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, oral historian and a lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at gay liberation in New Zealand, and what changes that made here in respect to legislative changes and social changes.

The homosexual organizations which emerged in the post-war period were still largely on the model of organizations that had been developed earlier. They were interested in legal change, they were interested in providing some kinds of social opportunities for people, and they did want greater acceptance, but they didn't really have an analysis of the society or they never spoke about actually radically changing society. That was something which came with the new baby-boom generation.

And when we speak about the baby-boom generation I think we should include people who were born from about 1940; people who were born during the war who don't have any experience of an earlier decade, and so they grow up in that period after World War II. And after 1945 there's a great many of them as the soldiers return, through until about 1955. That might be said to be the end of the period during which the baby-boom generation are being born.

New Zealand is very involved in World War II, as it has been in World War I. A large number of men, and some women, were sent overseas to fight on various fronts, particularly in Europe and also in the South Pacific. So, the experience for New Zealanders during World War II is that the men are away, and they're being severely damaged, not just physically in terms of being killed or being maimed, but they're being damaged psychologically because of the sorts of experiences they're having in very dreadful battles in many places.

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand the women are managing their own affairs, doing the kinds of jobs that men did do before they went away, and just getting on with it.

When the generation returns in 1945 there are many difficulties for people getting together – even married people. A stranger comes into the house. Perhaps there are children that were born before he went away, or perhaps there are children that have been born while he's been away, which is more complicated; whatever, it's a difficult domestic situation.

New Zealand had been through that once before in the aftermath of World War I, so this time they made several attempts to try to get things onto a more even keel. So, there was assistance for soldiers returning, there were state houses available for people, there were many kinds of social reforms which were intended to get domestic life back on an even keel and help people settle down in the aftermath of that terrible war.

What this meant was that the children being born after the war, or who were growing up after the war, were a generation who were especially privileged. I'm of that generation myself. We got free dental care through dental nurses in the dental clinics, we got free medical care, we got free milk in schools and apples, we got free education right through from kindergarten right through primary school, secondary school and tertiary education, too. So we learned to think of ourselves as important people for whom the war had been fought. It had been fought to give us a future; that's why they'd all been out there doing it. So, that makes some difference too, that this generation sees itself as having a special sense of entitlement.

What also changes is that there are better communications. We've got a great interest now in radio because American soldiers had been stationed here during World War II, and they brought with them an appreciation, a particular appreciation, of American pop music. And more records are being produced. All of these kinds of things are coming in, so there's a lot of new impulses.

Also, travel has become cheaper so more people are travelling. Many more ideas are starting to come into the country.

By the time we get into the 1960s, many people, the younger generation, are becoming familiar with trends in overseas music which have very different kinds of quite rebellious messages. In particular, rock and roll, which has a great following, it's popular throughout the world, makes a big impact here. Within a short space of time we've got our own rock and roll bands and the messages are coming out of that.

Then there are messages from groups like The Beatles, and then you get all kinds of messages coming from the United States with people like Bob Dylan with songs like "The Times They Are A-Changing," the kinds of folk music which brings really radical and interesting kinds of messages.

Among films you get films like "Rebel Without a Cause," James Dean, coming earlier in that decade, promoting other kinds of ideas and certainly a feeling that things can be changed.

There's also, in the aftermath of World War II, set up by Eleanor Roosevelt and others, a commitment to human rights, a commitment to the fact that there are such things as human rights, and people are not going to be treated in that terrible way again, as we had seen in World War II with the genocide, the killing of Jews, the mass murder, that those kinds of things are not going to happen.

So, this generation grows up with that kind of knowledge, and within a short space of time you start to get movements like flower power, the new left, make love not war, and then you get very strong movement, anti-war movement, particularly against the increasing war in Viet Nam, and the organization of young people. And there's a big population of young people. It's a big generation. And this bulge generation has actually made a big difference as it's moved through the decades. It starts to make itself felt in the 1960s.

So, ideas about women's liberation and gay liberation can't be seen in isolation. They are very definitely part of this whole movement which starts, really, with black civil rights in the United States, moves on to ideas about women's liberation because women who are involved in the civil rights struggle see themselves as being treated actually really badly, so begin to prioritize their own circumstance. This is also true of gay people in the United States being involved in those movements, suddenly starting to think: But hey, what about us?

And what happens then, in 1969, is homosexual men and women at the Stonewall Inn in New York riot against the police raiding the bar, and this is said to be the beginnings of gay liberation. Of course, as Harry Hay has said, that wonderful originator of much gay activism in the United States, he said through the 1950s and the 1960s we laid a powder trail which could be lit at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. So, it does build upon the earlier organizing, and we shouldn't think these things come out of nowhere. But certainly there's a different mood afoot, and the mood is that social change is possible.

And it's also another way. As gay liberation starts to form, within a very short space of time the slogans are, "We're here to bring out the lesbian and gay man in everybody's head," and "Gay is Good, Gay is Proud," and a big chant of people, "We are innocent! We are innocent!" which was very important because people had been, up until then, inclined to think of themselves really as bad people, that they really were doing something wrong. But now people of that generation are saying: We are innocent. We haven't done anything wrong.

And so things begin to change. Now, gay liberation is introduced into New Zealand in 1972. A Maori lesbian activist, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, is refused a visa to the United States because she is known as a homosexual, so a meeting is called at Auckland University, and that's the beginnings of gay liberation. Within just a few hours there's a gay liberation branch started there. And within the next months the gay liberation branches start right throughout the country in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Palmerston North and other smaller provincial centers, and it just goes like wildfire and is very influenced by these new ideas from the United States and things that are happening in Europe. Communications are much better, you can find out very quickly about things that are happening. It's still all pre the Internet or anything like that, so it's not that fast, but the ideas spread very quickly.

The ideas of gay liberation are that homosexuals are not asking for acceptance. In fact, the criticism now is of heterosexuality. Something is really wrong with heterosexuality. It's not an equal relationship. Why are men and women getting together when they clearly have so little in common? And of course this generation has observed that in their own houses, these great difficulties in that generation coming back from war: silent, damaged men; women who really resented this man coming back and taking over; a good deal of separation between men and women clearly having difficulty working out those heterosexual relationships. So this generation of homosexuals are saying: What's so good about heterosexuality? We don't want to get involved in that. Look at it!

And at the same time we have women's liberation where the heterosexual women and women's liberation are trying to work out ways that heterosexual relationships could be better, could be made more equal. How could men change? Must women change?

And meanwhile, in both of these organizations, something else very interesting happens because both in women's liberation, which starts in this country, the first Women's Liberation Front club forms in 1970 by students at Victoria University of Wellington, and from 1971 women's liberation starts throughout the country.

And by about 1973 women in the women's liberation groups, lesbians in the women's liberation groups, are starting to feel that heterosexual feminists are discriminating against them. They're saying, "Oh, don't tell people you're a lesbian! Everyone will think we're lesbians." So lesbians are not feeling very happy about that.

And lesbians working in gay liberation, as more men joined gay liberation, as happened elsewhere, and more conservative men get involved in gay liberation, lesbians in gay liberation groups start to feel that the men are being very sexist, that they're actually being asked to do washing up and make cups of coffee and the men are going to do interesting things like make speeches and determine policy. So they're not feeling very happy either.

So, from these groups lesbians organize separately, and the first separately organized lesbian group is SHE, Sisters for Homophile Equality, known as SHE, and that starts firstly in Christchurch in 1973 and then with a branch in Wellington. No branch starts in Auckland. They still call themselves Gay Women's Liberation in Auckland, but they still separate from the men. So these groups form and are particularly influenced also by overseas theory, quote writers like Martha Shelley from the United States, which things like, "In a society where men oppress women, to be lesbian is a sign of mental health," because who would want to be in a relationship with someone who's oppressing you? That's not healthy. No one should be in a relationship like that.

Or quoting writers like Jill Johnston, who was very influential with, "All women are lesbian except those who don't realize it yet," and ideas of that kind.

The Sisters for Homophile Equality produced the first, that we know of, lesbian magazine in this country, which is known as Circle, and that's put out, the first issue of it, in December, 1973.

And the first groups were certainly not separatist. The Circle was sold in the street. We would take it out and sell it in the streets, and we'd sell it to men as well. We'd say: Do you live with a woman or have you got any women friends? Buy this and give it to them. And the magazine was reproducing actually quite radical articles from elsewhere, but we thought at that point that a wide circulation would be very good.

So these are the first kinds of groups, and these groups are certainly looking beyond simple decriminalization. They want to see a radical change in society, a change in gender relations, all kinds of reforms that will totally change society, and they see very strong connections between sexuality, race, class, ability, gender, all of these things. They see all of this as being interlinked. So these are the politics, really, of deconstructing all of the reasons that some people might be discriminated against in society.

We should also remember that here, in Aotearoa / New Zealand, Maori, both men and women, have been very important participants and leaders within many of the social networks, especially in the cities, as well as in the countryside. And once again in the beginnings of these more radical groups we see Maori in the forefront of thinking about how these groups should be organized. How can things be done differently so that everybody gets an equal chance to fulfill themselves and to have the kinds of rights that they should have in society?

So in my next talk I'll talk about how this does lead on to legislative change, and also to, which is perhaps even more important, the kinds of social changes which make it possible for everybody, whether they're in a same-sex relationship or not, to lead a fulfilled life without feeling all the time that they're going to be discriminated against or that they're not as good as other people.

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