Historian Gareth Watkins explores past May dates that have had a profound effect on Aotearoa’s rainbow communities.

17 May 1915

In Auckland, Leslie Lander pleaded guilty to committing an unnatural act (buggery) and was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 10 years imprisonment for indecent assault. The 24-year-old had earlier been the key witness in the indecency trial of Edward McGurk, who was sentenced to 7 years hard labour. The NZ Truth newspaper questioned why Lander had not been charged, as this “dainty-looking chappie” was the willing victim of McGurk’s offending. The police subsequently arrested him. At Lander’s trial, McGurk freely gave evidence against him. Justice Chapman observed that Lander was, as the Press Association reported, “utterly unfit to associate with human beings as a free creature.” He was imprisoned in New Plymouth Prison, where he died 9 years later.


2 May 1973

Gay Liberation (University of Auckland) released its manifesto to the public. It began, “For the first time in history, gays are organising to end their oppression. We are not going to be treated as sick, disturbed or perverted.” It called for people to come out of the closet and say, “We are proud to be gay, and we demand equality.” The manifesto continued, “We believe that all people should have the unhindered right to sexual self-determination, i.e., to be either homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual according to their sexual preference.” The group demanded the repeal of all anti-gay laws and a ban on all discrimination against gays. “We intend to stand firm as gays and demand our basic rights. Gay is angry. Gay is proud.”

9 May 1999

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of Jeff Whittington in Wellington. Early in the morning of 8 May, the 14-year-old was sitting on the kerb of a petrol station in the central city. Stephen Smith and Jason Meads randomly drove past him. They didn’t know Whittington but stopped and offered him a ride. They then drove to a secluded street, where they dragged him from the car and violently beat him. According to a witness, the pair later boasted “how they fucked up a faggot and they left him for dead.” The witness recalled Meads saying, “The faggot was bleeding out of places I have never seen before.” Whittington suffered severe brain damage and had a ruptured bowel. A woman found him alone, lying in a puddle, at 4.40am. He died the next day. The jury convicted Smith and Meads of murder, and they were sentenced to life imprisonment.

1 May 2023

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga announced that Duigan’s Building in Whanganui had been given a Category 1 historic place on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero. The site was the private office of Charles Mackay – the city’s former mayor. In May 1920, Mackay shot Walter D’Arcy Cresswell in the office after he threatened to expose Mackay’s homosexuality. Kerryn Pollock, Area Manager at Heritage New Zealand, said, “We believe it is the first place in this country to be listed as a historic place specifically for its queer history.” Pollock leads the Rainbow List Project, an initiative to recognise places of significance to rainbow communities. “This is a really ground-breaking listing for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. The events that took place there and the subsequent impact on the lives of the people involved are emblematic of the threat of incarceration and social shame which was a reality experienced by homosexuals living in New Zealand.” Acting Whanganui Mayor Helen Craig told media, “This listing is unique and personal, bringing out of the shadows the homophobic prejudice of the time that caused the downfall of someone as talented as Mayor Charles Mackay.”

Photo | Jasmin Sheikh.