Historian Gareth Watkins reflects on significant dates in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history that had a unique impact on our queer communities.

19 October 1955

Activist and community icon Shelley Te Waiariki Howard was born in Hastings. For much of her life, Howard had tried to suppress her femininity. It wasn’t until her late 50s that she publicly identified as transgender. In an interview with Jac Lynch, she said, “We’re all of us somewhere on a scale of non-binary gender. And somewhere along that way, we find our comfort place that allows us to express ourselves without compromising other things that might be important to us.” Howard became a passionate advocate for rainbow communities, speaking in public forums and doing media interviews. In 2015, she undertook a series of solo activist events to highlight the difference between tolerance and acceptance. Howard courageously stood blindfolded in various parts of Wellington city with her arms outstretched. Beside her, she had two signs. One summarised data from the Youth ’12 survey, which showed that despite the many hardships faced by transgender youth, they were the most active in youth communities in helping and assisting others. The second sign read: “I am transgender, I honour you, will you honour me? Awhi mai, hug me.” And many did.


6 October 2011

The group Queer Avengers launched its Queer our Schools campaign by delivering a set of demands to the Ministry of Education. The group was calling for, among other things, the Ministry to support “transgendered, queer, and gender-variant students through providing flexible dress codes and non-gendered bathrooms; and incorporating sexuality and gender diversity into school subjects.” Co-organiser of the demonstration, Kassie Hardendorp, said, “Since 2007, the Ministry has known that 33% of queer youth face bullying on the basis of their identity and that 20% of queer youth will make at least one attempt on their own life, a rate five times higher than heterosexual students.” Victoria Bell, a youth speaker at the event, said, “I wish that I didn’t have to Google ‘famous gay people’ because I didn’t know any older queer people to teach me about our history.” Looking towards the future, Hardendorp said, “If we are going to challenge the queer oppression we face on a daily basis we need to stand together as a community and demand it. While we may now be legal now, we’re certainly not accepted and valued as equals.”

7 October 2022

The Supreme Court found that a “substantial miscarriage of justice” had occurred in the case of Peter Ellis. In a unanimous verdict, the court quashed all of Ellis’s convictions relating to sexual offending against children. Ellis had been a childcare worker at the Christchurch Civic Creche in the early 1990s. At the time, media were reporting an increase in moral panic around alleged sexual abuse and Satanic ritual abuse. In early November 1991, the Sunday News reported police saying that “Satanism was rampant in NZ and linked to child pornography.” A few weeks later, the first complaint was received about Peter Ellis. He was subsequently convicted on sixteen charges and served seven years in prison. Ellis always maintained his innocence, taking his case to the Court of Appeal in 1994 and 1999, along with petitions to the Governor General and government ministers. Speaking after a further request for a commission of inquiry was declined in 2009, Ellis told the media, “I’m cross and devastated. I’ve done this for 18 years, and I don’t know if I’ve got another 18 in me.” Sadly, this turned out to be true. Shortly after lodging his last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court in 2019, Ellis died of cancer and never witnessed his name being cleared.

Article | Gareth Watkins.