The signing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act on the 11 July 1986 was a pivotal moment in the fight for equality and human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. The Act decriminalised sexual relations between gay men 16 years and over, but it was also hugely important in terms of the ongoing battle towards equality for all. That’s why so many lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex people joined in the campaign.
The battle for Homosexual law reform was fought on many fronts, by many people. Often important strategies, plans and protests were made in clubs, bars and coffee houses throughout New Zealand. One place was the Evergreen Coffee Lounge in Vivian Street, Wellington. During the years leading up to homosexual law reform the café hosted informal gatherings where gay rights were openly discussed. A set of collages made by Chrissy Witoko, the café’s proprietor and transgender ‘Queen of Wellington’, feature many people who were instrumental to achieving the reform. Featured on the top left of the panel below is Fran Wilde the MP who pushed the Homosexual Law Reform through parliament, and below her is Malcolm Vaughan – a gay rights advocate both before the Act was passed and after.
The panels reflect many important events that mark the changing focus of gay liberation in New Zealand. The Evergreen continued to be a place of discussion and debate. It was also home to a Gay and Lesbian Community Centre between 1986 – 1989 – run by volunteers, it offered support along with coffee and cake.
Gay activists continued to take to the streets to fight for social rights and freedom but the emphasis shifted in the 1990s to a more carnival-like party atmosphere. Many of these events are featured in Chrissy’s panels including Auckland’s Hero Parade (1994 – 2001) and Wellington’s Devotion Festival. As Historian Chris Brickell writes in his book Mates & Lovers, ‘there was a political edge: the parade promoted safer sex and queered the otherwise heterosexual streets’.
A panel created in 1998 highlights another shift in focus for the gay community. This panel showcases the Awhina Centre’s World AIDS Days variety concert. Awhina is the Wellington centre for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, an organisation that was born out of the gay community’s response to AIDS in the early 1980s. As it happens, the concert was held at Te Papa and photographs of several Te Papa staff members were included.
30 years on, it’s hard to believe how contentious and difficult the fight for Homosexual law reform was. At the time, same sex marriage was a distant dream, and many would never have believed transitioning from one gender to another would be so open. But there is still more to achieve and many LGBTI people deal with ignorance and prejudice on a regular basis. Even so, now is the time to celebrate and pay tribute to what has been achieved. It took guts and determination, something Chrissy had in abundance. The panels Chrissy created and hung in her coffee lounge showcase her life, family and friends, and many of her achievements but perhaps most importantly they represent the whirlwind of activities, the hard slog, the strong people, the tough times, and the celebratory moments of gay liberation in the 20th century.
To find out more about the Evergreen Coffee Lounge and Chrissy Witoko go to Queen of the Evergreen, Collections Online, or if you would like to contact me about the Remembering the Evergreen project email Evergreen@tepapa.govt.nz