Alison Laurie

Alison Laurie


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 of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at meeting places for people interested in relationships with their own sex, and how these developed in New Zealand, though first I'll look a bit at how some of these meeting places developed overseas.

We know that by the late 18th century there were what became known as molly houses in London where relatively upper-class men would wear women's clothes and sit about in particular coffee houses. Various societies for the improvement of morals were concerned about these and did try to get them closed down, so there is some evidence about that, and historians like Jeffrey Weeks have written about that.

We also know that there appear to have been, for men, public areas where they could meet, and there are reports of this through the 19th century and of course through the 20th century, in cities like Paris where there'd be particular parks, open-air places and ultimately men's toilets where men would meet to make connections. What's interesting about that is there's been some research done in Newcastle, in New South Wales, that certainly in the mid 20th century, moving toward the later 20th century, those kinds of meeting places, the beats, were not so much only for men to meet and have sex, but really they were social scenes – that quite often married men would meet there. They'd go out at night for a walk with the dog, they'd meet there, they'd have a cigarette together, they'd exchange gossip, and of course some sexual contact did go on, but that they were just as much social scenes as they were anything else.

This kind of possibility has never been open really to women because women have not had the same access to public spaces as men. Women in public spaces on their own, or even with a couple of women, there's always been a suspicion that they were there to do sex work. And certainly we have some suggestions of a connection between sex work and same-sexual practices among women from reports from Paris from the early part of the 19th century; that there appear to have been restaurants attached to brothels where women who may well have been in same-sexual relationships congregated and met there.

Now of course for the upper classes there's always been other kinds of possibilities, and we have reports, again from Paris, of salons like that of Natalie Barney, of other kinds of highly ranking nightclubs and things like that, with reports that women met one another there, and obviously men did as well.

And the research that's been done on meeting places in New York has focused, especially that of Joan Nestle, on the kinds of lesbian bars that emerged there in the 1950s, and similarly in places like California and so on.

So, what was the situation in New Zealand? Unfortunately we lack a lot of information because much of the research is still to be done. What we can say is that the situation here was always very different to many other parts of the world. For a start, we had 6:00 closing in the pubs, and that came in after 1918. We were very lucky not to get prohibition but we did get very restrictive licensing practices, and pubs had to shut at 6:00. They were not open on Sundays. They were not allowed to serve any food or have any entertainment because that would encourage drinking.

The public bars did not allow women to be in them at all. Women were only allowed in hotels in the Ladies and Escorts bars, and that was supposedly to prevent prostitution, and drinks cost a higher price in the Ladies and Escorts bars, which were sometimes known as the cats' bar. And a lot of hotels didn't even have a cats' bar.

And people of a certain age can often remember sitting in the car park in the car, with their mothers and siblings, when their father might bring a shandy out to their mother and soft drinks for the children while he went and had a beer in the public bar. So this is a different situation, a very different social situation to that that you would have even had in England at the time or other parts of the world. And clearly in such a situation there are not any kinds of dedicated lesbian or gay bars. There were, however, for men, public bars: in Wellington The Tavern and in Lyttelton the British Hotel where men could gather.

But it was much more difficult for women to find a bar where they could meet, and even when you did you had to be out at 6:00, so meeting places in New Zealand as they emerged in the post-war period were quite often coffee bars. In Wellington the Tete a Tete was very popular, that was in Herbert Street, and in Auckland the Kadoro, and these were places where everybody knew that the kamp crowd would go.

And the term that was used at that time is kamp. The term gay comes in later. The term lesbian, although it was understood, it was pejorative and people would not have used that of themselves. People knew the term homosexual, but once again, that was worrying to them. So, among the communities themselves one of the terms that were used was the term kamp. So, people would meet in the coffee bars.

Also, other social historians writing on other topics have said New Zealand in fact didn't stop at 6:00; that's when it opened up, because in fact there were lots and lots of private parties. And there were many kamp parties. There were people whose houses really were often used as the party house and where everybody would go for the Friday and Saturday night party. Sometimes those parties would go on all weekend, so there was a good deal of socializing in that kind of way.

And people who would go to those parties, were they all kamp? Well in those times, in the 1950s and also as we move through the 1960s, before the communities become more politicized a lot of people would go to the parties who certainly didn't identify themselves as kamp. So far as the kamp men were concerned, these men were trade. They were men who might do it or might not. Nobody was asked about their sexual identity.

And you would also have, among the women, I remember several female couples who would explain that one of them was kamp and the other was not, and if their relationship ended she'd be going back to men. And then the relationship would end and she'd have another woman girlfriend, but she still would never identify herself as kamp, and that was not uncommon. So in a way it's a kind of model that there's one kamp and then the other one isn't kamp.

And then you have people who constantly go to kamp parties but they're not kamp, so the question of identity isn't as important as the fact that people participate in a community and there they are at these parties.

Now, I've been asked by people living elsewhere how come these people could have parties? How come they had backyards? How come they had houses? And that's an interesting New Zealand question, too, because in the aftermath of World War II we had a very good state housing policy so we have houses for rent because heterosexual families have quite often managed to acquire a state house, so there are houses for rent that groups of kamp people could rent. There's also more flats becoming available in the city areas because families are wanting to move to the suburbs. So in that sense we were lucky to have houses with backyards and a higher standard of living than would have been the case in some other countries, and certainly in some other cities.

Anyway, our ways of socializing are uniquely New Zealand and they're also informed tremendously by those palaces of queer culture that sail into our harbors, certainly every week and sometimes more than once a week, and these are the boats that went between New Zealand and Europe, in particular British boats, but also ships from Holland and other countries. And a lot of the people working on those boats – the men working on those boats, especially the stewards – were queer. And they brought into New Zealand all kinds of information: they brought books, magazines which you couldn't have imported legally, they brought gossip about what was going on in the rest of the world. They brought, for the straight community, these reports about how they brought Old Spice, which was an aftershave unknown here really until then. They brought the latest fashions like Teddy Boy fashions, they brought records and that kind of thing.

And during the war we'd had impulses from America. So in this period, say from 1940 and from then on, you get very strong impulses coming in giving people a different impression, different ideas about how you might be queer, how your communities might be formed and that sort of thing.

As I say, for women it's harder because you don't have access to a public life on the streets in quite that way. For men there's always that possibility of the beats and something which is more anonymous.

In 1967 we get 10:00 closing and the opening up of the pubs to provide entertainment, food, to make them more welcoming for women – that's thought to be very important – so within a short space of time you get huge social changes. Certainly by the time you get to the 1980s you have a scene of nightclubs and night places serving alcohol with entertainment, which is just the same as you'd find in many other parts of the world.

The first formal club is the Dorian Club which starts here in 1962. Now, this is not licensed, so these kinds of clubs had to operate under the law.

The first lesbian club is the KG Club in Auckland. That was started by a group of Maori women, and KG stood for Karangahape Road, which is where it was situated, the first premises, and also for Kamp Girls, spelled with a K for Kamp Girl's Club. And that also operated under the law.

And the first club in Wellington is Club 41 which was started by lesbians from SHE, The Sisters for Homophile Equality, started by four lesbians from that organization, and the premises were purchased from Carmen, who ran many venues in Wellington including Carmen's Balcony, with drag shows, and Carmen's Coffee Lounge where people could meet and pick up those of the same sex.

The way in which these clubs operated illegally was that people bought tickets. That was one way to do it to sell alcohol because people hadn't actually bought alcohol, they'd bought a ticket and then they could exchange the ticket for a drink. But it's still under the radar and there were raids because of selling alcohol without a license, and problems.

All of this changes once we move into a different kind of regulatory environment and we start getting other kinds of lesbian and gay clubs far too numerous to talk about here, but we had things like the Victoria Club here in Wellington, then had various lesbian clubs situated here and there. And that's true also in cities like Christchurch and Auckland; not so much in smaller areas, though it's interesting that both Palmerston North and Napier have always had a fair share of venues where people could meet.

As we move now into speeding through the 1990s and through into the 21st century we can say now, as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, that a good deal of the ways in which people meet are through the Internet. And it interests me that talking to young people especially, young gay men express some shock and horror about an earlier time when men would have been meeting each other on the beats and how scary that must have been and a frightening thing to do. But in many respects, meeting unknown people on the Internet, for people of my generation, can also seem quite frightening because you don't know who those people are necessarily, and you certainly need to be careful about meeting them in person without finding out more about them. And certainly, organizations like Pink Sofa would recommend that that's what people do, that they find out more or take a friend along if you're actually going to meet someone.

So, clearly the ways of meeting people, as we move further into the 21st century, become more and more linked to the electronic means that we have at hand. And the other thing that one might say about that is that in a way we return to perhaps some of those more broadly defined ways of meeting, as in those early kamp parties; that people don't necessarily need to consistently define themselves as homosexual or as gay or as lesbian in order to set up a same-sex acquaintance on the Internet; that there's much more opportunity for people to explore different ideas or desires that might occur to them from time to time, and that we may be moving into something which is much more broadly defined than our communities of the late 20th century may have been. And we really can't predict what the meeting places of the future will be like or how people might define themselves if they use those meeting places.

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