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30 Years of Gay Liberation (Part 1)

Fri 1 Nov 2002 In: Community

On 14th November 2002 Outlines, an exhibition on lesbian and gay liberation in the 1970s, opens at the National Library Gallery in Wellington. Claire Gummer, who missed out on the 'gay lib' movement, looks at its early days in part-1 of this series. In 1996 we made a big noise about the tenth anniversary of homosexual law reform in this country. 2002 marks another major anniversary for New Zealand gays and lesbians - the start of gay liberation here 30 years ago - yet this time there's been relatively little razzmatazz. Perhaps that's because gay liberation is difficult to define, hard to pin down. It was widespread and highly visible in its day, but for an outsider from another century 'gay lib' might look like a meandering path that bisects from time to time then peters out. Gay lib was a movement rather than an incorporated society, a bunch of ideals rather than a set of instructions, a riot of colour rather than an assembly of suits. Homosexual law reform had elements of colour. In contrast with gay lib, however, it had 'suits' such as lawyers and politicians cast in key roles. Law reform is relatively well documented, recent and tangible. Although work to decriminalise sex between men began here early in the 1960s, in some ways 'law reform' is one moment in time - when a majority of MPs said "aye" just before 10pm on July 9, 1986. New Zealand in 2002 is recognisably the same place as in 1986, minus the rallies against law reform. Flick back to 30 years ago, however, and it's a different country. In 1972, police arrested Germaine Greer for saying "bullshit", a jury considered whether the new rock musical Hair was indecent and sex between men could still result in prison or blackmail. The compulsory six-o'clock closing of New Zealand pubs was a very recent memory; men-only bars remained the norm (though this only bothered the Great Northern Hotel's gay patrons when feminists unwittingly selected their 'LilyPond' for a protest). Restaurants were relatively rare - our first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet was settling in nicely - and shopping was Monday to Friday. But the meaning of Bob Dylan's song "the times, they are a-changin'" was finally filtering through to the folks down under, nine years after it was written. We'd launched the feminist magazine Broadsheet and marched against the Vietnam War. For the first time in more than a decade, the over-21 year-olds who were allowed to vote had returned a Labour Government. Our new leaders would soon recognise China's ruling Communist Party as that country's government, pull our soldiers out of Vietnam and send the navy to protest French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Homosexuality was one cause the new NZ Government wouldn't embrace. Prime Minister 'Big Norm' Kirk called it "unnatural". However, students rushed in where MPs feared to tread. At lunchtimes in the Auckland University Quad, anyone could grab the microphone and make a statement. In March 1972 Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (who had already come out as a "sapphic woman" on national TV) did just that. The United States Consul had told her that as a "known sexual deviant", she would not be able to take up an American scholarship for which the NZ University Students' Association had selected her. "That really burned me up," says Ngahuia today, now a professor at Waikato University's Maori and Psychology Research Unit. She recalls picking up the microphone and challenging those milling around: "Who out there is crazy enough to join with me - and let's start gay liberation!" Those who were crazy enough included two well-known figures who have since died, Sharon Alston and Nigel Baumber (he later researched Auckland gay liberation for his Master's Degree in Anthropology). At an early meeting in Ngahuia's student flat, Sharon and Nigel were among some 70 people who gathered to work out how they could be part of the international movement. New Zealanders had already heard about gay and lesbian activism abroad through their "O.E." and other means. They had even participated in it. Wellingtonian Alison Laurie, now senior lecturer in Women's Studies at Victoria University, was travelling the world in the 1960s. As early as 1965 she attended a lesbian conference in Holland. Living in Copenhagen in 1969, she and her then Norwegian lover heard about New York's Stonewall Riots. "We were amazed," she writes in Finding the Lesbians: "Homophile men and women rioting in the streets! We held weekend seminars to discuss it. Something called gay liberation had happened. What was it all about?" Western ferment and protest were at their peak in 1969, historian Laurie Guy points out in his doctoral thesis on NZ and the gay debate. The anti-war campaign, the hippie era (promoting sexual freedom, among other things), black power and the emerging women's liberation movement were all major features of the time. "In a decade of agitation," writes Guy, "the time was ripe for radical protest on homosexual issues." The single event which is credited with sparking the international gay liberation movement was a police raid on a New York bar, the Stonewall Inn, in June 1969. The raid was routine; the response was anything but: the bar's gay patrons fought back for the first time. Soon after these 'Stonewall Riots', the Gay Liberation Front formed in New York and other American cities. In 1970 a British spin-off held its first meeting and CAMP Inc (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) formed in Sydney, Australia. "The new ideas were mind-blowing," writes Alison Laurie of the principles behind gay lib. "You could be lesbian, gay or however you wanted to be. You didn't have to integrate into society, or beg for tolerance and acceptance. You could do your own thing. You could be free to be yourself. You could - and should - come out of the closet."     Claire Gummer - 1st November 2002

Credit: Claire Gummer

First published: Friday, 1st November 2002 - 12:00pm

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