Some ‘come out’ into a supportive environment, and there is a range of social and support groups for teenagers, especially in cities. The experiences of those who come out at school vary widely. Those who are open about their sexuality may find a supportive group of friends – or, conversely, may face harassment and bullying. Even in the absence of physical danger, young gay men may not feel emotionally safe or respected. Some high schools do not allow same-sex partners at school balls.
One high school teacher reported in 2010 that students continued to bully one another with accusations of being gay. ‘A 14-year-old came to see me the other day, saying “guys always say that I’m gay. They cover up when we’re in the changing room, and they say ‘here comes this poofter!’” I said: “Well it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or not, you don’t find that acceptable”. He said: “No I don’t, it makes me want to cry.”’1
Many schools offer patchy resources for gay students. A 2009 survey of Otago secondary school students revealed gay people or issues were rarely discussed in class, although libraries and guidance councillors sometimes provided relevant books and pamphlets. Given this ambivalence toward gay issues, it is unsurprising that many gay youth come out only after leaving school.
Community initiatives that connect lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, transsexual and intersex, takatāpui, fa'afafine and fakaleiti youth are increasing. An example is q-topia – a social support network for queer youth in Canterbury. Voluntary youth faclitators aged between 18 and 30 years organize events, workshops, DVD and games evenings for young people 14 to 25 years.
RainbowYOUTH Aotearoa operates at a national level to support and develop young queer and gender diverse communities. It distributes information, goes into schools, provides drop in centres and engages in advocacy for queer youth.
Allan, James, ed. Growing up gay. Auckland: Godwit, 1996.
Brickell, Chris. Mates & lovers: a history of gay New Zealand. Auckland: Godwit, 2008.
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.
Guy, Laurie. Worlds in collision: the gay debate in New Zealand, 1960–1986. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002.
Laurie, Alison J., and Linda Evans. Outlines: lesbian and gay histories of Aotearoa. Wellington: Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand, 2005.