Queer NZ History: Autumn Blooms

Singer Lew Pryme.
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Historian Gareth Watkins explores April stories from Aotearoa’s queer past.

30 April 1886

Australian-born Amy Bock received her first of many convictions in New Zealand.  An early newspaper report described Bock as having a “perfect mania for what she called ‘shopping’ which consisted of ordering goods she did not require and could not pay for.” Bock’s crimes and personality have long held a fascination for many.  Academic Jenny Coleman wrote in 2010 “Amy herself pleaded an inherited mental instability; the authorities at the time agreed she was a habitual criminal. Mad, bad, or lesbian? Or was she simply unconventional in her gender and sexuality?” Writer Johanna Mary noted Bock “played with people’s expectations and then confounded them… Although most reports of Amy Bock are written by men, we can guess that for many women of the era, the power and freedom Bock had gained by male disguise had great appeal.”

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27 April 1967

Possibly the first ever New Zealand television programme to examine homosexuality was broadcast as part of the Compass series. Television was still in its infancy in this country, having only begun in 1960, with Compass being the first locally produced current affairs show. In a recent interview, programme producer Ian Johnstone recalled the secrecy the crew had to adopt while filming the episode (as homosexual activity was still illegal until 1986). The production crew travelled in unmarked vehicles and only filmed at night. But Johnstone came away from the experience pleasantly surprised.  Rather than participants who were “shamed” or seeking ways out, Johnstone found that the men had a “self-confidence within them… that strength came through and it was wonderful.” 

5 April 1981

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the inaugural broadcast from New Zealand’s first permanent community radio station – Wellington Access Radio. Communities now had the ability to create radio by themselves, for themselves and about themselves without the interference of an external editor.  The first broadcast featured the feminist programme Leave Your Dishes In The Sink which was insightful, provocative and comedic: “Mommy what’s an orgasm? I don’t know dear, ask your father.” It was followed in June with audio from the local Pride Week. An unidentified man told listeners “A lot of straight people, particularly men, have this paranoia that they think it’s actually possible to be converted [to being homosexual] … There’s no way a person’s sexuality can be changed.”

April 1990

Singer and rugby administrator Lew Pryme [pictured] and his long-time partner Jeff Fowler both died from AIDS-related complications. In 1964 Pryme gained national attention with his first single Pride and Joy. Writer Graham Reid described him as “every inch a teen heartthrob.” But Pryme was also a semi-closeted “gay man in a ruthless heterosexual culture.” Following his music career he led the powerful Auckland Rugby Union. In the late 1980s both he and his partner were diagnosed with AIDS.  Fowler died on 16 April 1990, followed a week later by Pryme. Writing in the Sunday Star Times much later, broadcaster and friend Phil Gifford recalled “A sizeable section of the Auckland [rugby] team, all of whom had benefited from Lew’s administrative innovations, made a conscious decision to stay away from his funeral. One player’s wife was concerned the public would think the players were gay if they turned up.”

4 April 2004

Media reported that some traditional signs used in New Zealand Sign Language were being replaced ahead of NZSL becoming New Zealand’s third official language. At the time, Gays were depicted with a “limp wrist”, Jews were represented with a “hook nosed” gesture and Chinese were depicted with a pulling motion to the eye.  Brent Macpherson from the Deaf Association told media “It’s not really political correctness gone mad. It’s more to do with respecting each other.” Although new signs were developed the old variants are still shown in the online NZSL Dictionary.  After complaints from the public in 2019, Rachel McKee, one of the editors of the dictionary, told media “The job of a dictionary is to record, document and describe the language as people use it, not to prescribe it.”

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