Intro: A drive across the breadth and length of this adventure-land reveals a biodiversity of nature, from ancient forests to dense glaciers, from ragged fjords to calm penguin beaches, from postcard villages to boiling volcanoes. Among the population another sort of diversity exists: age-old Maori tribal ways, conservative British traditionalists and a colorful, out-proud Lesbigay community savoring their federally legislative rights.
By Richard Ammon
Updated June 2011
A Changed Nation
Thirty years ago New Zealand was a nation of leftover stuffy Victorian attitudes toward human sexuality and a dense homophobic mindset about lesbigay love and life. It was not a happy place to be queer. Then came AIDS, accompanied by a strengthened Stonewall mentality plus several anti-gay miscarriages of justice that allowed gay bashers/murderers to escape punishment.
Together these forces and traumas prompted closeted murmurs to become wails of protest that morphed into defiant activism against the prevailing ignorance and bias. Despite a storm of fundamentalist religious bigotry, MP Fran Wilde, supported by a devoted core of national gayadvocates, led the charge against ignorance and discrimination for 16 arduous months as she pushed, cajoled and persuaded legislators to vote for her landmark legislation which proposed to decriminalize consenting homosexual over the age of 16. On August 8, 1986, the Homosexual Law Reform Act became law and New Zealand stepped into the modern age.
But changing the legal status of their behavior did not affirm, validate or protect lesbigay citizens. That precious next step took another seven years. In 1993, after much lobbying
and a comprehensive research survey into anti-gay and anti-HIV attitudes and activities, the Human Rights Amendment Act was passed into law. Sexual orientation and HIV status were officially recognized and protected under the legislation, making it illegal to discriminate against either condition. (photo left: Anti-discrimination Billboard: “Your child may be gay. Don’t discrimate”)
Since then the lesbigay community of New Zealand has not looked back. From a few scattered and furtive venues in the major cities, New Zealand has come out into the full light of celebration and equality. The peak event, for a while, was the late great Hero Festival and Parade that blazed across Auckland’s Ponsonby district every February. It kicked off in 1994 and ended in 2001. The yearly pink circus was televised and given major media coverage in all its gaudy, sexy and glamorous splendor. In 2012 the city decided to help fund a new Gay Pride Parade to be mounted in February 2013.
Today New Zealand is a good place to be queer, out and proud, even though conservative resistance continues to thrive and howl. The Rainbow Community has established itself as a model of organization, persistence, and collective political saviness that few countries can match.
Auckland, North Island
Three weeks and a car are barely enough to cover the beauty and depth of this unique two-island country in the South Pacific. Since Auckland is the major port of entry from far away, it is also a fine and beautiful city to start and finish a look-about. With a harbor of white sails, it also the gay capital of Aotearoa, the native Maori name before the Europeans arrived with their trading ships and firearms in the nineteenth century.
Within two hours of landing in Auckland we were treated to generosity from a Singaporean woman at the Swiss bakery, a courtesy from car drivers as we entered cross walks, and a friendliness from virtually each person we encountered: the rental car agent, our gay B&B hosts and the sexy cyber assistant at the Brazil cafe on K’ road.
The Hearn Bay gay guesthouse is (was?) only a couple of streets from the Ponsonby gay district. I’m not sure if it’s still gay-owned but it was a lovely old Victorian mansion done up as a B&B and lovingly fussed over by its owners. Over a cup of brew and a chocolate croissant they talked about Ponsonby’s renaissance as a gay mecca over the past twenty years. A lot of money has flowed into the neighborhood, into numerous gay business venue and into many of the now-prim houses with little front gardens. (photo left: B&B)
(Another recommended gay owned B&B on the North Island is in Rotorua: GuysersGayStay B&B)
The ambience of the gay neighborhood is informal and relaxed. Numerous stylish shops and cafes are mingled with the charming modest houses that have been queered-up with new paint and smart interiors. Many of the businesses on Ponsonby and K Road are gay owned. ‘Express’ is New Zealand’s gay newspaper. One glance through its online pages captures the busy and intense gay scene here: political issues, gay business ads, sports activities, full page bar/sauna/disco ads, calendar of events/venues, accommodations, literary reviews, personals, and gay Maori news.
If anything is missing there, it’s sure to appear in the other major gay website GayNZ.com, which also features world news, entertainment, civil unions, adoption, as well as HIV health and prevention programs. There are the usual photos of local folks in the scene and commentaries. Between the two sites, there is little about New Zealand’s lesbigay scene that is left unclaimed. (photo left: gay chorus)
Inside the Community
As for gay men and lesbian women working together, there is general cooperation but mostly they gather in separate sub-communities. During to Hero Parade days the event was filled with men with overt displays of sexuality and outrageous drag outfits. Our B&B host Aubrey said, “some women were offended by those over-the-top drag exaggerations of feminine identity. They don’t relate with that. Just look at all the butch dykes in the parade. They like their bikes, not feathers and dresses…it’s all so complicated now. I’m not sure what gay means anymore, if it means anything,” he decried with a slightly joking complaint.
“There are so many different sub-cultures. From cyberpunks with pierced tits and spiked orange hair to leather men in bare-butt chaps and dog collars to the
Lesbian Avengers and preppy Lesbian physicians. And all of it quite like San Francisco. What’s New Zealand gay in all that?”
Aubrey’s rolling thoughts scanned many concerns of today’s gay community across the globe, from Australia and Thailand to South Africa to London and across the USA. What does gay’ mean now at the turn of a new century? What is a proper agenda: assimilation or queer distinction; in-your-face erotic energy or subdued hetero-like hushed sexuality; is homosexual orientation a proud identity or a meek label secondary to other cultural distinctions such as career or family or financial status?
Since New Zealand lesbigay citizens are no longer concerned for their legislative safety and legal status, as in many western societies, the subsequent generation of issues facing the larger global gay community often turns to identity, appearance and expression as well as equality of opportunity-issues that are more difficult to focus and agree on.
Eugene in Auckland
The next day, sitting at a sidewalk table at Atlas Café with American-born activist and businessman Eugene Moore. He agreed that New Zealand was now a much-changed place, more live-and-let-live society generally free of coercion and stiff conformity. “There are of course still small town rednecks who would rather harass gays than understand them. But as a culture, we’ve come along way in the past fifteen years. Thanks to people like the late Robert Goodwin who pushed for legislative reform.”
Eugene is a very-out human resources consultant who confers with corporations, government agencies as well as the military branches to educate them about lesbigay issues such as harassment, discrimination, tolerance and workplace attitudes. He debated on TV with a right wing Christian Coalition party leader who felt that “hanging was too good for gays”. The leader, John Jamison, was so extreme in his views that he served to embarrass himself with little help from Eugene. In the election, the Coalition failed to get any seats in Parliament and the party fell apart.
Having battled with ignorance and hostility, Eugene declared with a mix of pride and determination, “We are a healthy, mostly secular society so the fundamentalists can only manage a ‘stealth activism’ here. It is they who are fringe, not us and we’re grateful. You can be sure we’ll work to keep it that way.”
Eugene also agreed that the lesbigay community is cooperative and generally works together on major projects and issues. “We’re all working on discrimination, parenting and equality issues. And it’s true the men have some distinct issues such as sexual expression (and fashion!) whereas the women are more focused on issues of power and authority (and softball!). We disagree sometimes and we have separate focus groups and activities. But we are clearly supportive of one another, you can be sure.”
He felt there was much less fear in New Zealand within the lesbigay community than in the USA because of the legal protections and the virtual absence of homophobic violence. As an expat he also sensed a certain adolescent arrogance in American gay attitudes that does not prevail in his adopted country, an attitude “that seems to come from a buff-gym-narcissism reinforced by money”.
Eugene’s take on the American/New Zealand gay scene is sharpened by his being an American living in New Zealand with his Cambodian-born lover of ten years. Nol escaped from the killing fields in his native country to settle in New Zealand seven years ago. He is a clothing designer and maker. His story of escape is a harrowing tale of danger, death and loss. As a gay man he would have certainly faced persecution in Cambodia.
Driving Around the North Island
On our circuitous way around the North Island, we drove through the unusual Waipoua Kauri Forest where a true giant lives: Tane Mahuta (‘lord of the forest’) is more like a divine presence than a two-hundred-foot tree whose roots literally reach down and back more than twelve hundred years. Visitors approach in awe of this powerful ancient shrine of nature. This is the tallest kauri tree in the world and is protected here in this federal parkland.
Many other kauri trees have not been so lucky: because of its beauty and imperviousness to decay, kauri wood has been milled over the past two centuries for such uses as Maori canoes and European furniture. Today, this wood is so highly valued that underground stumps from trees harvested long ago are dug up for carving into art sculptures, furniture and household items. Some of the stumps found in swampy areas have been carbon dated beyond twenty thousand years.
Further south toward Wellington, Dannevirke is a small drive-through town with a few art deco buildings. Most of the nondescript modest houses contain rural, friendly working class people. One night we were hosted by an elderly friend whose daughter my partner had known in high school. Her wizened face and broad smile welcomed this present day gay couple as warmly as any close friends from long ago.
I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when the topic of homosexuality was not even breathable. Still today, I am continuously surprised when I see signs of gay life in unexpected places. Strolling down the main street of Dannevirke the next day was not the place I expected to find a new gay novel sitting very obviously among recent paperback releases at the local bookstore, its cover face up showing a pretty boy clad only in his underwear-in the front window. And there it was, as clear as any symbol for the new New Zealand in the heart of blue-collar land.
A day later my smile deepened further as we arrived in busy downtown Wellington during their bi-annual Arts Festival. This vibrant and windy city on a hill overlooking a picturesque harbor is quietly infused with a gay presence that comes thrillingly, even if hesitantly, close to ‘normal’.
Perhaps most typical of this integration was the location of Bo Jangles, a gay bar/disco that opened in 1997 and was, for a couple of years, one of the more popular venues in town. It was located in the heart of the trendy downtown and virtually next door to a straight bar/disco. The shared-neighborhood mix was, and still is, easy and noncompetitive as young people, gay, straight and in between come and go to their favorite watering holes.
Venues come and go of course. I asked the doorman at Bo Jangles, collecting the $3 weekend cover charge, where the best known gay bar ‘Caspar’s’ was. To my disappointment, he informed me it had closed a few weeks earlier “from bad management”. Another popular haunt, ‘Escape’ had also closed and was replaced by Ruby, Ruby only a few blocks away. Ruby was also in the same chic district close to several straight and mixed bars and cafes. I went twice to this high-ceiling cave-like place, once when I could talk and be heard and once much later at night when the refrigerator-sized speakers where shaking the walls and rafters and reducing conversation to short verbal shouts. (Perhaps this is why cruising so non-verbal!) As of 2000, both Bo Jangles and Ruby Ruby were no longer living.
On my way to finding these bars, I stopped to ask strangers (an apparent straight couple) for directions and we wound up in a thoroughly helpful conversation about which gay bars had closed and opened recently in the area-and why. Neither the man nor the woman was gay but they had numerous gay employees in their business and had several times gone to a gay cafe after work with them.
The same area of town, Thorndon, was packed with countless ethnic restaurants and cafes, as well as fashionable clothing shops, pedestrian malls, internet cafes, street entertainers, skateboarders wrapped in baggy clothes whizzing around zipped up business types attached to briefcases. I watched a lesbian couple casually stroll by hand in hand on their way down the street, window shopping as they went. I think I may have been the only one noticed-with pleasure.
In an issue of ‘Our World’ magazine, writer John Mills waxed enthusiastically about his experience in Wellington:
Wellington, New Zealand’s capitol city, is unquestionably the premiere gay playground of the South Pacific. It’s a sizzling party town, the one preferred by Australians seeking its uninhibited pleasures. Wellington holds its “Mr. Gay New Zealand” contest each October. Glistening young hopefuls come clamoring here from every corner of the country. Similarly in the summer local guys compete for the prestigious title of “Mr. Gay Wellington,” sponsored by the Pound Club. The youngest crowd gravitates to the Boyz Nite club. Nearby lie the Girlszone and Paua Bar, both longtime social rallying points for women.
Wellington has a host of private clubs, such as “The Sunboys,” a naturalists’ group with a membership numbering in the thousands. The “Badboyz” organizes monthly outings, ‘such as romantic cruises in Wellington’s Lambton Harbor. The saunas, which include the Sanctuary, Club Wakefield and Checkmate are venues for non-stop action. Wellington’s saunas rate among the world’s finest with standard amenities like Jacuzzis, steam rooms, TV lounges and cruisy mazes. One even has an Internet access facility! DOODS Dance is unquestionably this city’s prem1ere disco.
A great area for your accommodations is in the Thorndon District, Wellington’s predominately gay neighborhood. Alongside the Botanical Gardens, this part of town gains its charm and ambiance from its hundreds of restored Victorian homes and turn of the century lampposts. The specialty shops, sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses along Tinakori Road are excellent spots for some serious people watching. A couple of the little bakeries here serve up “chocolate fish,” a scrumptious marshmallow-centered treat that Kiwi’s love with their afternoon tea.
Stopping at both Whitcoull’s Booksellers and Unity Books, two chain stores throughout the country, I saw a healthy collection of lesbigay publications both from New Zealand and abroad. I bought ‘Emerging Tribe’, a journalistic account of the NZ gay community in the 90’s, and ‘Telling Our Story’ which chronicles the experiences of individuals in coming out and striving to live acknowledged lives.
Later that night in our hotel room, I saw a TV commercial advertising a dating service. The scene showed images of various happy-couples gazing happily at one another as the dialogue advocated the service. One of the happy duos was a pair of men, relaxed, handsome, fashionably dressed, and arm in arm. What a casual delight as well as a comment about this forward-leaning culture which only offered legal protections a mere six years begore. For those of us sensitive to the painfully slow progress of gay rights, New Zealand’s progress seemed phenomenally speedy.
Gay Festival, Wellington
Online at ‘Express’ I read that Wellington was having a gay and lesbian fair at the same time as the major downtown Arts Festival was happening. So I took the bus for a short ride and got off at the designated place, a large grammar school playground on the corner of two busy suburban streets. Hanging high on the surrounding fence was a banner “Gay and Lesbian Fair”. No police, no protesters, just Saturday morning suburbanites going about their chores and shopping, some looking at the bustling festival, others not.
Actually the little fiesta looked more like a church rummage sale than what I had in mind as a festival. A couple of dozen booths and tables had been set up to sell new and used clothing, rainbow paraphernalia, clever T-shirts (“Normal Is A Cycle On A Washing Machine”), and the ubiquitous household chachkas. The NZ dragon boat racing team was selling homemade canned fruits and vegetables to raise money for their team. One of their members took all the time needed to explain the sport, enthusiastically waving her arms to describe the thrill of this unusual paddle-boat racing sport.
Inside one of the schoolrooms I munched on a plate of home baked veggies with cheese and chased it with a tasty brownie made by a sweet-faced young man (I almost bought six just to continue the conversation). Near the food tables were the folks from the Gay and Lesbian Archives which has been keeping records in New Zealand since 1977. (In 1984 the collection was accepted into the National Library after an arson attempt on the collection.)
Just across from the archives was a stall sponsored by women-owned ‘d.vice–designer sex gear’ with their own glossy brochure which I snapped up. (Do gay men really know what fun lesbians have in bed?!)
Meeting lesbigay folks here was very easy. There is a general attitude of appreciated entitlement and acceptance among the gay community since the Law Reform Act of ’86 and Equal Rights Act of ’92. The laws hold firm and signs of homophobia and abuse are not prominent features of the social scene in this country of about three and a half million.
Sunday Morning with Alayna
Sunday morning at Krazy Lounge in the heart of Wellington’s Thorndon district was shared with Alayna, an attractive 33 year-old lesbian activist (center, in photo) Over an abundant breakfast (pancakes with bananas, and bacon) Alayna shared that she is a musician (guitar, singer) as well as government employee. I first met her on the Internet.
She’s as articulate as she is energetic. During breakfast she fielded a couple of cell-phone calls from friends whom she was seeing later for some organizational work. For the past several years this cute, bright-eyed lesbian has helped form women’s social groups and organize fund-raising activities for the lesbian group Girls Own Gang. She also spearheaded women’s night at the local men’s sauna, Sanctuary–“why not”, she proudly exclaimed! She was then busy arranging women’s performance night at Bo Jangles club.
Part of her commitment derived from a worry she expressed: “we have a new sort of problem now. A lot of gay and lesbian people are showing more complacency, now that we’ve had legal rights for five years.” One reason for vigilance, she noted, was that in New Zealand, as a small country, political thinking can change quickly once an idea takes root. The conservatives are always working to limit or erode hard earned gay rights. “There’s still discrimination and homophobia in this country and we have to keep strong against that. So it’s important to come up with new ideas and events to keep us active and interested as a community.”
New Zealand is still a male dominated society, she said between phone calls on her cell phone. “Rugby, racing and beer-not a pretty picture for women,” she lamented as she described the cultural and gender changes of the past generation. Although very pleased with the progress so far, she felt there was still work to be done in order for women to have true equal rights, respect and career opportunities in a society that was willing to value lesbigays and Maori people.
In her far ranging review of New Zealand life, Alayna also gave a quick summary of Wellington’s lesbigay venues, naming bars and clubs that have closed as others have opened. She mentioned there were no exclusively gay cafes because virtually all cafes were gay friendly and well integrated.
It was clear from listening to her that the new generation of young lesbigay leaders was carrying the torch of the ‘pioneers’ of the seventies and eighties and vigilant in maintaining the quality of gay life in New Zealand.
Native Maori Gays
Gay seeds grow in all cultures. New Zealand’s indigenous Maori culture is no exception. Historically in the Pacific Islands, there has been a magical or mystical position in society for atypical men. But in today’s heterosexualized culture, both Maori and non-Maori, any appreciation for the talents or character of such men has been washed away by two centuries of Western/Christian beliefs that human nature must be separated into male/female polarities.
Alayna had also mentioned that the Maori reaction to homosexuality today was similarly negative to many western attitudes. It was not often welcome as part of the tribal culture. However, she did mention that historically the “iwi” tribe accepted homosexual nature more easily. There was a role similar to the Native American ‘berdache’ called the ‘fa’afafinee’ among some Pacific Island tribes. Certain feminine men were tolerated and allowed to associate more with women’s role than the men’s.
Not surprisingly, many Maori of New Zealand like to associate with each other because of their heritage as well as to preserve the language and tribal customs. From the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930’s, the Maori language nearly became extinct under European indifference to indigenous culture. Since that time, however, there has been a significant shift in attitudes and behavior with more appreciation, education and opportunity including full-citizen privileges and much more respect toward Maori traditions. The Maori make up about 13% of the population.
In his book, ‘Emerging Tribe’, Nigel Gearing quotes a gay Maori man as he describes his anguish at being gay in his native Maori family:
“One Maori gay man who has tried his hardest to be open about being gay and enlist heterosexual respect is Ian Kaihe. To him, having his lover referred to as his ‘partner’ and not ‘friend’ is a seemingly small but important piece of establishing gay history on his marae (reservation) near Kaitaia. “I don’t want the following generations to think my lover was a friend,” he scoffs. “What about young gays on the marae? I have an obligation to them. I am in a sense a parent to them, a role model.”
Kaihe says coming out is more of a risk for a Maori because if he is rejected by his whanau (family) he loses the support of the culture; but if a Pakeha (non-Maori person) loses his family the society still supports him. “Many Maori leave the marae to come to the city for work, and some Maori leave the marae to be gay in the city, and for some it is both. But the scene that awaits them is very white. It isn’t a family in the way whanau is. It sounds like a small point, but it is vital in understanding the complexities of coming out from one cultural perspective. The stakes are higher. That fear of rejection leads to quite independent Maori gays emerging in the cities.”
He feels some people romanticize the concept of whanau, which is a mistake. “Up north, and in the rural areas, women are still running around barefoot and pregnant, and the redneck attitude still rules. I (Ian) tried to establish a support group up north for gay people, but it was hopeless. I had a house and I could use a phone. I was set up. No response. It’s still the bogs and beats in rural areas. It’s very closeted compared to the cities, very unhealthy. ”
‘Takatapui’ is a Maori word that is inclusive of Maori lesbians, gay men, and transgender people. Not surprisingly, social researchers have found the needs of takatapui cannot simply be assumed to be the same as for non-Maori. Accordingly, outreach and support services for social and HIV purposes have made efforts to accommodate and appreciate such differences as, for example, a heavier emotional burden and social consequences of the Maori coming out experience, especially for youth.
Driving the South Island Countryside
One outstanding feature o f NZ is the abundance of land in proportion to the number of people; the country appears very rural and sparsely populated. Traffic is minimal. On the South Island, we followed along the roller coaster ribbon of Queen Charlotte Drive that creeps over rugged forested hills and valleys past the great deep fjords on the northwest coastline. Mile after mile there are vistas with stunning claws of land reaching out to sea-nature’s dramatic gifts to those who travel this winding route.
Dotted throughout the country are gay and gay friendly B&B’s, enough of them to warrant a little booklet of such places around the country. In Wellington, a night at the Trekkers Hotel, a gay friendly hotel that caters a lot to backpackers and other laid back travelers was informal, pleasant and full of travel information.
I would add to this list the little B&B in Picton, South Island: the Marriners Motel and B&B run by a Scottish couple. Arriving off the ferry about 8:30 PM we were eager to find a hotel with TV because Channel Four was re-broadcasting coverage of the Hero Parade that happened a couple of weeks before we arrived. When I asked our Scotsman host about TV, he pointed me to the TV lounge and asked which program I wanted. I told him about the gay and lesbian program and with no hesitation he tried to find it on the telly, but alas this little town on the northern coast did not get that channel from Christchurch a hundred miles overland across the mountains.
A few minutes later he asked us which room we wanted–single or double bed. I playfully said I would ask my ‘husband’ and again without hesitation this wizened older Scotsman flashed a very welcome smile and said whatever we pleased we could have “take which room you want, there’re not many people here tonight.” He was as warm and inviting as any host we had in this easy land down under.
Glaciers and Fjords
Down through the valleys and coastlines of the South Island, there are rolling green hills and rugged terrain gushing with forest streams, sheer rock faces and little towns with general stores and homemade food. One special store in the little town of Murchison was a general merchandise store that offered clothing dry goods, food, hardware, souvenirs, ice cream and newspapers. It felt like a scene out of the Walton’s TV show, and just as innocent, comfortable and friendly.
Along the west coastal road, high cliffs drop into the sea similar to Big Sur in California. Great ragged outcroppings are lashed by the sea with all the fury and froth of water smashing against rock. Such powerful natural drama is both fascinating and threatening to the mind-ultimate, unstoppable forces far beyond human control.
But the crown jewels of this country of contrasts must surely be the glaciers and fjords of the South Island. Enormous year-round glaciers drape down from Mount Cook’s 12,000-foot peaks to spill their frigid melt into the ocean. Our day-long climb up and onto these primordial gigantic ice flows was exhilarating and daunting. At any time, amid the creaking and snapping sounds within the deep ice, a crevice might suddenly split open and swallow a train of trekkers; the expert guides have to blaze new trails daily. This is not territory fit for humans, but a trek was irresistible.
Equally sublime, the giant fjords further down the west coast also proved to be equally harrowing and thrilling. Our cruise boat headed out into Milford Sound in somewhat breezy and overcast weather. By the time we had reached the mouth of the fjord, the wind and waves had whipped up into the fury of a storm that shook and rocked our three-story boat like a toy. The wind was so powerful that it blew the hundreds of normally cascading waterfalls coming down from the cliffs upwards into plumes of mist-almost resembling clouds of smoke. The captain made a hasty retreat to the harbor but not before having his crafted tossed dangerously by powerful white-capped waves. Even the dolphins didn’t show that day.
New Zealand, by land or sea, is a distinct adventure into the extremes of nature-boiling hot springs, ancient glaciers, stunning forest and fjords. It is also a distinct society that values respect and lawful equality among its various subcultures. Over the modern past century it has emerged from a brutish colony mentality to form a representational culture influenced by the best of British values now matured into a democracy of decency. In the process, an indigenous once-defiled Maori culture has been rescued from the edge of extinction and, more recently, another once-defiled community has been validated as an alternative lifestyle. The Maori and the lesbigay tribes are alive and well here today.