Alison Laurie

Alison Laurie

Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University at Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, an oral historian and a lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at lesbian and gay organizing in New Zealand, and early law reform attempts.

I want to start off by thinking about the first, that we know of, kinds of lesbian or gay organizations or organizing that started in Europe and where possibly some New Zealanders may have been connected to these organizations.

New Zealand was never isolated. Boats came here all the time bringing information from especially England. People received newspapers and magazines, they got books. When boats came it was very important. So this country has never been isolated. It's never not known what was going on elsewhere.

Magnus Hirschfeld appears to be one of the first people to start formally organizing in Germany. This was tremendously important, and of course there were some groups and books and substantial ideas happening earlier than that, but it's really his Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which was founded in 1897 in Berlin, which is the most influential. Hirschfeld edited the Yearbooks for Sexual Intermediaries, and in 1919 he founded the Institute for Sexual Science.

Also in 1897 an Englishman, George Ives, established the Order of Chaeronea, which was a secret homosexual society initiated in England that became a worldwide organization.

The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology was founded in 1914 by George Ives, Edward Carpenter, Hirschfeld and others. This was later affiliated to the World League for Sexual Reform, which was initiated in 1928.

And there were various other formal organizations throughout Europe, most of which produced publications, as well as many homosexual bars and clubs for both men and women. And it seems very likely that some New Zealanders were members of these organizations, and it's very likely that those who travelled to Europe, and many people did, not just wealthy middle-class people but working class people who worked on ships, did other kinds of jobs overseas, that these people would know the social venues and may have known of these organizations and of the various ideas that the organizations discussed and published.

Certainly it's known that some New Zealanders had connections with Edward Carpenter. He published some very influential books in the early part of the century, "The Intermediate Sex," and we know that people who were friends of his came to New Zealand and there are connections with Carpenter.

We know that with the women's movement of the time that there were very strong links between the various women's movements and New Zealand, of course, the first country in the world where women got the vote, from 1893. And there were strong links, women travelling to and fro, and certainly even in those times there were strong same-sexual, whether we call this lesbian or not, friendships between women. So there's plenty of opportunity for the interchange of ideas.

All of that organizing in Europe comes to an end when the Nazis come to power. It finishes in Germany itself in 1933 as the Nazis are voted into power, and as they advance through Europe occupying the various countries one of the first things that happens is the destruction of lesbian and gay social venues, magazines and certainly of those organizations.

One of the most famous pieces of film shows storm troopers throwing books onto a bonfire, and that is outside the Institute for Sexual Science, Hirschfeld's institute in Berlin. The books that are being burnt were the records and books about homosexuality and transgender matters. They were all being burnt. The burning of books: usually when we see those scenes as part of documentaries, we're not told exactly whose books they were.

Hirschfeld himself escaped because he was out of the country, but he died within two years. So, that's the destruction of everything.

We move forward then to 1945 and we see the beginnings, again, of those organizations in Europe, and the big organizations are formed again. The only one that survived right through the war years is the Swiss organization, The Circle, Der Kreis. But the first one to start up again is the COC in Holland, which starts in 1946. Then the Scandinavian countries begin again from 1948 with organizations called The Organization of 1948.

The organizations are set up by people who had known about the organizations before the war, but as time goes on the knowledge about a lot of those organizations is lost as younger people from the baby-boom generation come of age and begin flooding into those organizations and taking them over. Then a lot of the knowledge about what had gone before seems to get lost. It isn't until we get a generation of historians coming in from the 1970s that a lot of that information is available to us again.

The other very important thing is that organizations, important organizations, are founded in the United States. That's one which is founded in Los Angeles, the Mattachine, which was founded by Harry Hay, who was a communist educator. He uses the strategy that he used for communist organizing to set up cells so that people in each cell don't know about anybody else, so if they're asked to give information to the police then they can't give much because they only know who's in their own cell.

So this becomes very popular, and Mattachine starts branches in many parts of the United States, especially California, and when a conference is held there are some hundreds of people at it, and the first thing they do is expel Harry Hay because he's a communist, and the cold war is beginning so they don't want a commie running their organization. And then the next thing that happens is that Harry Hay is expelled from the Communist Party for moral turpitude.

Hay goes on, of course, to become founder of the Radical Faeries and have a wonderful life as a gay activist, and has been so important to so many things in the United States.

Lesbian organizations also begin: The Daughters of Bilitis begins in the late 1940s, also in the United States.

And then as we move on into the 1960s we get lesbian organization beginning, the Minorities Research Group, founded by Esme Langley in London, and that's the first British one that's founded.

So, what do these organizations want to do, both the lesbian ones and the early gay ones? In fact, in this country it's not appropriate to call them gay because that word isn't known here. What is it they want to do? One of the important things they want to do is to reform the law. They also are slightly beginning to talk about human rights, but not in any great detail at this stage. Really, they just want some basic kind of acceptance, and they also want to provide situations and ways that people who are interested in relationships with their own sex can meet together, have a nice social life, support one another and so on.

As I've said, it's unclear how many New Zealanders would have been involved in the pre World War II organizations, and so far as we know there were not any attempts to form organizations in New Zealand prior to that time.

We do know that there would have been places that men and women met: theater groups for example, music groups, through church groups. Certainly women would have had opportunities to meet through the many different women's organizations. And we have to remember that in an earlier time you might have needed to explain to your family how come you knew people: who are these new friends? So, it would have been useful to have met them through a gardening club, a theater club, a church group or something of that sort. So people would have been quite active in those kinds of networks. We certainly know that there were other kinds of social networks through sporting clubs.

And we know that for men, men would have been starting to meet in pubs, meeting one another there, perhaps in parks, perhaps in public toilets, those kinds of ways that were not necessarily available to women because women still, at that time, couldn't really have too much of a public life, wandering the streets on their own in ways that men could. So, there are definitely differences between what's available for men and what's available for women.

Now, in 1961 we get the first, that we know of, formal organization, and that's the Dorian Society, which is founded by men, all of whom have had experience in other countries. In particular, Jack Goodwin, he's lived overseas, he's had experience there, he knows about what's possible in other countries. Claude Tanner. These are some of the names of the people who were involved in that. They start the club and within a year or so they form the legal subcommittee, which begins to talk about changing the law, decriminalizing same-sexual activity in New Zealand.

Women are not welcome as members of the Dorian; it is an organization for men.

But what happens next is that the Homosexual Law Reform Society gets formed here. It's an outcome of the legal subcommittee of the Dorian, and this organization, many people join it. In fact, it's formed on the model of the Homosexual Law Reform Society in Britain so that it has patrons who are not homosexuals themselves, important people in the church and so on, and these are the vice presidents. And then it has a committee of men and women who do the work, and it encourages all sorts of people to join, not only lesbians and gay men but heterosexual people as well.

It's important to say at this point that the terminology that people would have used, still at this stage, to refer to themselves in New Zealand, was kamp, generally spelled with a K, with jokes often made about kamping in tents or this kind of kamping. And both men and women referred to themselves in this way. Gay was a word used in the United States. It seems to have been introduced here toward the late 1960s, early 1970s. Lesbian was a term that was known, but no women would have wanted to call themselves lesbians; it would have been thought of as quite a shocking word. So, that starts after the introduction of lesbian and gay liberation and lesbian feminism.

So, it's first from this point, with the formation of Homosexual Law Reform Society, that we get discussions about how the law might be changed, and ideas about seeing if there are any politicians who might be interested in looking at law reform, if there are ways in which that could be discussed on a Parliamentary level.

And in my next talk I'll talk about the kinds of reforms that were suggested and how we moved through to actually change the law.

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com