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30 Years of Gay Liberation (Part 3)

Wed 1 Jan 2003 In: Community

Lesbian journalist Claire Gummer concludes her three-part series marking the 30th anniversary of the gay liberation movement in NZ. Only 30 years ago NZ was an overwhelmingly anti-gay society in which homosexuality was pilloried, punished, termed "unnatural" by a Labour prime minister - and largely unseen. These days, the nation's leaders jockey for position at our gay and lesbian festivals. There's serious talk of government-recognised civil unions for same-sex couples. We're out and proud on the telly, in the Beehive, even (occasionally) in the pulpit... not to mention the garden centre, the fish and chip shop and the bowling alley. This transformation is all the more remarkable when you realise that we were so divided, we often spent more energy infighting than facing our enemies. The gay debate in NZ may have "signaled the collision of two world views", the pluralistic, rights-oriented view and its opposite, as historian and Baptist minister Laurie Guy argues in his book Worlds in Collision. At times, however, we collided among ourselves and with our allies - not only physically, as in Wellington's Paper Bag March (where participants wore paper bags over their heads to demonstrate closetry), but also ideologically. The movement that began in 1972 was by no means representative of mainstream homosexual society; in fact there was often friction between the two. Gay lib (a movement rather than a formal organisation) and the longer-established political lobby group - the NZ Homosexual Law Reform Society - cooperated and were in fairly constant communication, but they were not best mates. Society stalwarts worried that those young tearaways would ruin the chances of legal change. Gay lib activists probably thought the most exciting part of Society meetings was the sherry. Former Wellington Gay Liberation Front member Peter Janssen believes that the generation gap, much greater in the 1970s than now, was a major factor in gay lib's distance from both the established gay scene and the long-time law reform lobbyists. Peter, a GLF delegate to the law reform society, viewed Society campaigners back then as "funny old people": conservatives whose efforts would result in compromise over the age of consent for gay sex. Cantabrian Robin Duff had been a member of the society, receiving its newsletter in a plain brown envelope. He too became discontented with its work towards 21 as the age of consent. While 21 seemed 'safe' to older homosexuals who feared being tagged child molesters, it was a nonsense to Robin and his peers. "A lot of the people we were mixing with were under 21," he says. The social scene, like the reform society, had developed in more conservative times. Wellington's Dorian Society formed in 1961. Peter Janssen recalls having to go through two locked doors to enter its Lambton Quay rooms in the 1970s. He remembers on at least one occasion "creeping out back windows and running down the fire escape" - although the police raid that prompted this response probably had more to do with illegal alcohol sales than illicit gay sex. By contrast, he says, the pub-based gay scene and gay liberation dances held at the university were much more accessible. Robin describes the Christchurch scene as an underground network, often featuring parties given by a mature couple. "You very seldom knew anyone else's last name," he says. Even in the mid-1970s, the Christchurch Dorian Society had "an almost apologetic attitude" and discouraged talk of homosexuality (according to Worlds in Collision, members threatened legal action when a gay activist described the Dorian as a gay social club in the media). Tensions flared between the existing Christchurch scene and the gay liberationists, Robin says, when the latter went off and formed their own social circle - a move which meant a loss of 'trade' for older gay men on the scene. Even within gay lib, there was a clash of cultures and ideologies. One early Auckland discussion focused on whether 'gay' was the right word for the organisation... perhaps 'homophile' was preferable? 'Gay' won the day - partly because no dictionary was needed to understand it - although as time went on many women distanced themselves, choosing to identify as 'lesbian' again. (The debate over what to call ourselves has outlived gay lib: more recently 'queer' has been thrown into the mix). With the organisation's name decided, there remained many definitions of gay liberation. For some people it meant changing the law; for others it was all about social change through education. The 'social' aspect rather than 'change' motivated some participants. Others concentrated on developing support services such as counselling. According to Auckland GLF member Nigel Baumber, "we all believed in the validity of homosexual orientations and all held the desire to disseminate such a belief. However, the differences were soon to become apparent. Political awareness at the initial meetings ranged from decidedly left-wing radicalism through to right-wing conservatism." The queen city GLF dealt with such diversity initially by creating activity 'cells', and in 1973 by dividing into two organisations: University Gay Liberation and Auckland Gay Liberation Inc. "The university group attracted both student and non-student gay women and men," Nigel wrote in his 1978 research essay. "They were generally more radical in their ideological perspectives than those working in the publication, counselling and social cells of Auckland Gay Liberation." In the feminist magazine Broadsheet that year, Sharon Alston suggested that the original Auckland GLF had become "a more socially oriented movement for the men. The women gradually pulled out, not feeling the need for the social thing and angered at the non-movement it became known as." She held high hopes for the new campus-based front. The emergence of the university-based Gay Feminist Collective in 1974, however, showed that some women still had reservations. The collective began because the two existing Auckland groups "were not catering especially to the needs of gay women," a member told Nigel. In Wellington, too, lesbians were striking out on their own. One-time Wellington GLF secretary Marilynn Johnson says that women members had little in common with their male counterparts. For instance, they had little patience with GLF seminars in which 'experts' (psychiatrists, ministers and the like) "told us whether we were alright or not.... I didn't need an expert to tell me I was alright." The men in the group, Marilynn says, "were interested in the right to have sex with each other and they didn't mind so much about the visibility... they already had the pay and the jobs... whereas we wanted human rights and the rights of women to walk around and not be molested." Not all the Wellington men fitted that description. Peter Janssen was "not very interested in law change. It would have been a compromise anyway." Social change seemed more important, and he concentrated his energies on speaking to groups: police college students and officers, the Labour Party, even sixth and seventh formers. "I think probably eighty percent of it was actually to stand up in front of a group and say you were gay." However, the women were keen to develop a sense of lesbian politics and community. In the book "Changing Our Lives: women working in the women's liberation movement 1970-1990", Marilynn wrote: "Not only did the outside world deny that we [lesbians] existed, but we also had to struggle for a lesbian identity and politics within the gay and women's liberation movements. The gay men wanted us to be gay and the feminists wanted us to be women." After a gay liberation dance, women left Wellington GLF with the takings. They formed Wellington Sisters for Homophile Equality (SHE) and started NZ's first lesbian magazine, Circle. They also operated a lesbian club in premises offered by Carmen, ran NZ's first lesbian conference, lobbied for lesbian rights at United Women's Conventions and set up feminist summer camps. Meanwhile, the mid-70s saw plenty of law reform activity. National MP Venn Young's law reform bill aimed to allow sex between men over 21. A parliamentary select committee reduced the age to 20 but didn't adopt any of the gay liberation groups' more liberal proposals, and some of the groups protested. Then Labour MP Gerald Wall introduced an amendment (comparable to Britain's later, infamous Clause 28) to prohibit any communication to people under 20 that homosexuality was 'normal'. A penalty of two years' imprisonment was proposed. The Young bill and the Wall amendment were defeated and, according to a later gay report, demoralisation resulting from the struggle caused some gay organisations to collapse. In such a vacuum, Robin Duff arrived at the fifth national gay and lesbian conference "with the intention of launching an exocet missile", as he puts it today. He charged that the movement was navel-gazing and politically ineffective, and he proposed a national network. The result was the formation of the National Gay Rights Coalition in 1977, led first by Judith Madarasz. (Despite the departure of many lesbians to concentrate on their own priorities, women continued to play leading roles in the gay campaign.) When Nigel Baumber wrote his Auckland Gay Liberation research essay in 1978, he focused on the first, feisty days of gay lib in NZ. His conclusion suggested that he felt the future for gay activism wasn't bright. "In retrospect, public political activities in Auckland tailed off after the defeat of the Crimes Amendment Bill 1974-75," he noted. "There has been no Gay Pride Week or similar activity in Auckland since 1974." However, from a national perspective the best was still to come. In the National Gay Rights Coalition's heyday, from 1977-81, lobbyists engaged in some highly creative activities on our behalf. There were the "blue jeans days" (visibility exercises in which gays and lesbians nationwide were encouraged to wear jeans), there was the illicit insertion of flyers in newspapers after the Christchurch Press refused to publish a gay campaign ad. And in 1980, when the Freer reform bill proposed 18 as the age of consent, two or three activists literally took the law into their own hands: the coalition snaffled a draft of the bill before its distribution. An executive member made further copies - each with a different consenting age - and these were sent to various MPs. "I believe it caused absolute mayhem," says Robin Duff, whose familiarity with the incident suggests he was involved. That bill was withdrawn. Then in 1986, NZ went on to achieve the biggest step towards equality that the country had ever seen: the passage of Fran Wilde's Homosexual Law Reform Bill with 16 the age of consent - the same age as for heterosexuals. Linda Evans, curator of the National Library's current exhibition on lesbian and gay liberation, believes that gay lib was "absolutely crucial to getting a law reform that we could live with." In the end, even gay lib activists who rated legal change low on the list of priorities recognised its value. Peter Janssen says he was surprised to find that the law reform act had an educative effect. "I would not have anticipated that the law change, I think, heralded change for a lot of people... it was hugely important to more people than I would have given credit to." For Linda, the major significance of the liberation movement's beginnings, 30 years ago, lies in "both lesbians and gay men wanting to live openly, wanting to speak on their own behalf." Who could have foreseen what that would achieve? Certainly not the early gay liberationists. We might view them as visionary but, Peter says, "there was no way in 1972 I could imagine society changing as much as it did. That was way beyond our wildest dreams." Looking back today, we might also regard those 1970s activists as brave. Peter demurs. "I think in some ways those people from the '60s were more the unsung heroes than the people of the '70s... they stuck their necks out much more." But that's another story...     Claire Gummer - 1st January 2003

Credit: Claire Gummer

First published: Wednesday, 1st January 2003 - 12:00pm

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