NZ’s Queer History: A Proud Past

Author Peter Wells.
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Historian Gareth Watkins examines significant February dates in Aotearoa New Zealand’s Queer History.

23 February 1924

The NZ Truth newspaper published a story about the growth of degeneracy and sex crime. Under the headline “Sterilisation Proposed” the newspaper reported the increase of sex crimes from 1919 to 1922.  Included in the figures was an increase in convictions for indecent assaults on a male (from 14 to 43).  This involved, but was not necessarily limited to, consensual sexual activity between consenting male adults. The newspaper article noted, “recent utterances from the Supreme Court bench have called attention to the desirability of some more or less drastic method, such as sterilisation, and the time may not be far distant when such a course will be justified.”

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17 February 1930

Dr Hjelmar von Dannevill died in San Francisco, USA.  During the First World War, von Dannevill had been imprisoned on Matiu Somes Island, in Wellington harbour, on suspicion that she was an enemy alien. An official report noted that “there is much reason to suspect that she may be a man masquerading as a woman.” After six week’s imprisonment on the island, von Dannevill had a severe nervous breakdown and was taken ashore. After the war, she left New Zealand with her companion Mary Bond and her children.  They eventually settled in San Francisco where von Dannevill worked as a physician. At the time of her death, a  newspaper reported “After her arrest in 1925 [in San Francisco] for masquerading as a man she was given a permit to wear masculine clothing.”

26 February 1936

Eric Mareo was found guilty of murdering his wife Thelma Trott in Auckland. The couple are described on the NZ Drug Foundation’s website as “two artists living a flamboyant lifestyle in Auckland’s Mt Eden.” According to the site, they were both addicted to Veronal – the first commercially available barbiturate.  The pair regularly visited the Dixieland cabaret, described by NZ Truth as “an orgy of jazz and fizz.” A couple of years before Trott’s death, she met fellow dancer Freda Stark and they began a relationship. This was discovered by Mareo who, on 15 April 1935, murdered Trott with an overdose of Veronal. During his trial, Mareo testified that “his wife’s desires were met by association with women.” He said that he had caught his wife in bed with Stark a number of times. Mareo was ultimately found guilty of murder and sentenced to death – later commuted to life imprisonment.

February 1974

The Gay Liberator newsletter published a hard-hitting editorial by Ben van Prehn.  The column reflected a growing frustration that two years after the formation of the first Gay Liberation groups in New Zealand, it was increasingly difficult to get people involved. “You must realise it takes sacrifices trying to get the changes we want.  You must accept and shoulder some of the responsibilities of being gay… All of you people reading this newsletter must realise there is a lot at stake – our whole gay future and our younger brothers and sisters future is at stake… Stop thinking in terms of what is beneficial for you…  If you are convinced you are quite liberated fair enough, but wouldn’t you think it is your responsibility, your duty, to help others liberate themselves?”

12 February 1997

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the landmark anthology Best Mates: Gay Writing in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Peter Wells and Rex Pilgram.  Along with a diverse range of writers, the book featured three near-blank pages with the names of authors whose works could not be included: Charles Brasch, E.H. McCormick, and James Courage. Author Steve Braunias later wrote that Courage was “cancelled by his own family… Wells and Pilgrim were refused permission by Patricia Fanshaw, Courage’s sister and literary executor. She told the editors that her brother had not publicly identified himself as gay.” This fear of association didn’t stop at literary executors. Peter Wells recalled, “Auckland Museum refused to give us permission to use a beautiful archival photo of two men affectionately kissing on a boat.” Regardless, they went ahead and published the image on the front cover.  

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