A trans history of gay liberation in New Zealand

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3/27/22

Trans activist and deeply committed Aotearoa gay liberationist Sandy Gauntlett wrote in the late 1970s of her frustration that cisgender gays “conveniently overlooked” the role of trans people in gay liberation. While the Gay Liberation Front itself may not have been founded by trans people, trans women were the “initial impetus” behind the gay movement: for it was trans women – whakawāhine (Māori trans women) specifically – who were the backbone of the communities from which the movement grew. Whakawāhine were community matriarchs who ran and staffed the coffee lounges, bars and night-time venues where the seeds of gay liberation germinated. In Gauntlett’s view, trans women were “the very first freedom fighters in the gay movement”. Ideologically, the various chapters of the Gay Liberation Front were, at least initially, trans inclusive. When gay liberation first splashed into Aotearoa in 1972, gay liberationists demanded the right of everyone to “sexual self-determination”. In an early issue of the Auckland Gay Liberation Front’s newspaper, Gay Lib News, activists deplored the “suffocating tightness of the nuclear family,” which had resulted in “anyone who doesn’t act according to the male or female roles defined by society” as being deemed “unnatural, and subjected to discrimination and suffering”. Meanwhile, Victoria University of Wellington’s Gay Liberation Front branch declared in its manifesto that “those within the movement who face additional oppression”, including “women, Maoris [sic], Pacific Islanders, transvestites and trans-sexuals and blatant gays,” should be given “every encouragement to form special caucuses or sub-groups to present their cause to the movement”. Despite a desire to make these special caucuses a reality, it appears they never did develop, and it’s not entirely clear why. In an interview conducted in 1973, when she was 24 years old, Gauntlett was described as working in Wellington to “help form an organisation for transvestites and transsexuals as part of Gay Pride Week”. She advocated for state-funded gender-affirming medical care; for unisex bathrooms and the rights of trans people to use the bathrooms of their choice; for an end to legal discrimination, and an end to trans women being sent to men’s jail cells (all issues trans communities are still struggling with today!). At the 1974 annual Gay Liberation conference, Gauntlett led a group of trans people, plus one intersex activist, in a panel on trans and intersex struggles. In a report on the conference for Victoria University student magazine Salient, the author describes Gauntlett’s group as being “suspicious” because they had “no idea whether the gays wanted them.” The diverse group had decided on using the word “drag” as “the most acceptable all-inclusive term,” and on their behalf Gauntlett “pledged the support of drags in the movement.” Despite her initial nerves she eventually won over conference goers, achieving “a vote of confidence”.

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