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30 Years of Gay Liberation (Part 2)

Sun 1 Dec 2002 In: Community

In the second of three articles marking the NZ gay liberation movement's 30th anniversary, lesbian journalist Claire Gummer looks at some of the movement's earliest and most outrageous activities. New Zealand's brand new Gay Liberation Front "came out" in April 1972 with what was reportedly the country's first gay demonstration. Chris Carter, subsequently NZ's first out gay MP and now a cabinet minister, recalls the "Gay Day" at Auckland's Albert Park: "There we were, this little group of intrepid gays, standing around the statue of Queen Victoria, holding up signs that said 'Gay Pride' and 'Gay Rights'," he says in the 1996 book Growing Up Gay. "People gawked at us and it was all a bit exciting and a bit scary." Of course it could never have happened without a flurry of meetings. The fledgling GLF had divided itself into "cells", each with a different focus. According to the late Nigel Baumber in his essay Gay Liberation, Gay Day preparations saw the political action cell writing and distributing an open letter to Auckland's Mayor, the street-theatre cell rehearsing a skit and the graphics cell producing placards with such slogans as "WILL VICTORIAN MORALITY EVER DIE?", "CAMPS COME OUT", "I AM WHAT I HAVE BEEN WARNED AGAINST!" and "GAY IS GOOD, GAY IS PROUD". Inevitably, Gay Day meant the 'coming out' not only of NZ's gay liberation movement but also of individuals within it. Some of the demo's participants were interviewed on television and, writes Nigel, "encountered strong adverse reactions from relatives... Individuals moved out of their parents' homes; threats were issued about being cut out of wills. In some cases almost all communications between parents and child were severed for a length of time - in my case about two years." CHRIS CARTER IS OUTED TO FAMILY Chris Carter writes that Gay Day was "my first public declaration of my sexuality, and it was quite difficult. I was still living at home, and still hadn't discussed being gay with Mum and Dad." His later clash with them came courtesy of a former school friend: "we had some sort of row, which resulted in him ringing up my parents and saying that Chris's membership card to the Gay Liberation Society was ready. It was just an awful thing to do, and I was very angry and very upset. But in a way it had its positive side, in that it was the catalyst that got everything out into the open." Another demonstration saw two same-sex couples turn up at the office of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registrar. Equipped with confetti and flowers (but not the correct genders, as it turned out), they sought and were refused a marriage licence. "Nowhere in the [Marriage] Act is the marriage of two men or two women prohibited," the GLF declared in Craccum, the Auckland University student newspaper. (The argument would be echoed more than 20 years later in a high-profile court case taken by three lesbian couples.) Protests like this were known as 'zaps' - a term for direct action invented, apparently, by the international gay liberation movement. America's Act Up! AIDS campaigners and Britain's OUTRAGE organisation of queer activists eventually revived the use of the word. In Ngahuia Te Awekotuku's view, "OUTRAGE merely repeated much of what we, today's wrinklies, once did!" The GLF's most memorable zap of 1972 was at a May public meeting held by the Society for the Protection of Community Standards, with morals campaigner Patricia Bartlett as the star attraction. The society was behind the NZ edition of "The Little White Book". This 1972 publication advised any homosexual man to "overcome his vile aberrations... count to 100 and take a cold shower". Moreover, it described "recent statements from young women in Auckland" on gay issues as "vile and filthy. The fact that several of the outspoken young perverts are Maoris has nothing to do with it." Outraged members of the GLF action cell decided to pay the society a visit. Ngahuia and Sally the Junkie Queen painted a large GAY IS PROUD banner and concealed it under Ngahuia's cloak. Nigel Baumber dressed for his part in heels, make-up, short denim shorts, yards of sparkly glass love beads and a slippery green tanktop. "A contingent of us filled two wide rows close to the front, and we sat respectfully at first," says Ngahuia. "The plan was to disrupt creatively, with Nigel and me dashing onto the stage and unfurling the banner, as everyone chanted the words.... "Instead, just as Nigel stood up to question why he could not marry the partner of his choice, through the bloody door came that clown [Tim] Shadbolt and his motley gaggle of yowlers all roaring 'War is obscene! Stop the Vietnam War!' and all hell broke loose. We were vastly outnumbered by bellowing straights in oilskin parkas and grubby beards, and the Christians all howled to protect their Standards. Seizing the chance in the chaos, I grabbed the nearest fit-looking person, a bit het blond with a beard, and sprinted up onto the stage, where I flung him the other end of the banner. We hoisted it on high, and were promptly hauled off the stage. It was hideous.... I was hit, kicked, spat at... the worst was an old blue-rinse granny with a vicious umbrella and handbag; she attacked me with great gusto." In her book Mana Wahine Maori, Ngahuia recalls Nigel coming to the rescue, grabbing the handbag and snarling " How dare you! How dare you hit a woman?" Police moved the protesters out - but not before a radio journalist appeared, ensuring airtime for the activists in general and Ngahuia in particular. ANNIE OAKLEY SHOOTS QUEEN VICTORIA There was no rest for the wicked. Soon afterwards, Auckland's gay liberationists ran the first National Gay Week. "My god," writes Ngahuia, "it began with a most amazing skit which included the likes of Shakespeare, Mae West, Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and, most memorable of all, Santa Claus guffawing all over the university campus, 'Ho ho ho ho ho, ho-mosexual'." Other highlights included dynamic duo Batman and Robin being charged with "swinging together" - to which they replied "Zap, kapow!" - and Queen Victoria being shot by Annie Oakley. The reactions of suburban shoppers (the skit was performed at St Lukes and Lynnmall as well as Vulcan Lane and the university campus) appear to have gone unrecorded. Meanwhile, gay liberation groups were springing up in other cities; notably those with handy hotbeds of radicalism known as universities. "GAY POWER IS GROWING", declared an August 1972 Craccum report on Wellingtonians' initial gathering at Victoria University, There, "people who had previously hidden their identity, now came out into the open to lift some of the bonds of self-oppression, and were now willing to take a stand demanding complete liberation". Christchurch's Robin Duff, in 2002 a schoolteacher and still a big name in the city's gay community, was heavily involved in student politics 30 years ago. He recalls 1972 as "critical... because that was the year of course that we formed Gay Liberation in Christchurch, in May-June." The Auckland activities were one catalyst, he says, and when Ngahuia travelled down from the Queen City, up to 150 people heard her speak. "Why do we have to be thrown out of our homes, spat on in the streets, lose our jobs, simply because we have chosen - and make no mistake we have no option but to choose - a way to love we prefer?" she asked at a University Forum. "Why should we beg and plead for what you, as square people, simply take for granted every minute of your life: the right to accept love and affection and to give it?" Getting gay lib going involved more than making speeches and doing zaps. There were meetings; always meetings. And in Christchurch at least, they often focused on personal concerns such as how to deal with one's parents rather than on planning the next political move. In 1973 Robin Duff and Lorraine Barber established Christchurch's first gay and lesbian line in response to needs for information and support. Auckland GLF had started a gay-run counselling group earlier, in 1972. A SCARY VISIT TO THE POST OFFICE Even low-profile administrative tasks could carry a frisson of fear when linked with a contentious cause like gay lib. Robin laughs when recalling deliberations over who would go into the post office to set up a postal address for the new Christchurch organisation. Despite previous political activism, Robin found setting up gay liberation "quite scary" - perhaps because it was more personal and closer to home than fighting South Africa's apartheid regime or opposing war in Vietnam. It was also far from simple. "Even advertising in Christchurch in the newspaper we had a hell of a time." The Christchurch Press management seemed, he says, to regard the group as a private sexual club and refused to run its ads. "Eventually we were able to get them in." (The distrust was mutual: he remembers that at the first National Conference in Auckland, August 1972, there was a "huge debate" over whether journalists and photographers should be allowed in). SHOUTING AND JEERING IN THE STREETS Peter Janssen, now publisher at Reed in Auckland, was active in Wellington's gay liberation campaign. He believes that being gay and out in the early 1970s was "less of an issue than we think it is [today].... When you're young everything is achievable. You don't really care." However, he says the campaigners he worked with were "probably an unusual group. We were quite bold." And, Peter adds, "there was always this issue of 'how public do we get?'". Small demonstrations of only 15 to 20 people were more risky for participants than the much larger marches of the mid-1980s, where you could could easily disappear into a crowd of thousands. Even having two or three hundred fellow gay liberationists around you could be cold comfort, as an Air New Zealand flight steward called Bruce Kilmister discovered in an early Auckland march down Queen St. Many years later Bruce would gain a high public profile as an out gay man, chairing Hero and Body Positive and winning a seat on the Western Bays Community Board. In the early 1970s, though,he felt "very threatened" because people on the sidelines of the march (possibly one held during the Gay Pride Week of June 1973) were shouting and jeering at participants. Peter remembers that to demonstrate the necessity for homosexuals to hide their faces from society, "we had this funny thing called the Paper Bag March". Held on a Friday night in Wellington's Lambton Quay (year unknown), it provided entertainment if not enlightenment: "The people in the paper bags couldn't see properly," Peter says, recalling the collisions and confusion that resulted. As we shall see, the wider New Zealand campaign for gay liberation also resulted in some spectacular collisions. However, it's unfair to attribute these to the blind leading the blind!     Claire Gummer - 1st December 2002

Credit: Claire Gummer

First published: Sunday, 1st December 2002 - 12:00pm

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