“The Face of Gayness”: A Trans History of Resistance in Aotearoa

WILL HANSEN is a Master’s candidate in history at Victoria University of Wellington and trustee of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. His Master’s thesis, an extension of his honours thesis, is about trans politics and communities in Aotearoa in the 1970s and 80s.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Aotearoa has never had a “Stonewall moment.” That boisterous blast of radical collective action at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, led by trans women and other queers of colour, sex workers, homeless street youth, and others, has achieved the status of legend in queer history. Although Stonewall was not “the beginning of queer liberation” that it is often made out to be, its importance as a symbolic moment that has been utilised by activists to push queer politics in a radical direction, and remind the community of how much we do truly owe trans women of colour and other marginalised queer communities, cannot be understated.

However, in Aotearoa, we never had such a moment. And when queer activists here attempt to utilise Stonewall in the same way, it has much less power. There is a perception that in Aotearoa, queer rights were fought for and won solely by lesbian and gay activists. Trans people were not at the forefront of our politics, no matter how important they may have been overseas.

This is a gross misconception.

Trans women, particularly trans women of colour engaged in sex work, have always been the face of our movement, regardless of whether cisgender lesbians and gays have accepted them. Speaking to oral historian Caren Wilton, Dana de Milo articulated that trans women were “the bottom of the gay heap, even though we were the face of it.” While the “white gay guys” could hide behind men’s clothing, trans women did not have this option. Although we often speak of “homophobic” violence, scholar Viviane K. Namaste argues that “the connotations of the pejorative names used against individuals who are assaulted – names like “sissy,” “faggot,” “dyke”…suggest an attack is justified not in reaction to one’s sexual identity, but to one’s gender presentation.”[1] Gender and sexuality is collapsed, and it is non-normative gender presentation, rather than sexuality, which is used by attackers to identify which ‘queers’ to bash. This is why trans women like de Milo, most likely to be singled out for transgressing gender norms, “were the face of gayness, even though we weren’t gay…we were the ones who were getting beaten up and put in jail.”[2] Queens (as such women generally preferred to be identified) were situated at the intersection of a complex network of oppressions; this system of gender violence is both classed and racialised. De Milo and her contemporaries were not only “the face of gayness” and most vulnerable to assault because they were trans, but also because they were sex workers, and the majority were also Māori and Pasifika. They defied convention on account of their gender, their sexual practice, their class and precarity, and their race.

Additionally, queens were not simply a racialised minority, but a colonised minority. Sex, gender and sexuality are used to reify colonial power, to naturalise hierarchies and unequal gender relations, and therefore heterosexism and transmisogyny must be interpreted as colonial systems of violence.[3] Steve Pile and Michael Keith argue that because “power colonises internally as well as externally” – that is, oppressed populations are encouraged to internalise the belief that they are worthy of oppression – “shedding the guilt and shame induced by internal colonisation,” while less obvious than the overthrow of external power, is just as crucial a means of resistance.[4] As scholar and activist Elizabeth Kerekere writes, since “discrimination against takatāpui has been normalised in the context of colonisation…claiming takatāpui identity can be seen as a means of decolonising diverse gender identities, sexualities and sex characteristics.”[5] While in the 1970s and early 80s, these women did not claim “takatāpui” identity explicitly, many nonetheless drew on their cultural heritage for strength in claiming their identity proudly as queens.[6] These women had to combat not only external oppression, but internalised transphobia too; in this context, the simple act of walking down the street, proud to be oneself, was an act of extraordinary power.

From Carmen to Chrissy Witoko, Wellington’s queens in particular were also actively carving out queer spaces in otherwise hostile queerphobic and cissexist terrain. Again, while such work may not look as dynamic as a protest (which trans people were also involved in, see the photograph attached), building space for community was a vital component in allowing queer people to survive and thrive. Indeed, Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee Loungebecame in the 1980s a drop-in centre for lesbians and gays and sex workers alike, providing direct support to both rights movements. Before there can be mobilisation of marginalised community, the marginalised must come together as a community first. Also speaking to Wilton, Poppy explained how queens “stuck together,” because “no one else is going to stand up for us. Nobody. You walk down Queen Street, and if they realise you’re not a girl, you’ll get punched in the street. And when you call a policeman, he’ll abuse you too. I’m proud of it. We were tough girls. The 1960s was a tough world, you know?”[7] Given that systematic and internalised cissexism and transmisogyny pressured trans people into isolation and silence, the very act of seeking trans friendships and community should be interpreted as resistance.

There is no space in this piece to outline all that trans people have done to achieve liberation in Aotearoa. Although trans people should not have had to have done anything in order to warrant respect and celebration, the point is, we were there, and we were resisting. Resistance takes as many different forms as does oppression, and just because it may not be as immediately recognisable as a change to the law or a protest placard, does not mean it did not help push forward change.

From Pink Triangle 54 (July/August 1985). Reproduced by kind permission of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.

For more international context on the role of trans people in radical and queer politics over the last 50 years, see https://communemag.com/fifty-years-of-queer-insurgency


[1] Viviane K. Namaste, Invisible Lives: the Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p.140

[2] Dana de Milo in Caren Wilton, My body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2018), pp.184-185

[3] Chris Finley, “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing “Sexy Back” and Out of Native Studies’ Closet,” in Queer Indigenous Studies: critical interventions in theory, politics, and literature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011)p.32

[4] Steve Pile and Michael Keith, Geographies of Resistance (London: Routledge, 1997), p.24

[5] Elizabeth Kerekere, ‘Part of The Whānau: The Emergence of Takatāpui Identity – He Whāriki Takatāpui,’ doctorate thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017, p.128

[6] See Georgina Beyer in Jessica Hutchings and Clive Aspin, Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People (Wellington: Huia, 2007), pp.71, 74-74; Poppy in Wilton, p.272; Resitara Apa in Dan McMullin and Yuki Kihara, Samoan Queer Lives (Auckland: little island press, 2018), pp.27-28

[7] Poppy in Wilton, p.272

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