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Peter Lineham

What we now know as the LGBTQI+ community in New Zealand did not exist as a community in the early history of New Zealand, but there is evidence of male and female same sex practices and of cross dressing in the traditional Māori community, and in the early colonial community. In Māori society such practices were broadly classified as “takatapui” and accepted evidently without any community concern, although our knowledge of practices and community reactions is largely derived from oral accounts gathered relatively recently. There was a certain amount of inter-ethnic links with some colonial people, who may have found it easier to have same-sex relations with those who were not from their own community. The obvious example here is the missionary, William Yate, who was accused by other missionaries of unnatural acts with Māori men, and this led to his expulsion from the Church Missionary Society in 1835, and he was sent back to England.[1]

Under Christian moral codes, anal sexual acts were defined as buggery (often inappropriately called sodomy), and in the English legal code, which the colony of New Zealand inherited, the penalty for such acts was death. In 1861 this was amended to life imprisonment, and New Zealand law soon copied this. Then the New Zealand Criminal Code in 1893 also proscribed any male-male indecent assault, although sexual acts between females were not included in the legislation. There were only a small number of convictions under this act, and those convicted were held in a special wing of the New Plymouth Prison. The cases included a mayor of Wanganui, Charles Mackay, for shooting a man in 1920 who attempted to blackmail him for homosexual acts. Many others lived in fear of this legislation, among them such notable contributors to New Zealand culture as Samuel Butler, Darcy Cresswell, James Courage and Frank Sargeson.


Still, there is some evidence of places where such liaisons occurred, especially in contexts which were largely dominated by males, for example on the goldfields, and in the army. In the urban community after the second world war private networks of homosexual men began to develop, although most sexual contact was probably casual encounters in bars, coffee shops and public toilets. Female-female relationships are harder to measure, but there were notorious cases such as the Hulme Parker case in 1954, and again there was a literary culture including such notable figures as Katherine Mansfield and Robin Hyde, and European cultural changes were reflected in the unseen worlds of culture. In Wellington the Dorian Society was created in 1962 as a private place for homosexual men to link up.


The decriminalisation of male-male adult homosexual acts in Britain in 1967 as a result of the Wolfenden Report and the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York inspired new activism, by the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which included many sympathetic straight campaigners. On the other hand levels of community violence against suspicions of homosexuality seemed to increase. In 1976 Venn Young MP sought parliamentary approval of a Crimes Amendment bill, and in 1979 Warren Freer MP also introduced a bill, but it took the dedicated campaign by Fran Wilde MP in 1985-6 for the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, in the face of huge public pressure from a concerted campaign led by the Salvation Army, which produced a petition with maybe 800,000 signatures. The Gay Liberation Front, established in 1972 and with regional equivalents campaigned for change. But only in 1993 were protections against discrimination introduced in the Human Rights Act.

From the 1980s a range of community organisations emerged, many of them focusing on the male gay community, for example the AIDS Foundation, the Lesbian and Gay Business Association, the development of holiday venues (for example at Vinegar Hill and Uretiti Beach), church groups in Auckland (Auckland Community Church, and Metropolitan Community Church) and in Wellington and Christchurch and a catholic group Ascent, and numerous smaller social groups. For women the Kamp Girls [KG] Club in Auckland, Sisters for Homosexual Equality, and the Women’s Liberation Conference, for Lesbianism tended to be on the more extreme edge of women’s liberation, which in many ways set the page for the LGBT campaign. Meanwhile Carmen Rupa became the symbol of cross-dressing or later transgender women. The radicalism and activism of the 1980s was conditioned by the campaign for civil rights and the fright created by the spread of AIDS in New Zealand, which provoked the formation of the AIDS support network in 1984, the origin of the AIDS Foundation.

From the 1990s many of these community organisations declined, but commercial organisations, particularly bars and venues flourished among a generation that knew little of persecution. Hero parades began about 1997 down Ponsonby Road. There remained resistant communities, notably churches, and they were leading voices in opposition to the Civil Union Act in 2004 and the 2013 Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act. All these and amendments to the rules governing adoptions and families have made it easier for lesbians and gays to be integrated into the general community, although some ethnic and religious communities have found this much more difficult.

For those of us in the community, this journey has taken surprising directions from the time when the community came out to the time of significant public acceptance. In some ways lesbian and gay acceptance as access to marriage has made us less separate from the community at large, although we still feel lack of acceptance in some ethnic and religious communities. But the road ahead for the transgender community still looks very tough.


Brickell, Chris 'External links and sources', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 May 2022)

Brickell, Chris. Mates & lovers: a history of gay New Zealand. Auckland: Godwit, 2008.

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.


[1] Judith Binney, "Whatever happened to poor Mr Yate?: an exercise in voyeurism." New Zealand Journal of History 9 (2) (1975): 111-125.

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