Queering up Kiwi history

Recently, at a party, I was asked by a guy I had just met what area of history I most liked to focus on in my university study – I told him I was most interested in queer history, and particularly transgender history, in New Zealand. He responded; “why on earth would you care about studying that?? It’s so irrelevant! What history is there, for a minority within a minority?”

Naturally, I was outraged! I found his response to be filled with so many problems I did not even know where to begin. However, while his explicit anger shocked me, sadly, the fact that he did not recognise the names of Carmen Rupe or Georgina Beyer, did not have an understanding of the work done by countless persons and groups during the Homosexual Law Reform Campaign, or more recently for Civil Unions and Marriage Equality, and did not care to know about what “takatāpui” meant, hardly surprised me. Most people who ask me about what I study – whether they be friends of my parents, others my age, or even others studying history at university with me – don’t know the first thing about our own queer history.

Gay Liberation Movement demonstrating, Parliament grounds, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: EP-Ethics-Demonstrations-Homosexual Law Reform-01Gay Liberation Movement demonstrating, Parliament grounds, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: EP-Ethics-Demonstrations-Homosexual Law Reform-01

Contrary to this view, New Zealand’s queer history is rich and exciting, and, thankfully, it is increasingly given space and becoming a topic of conversation. Auckland creative collective FAFSWAG are representing Pacific queerness internationally, Carmen’s figure adorns Cuba Street’s pedestrian lights, the history of the Homosexual Law Reform is now a part of the NCEA History curriculum, and Wellington’s recently installed rainbow crossing, are just a few examples of the moves being taken to promote queer history and culture nation-wide. However, the skid marks which consistently reappear on the rainbow crossing are a sad reminder of why it is important visibility be backed by more practical changes, conversations, and education. I was incredibly proud to have been given the opportunity to intern at the National Library of New Zealand over November and December of 2017, where I was given the task of making a ‘Queer History Research Guide’ for the National Library website in the spirit of furthering the goal of making New Zealand’s queer history even the more accessible and visible.

The National Library – and specifically the collections of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand, which are housed by the National Library – has a brilliant selection of queer material. Sifting through the various books, photographs, audio recordings, newsletters, and all sorts of other material, reveals a history full of humour, spirit, love and resilience. Probably my favourite source I found during my digging was this cheeky photograph below!

March in support of homosexual law reform, shows a dog with sign around its neck that reads 'I'm a gay bitch'. Ref: Dom/1985/0524/1/12A-FMarch in support of homosexual law reform, 24 May 1985. Ref: Dom/1985/0524/1/12A-F

At first, I was incredibly daunted; although this was only a guide for researchers and not a piece of research itself, writing about the entirety of such a diverse community, ensuring all histories were represented and noting my position of privilege as a white transmasculine person, was an intimidating task.

Not only this, but this was my first time working in an office – and a huge one at that! However, I soon learnt that at least of this latter fear, I need not be anxious, because all of the staff at the Library were incredibly kind and welcoming – I was even gifted yoghurt by the lovely Rita Havell! Roger Swanson served as my fantastic mentor, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude. Alongside Roger, everyone else from the Alexander Turnbull Library team did such a wonderful job of making me feel welcome and ensuring I got the most out of my time as an intern, and I am so thankful to them all. Although before my internship I had already completed my BA in history, I didn’t know the first thing about archives; I have learnt so much now not only about queer history, but about the National Library as an organisation, and have a new-found passion for and admiration of the work librarians and archivists do.

Further, while completing my internship I was given the opportunity by Roger to attend a board meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ), and I could not be more thrilled to write that I am now LAGANZ’s newest board member! I am so immensely excited to work with this most important of organisations and really get the chance to engage in New Zealand’s queer history.

Me, standing in front of the LAGANZ collections at the Turnbull Library. ©Harold CouttsMe, standing in front of the LAGANZ collections at the Alexander Turnbull Library. ©Harold Coutts

I was also overwhelmed at the huge amount of support and the sincere warmth of the reception I received when I told people about my project. It was heart-warming to see how genuinely excited people were about queer history. I hope that the guide lives up to expectations, and becomes a useful starting point for anyone wishing to know about our wonderful wealth of queer history.

By Will Hansen

Will is a student at Victoria University of Wellington who is currently studying towards his honours degree in History, focusing on transgender Wellingtonians in the 1970s. Will is also a board member of LAGANZ, and he dreams of a career researching and preserving New Zealand’s queer history.

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