Have a Gay Day! The 60th anniversary of Wellington’s Dorian Society

Have a Gay Day! The 60th anniversary of Wellington’s Dorian Society

Sixty years ago, on 27 May 1962, a group of sixteen men met at a house on The Terrace in central Wellington to discuss forming what would become New Zealand’s first documented homosexual organisation – the Dorian Society. Gareth Watkins shares more of the story of some of the people involved.

At the time, homosexual activity was still an imprisonable offence and homosexuality itself was defined by psychiatrists as a personality disorder. Those ‘afflicted’, could be legally discriminated against, committed to psychiatric hospitals and subjected to aversion/shock therapy.

Understandably, the minutes of that first meeting of the Dorian didn’t include any reference to homosexuality. Instead, nondescript language was used. For example, the draft constitution (from 6 June) read: “The aim of the Society will be to promote amongst its members an honest desire to serve the development of friendship, mutual respect, and tolerance in all its aspects.” It went on: “The Society will provide entertainment for its members and activities of a cultural and social nature.”

A typed list with handwritten edits and notes. The paper is ripped in parts
Part of the Dorian Society’s draft constitution, 6 June 1962, Dorian Society Papers MS-0359-02, courtesy of LAGANZ

However, within a short period of time, some members were more public about the nature of the group. In 1964, Jack Goodwin wrote to Monte Holcroft, the editor of the Listener, saying the Dorian would help “homosexuals, particularly the young ones, to adjust themselves to society so that they are less of a risk to themselves or a scandal to others.”

The Society was initially open to men only. They mainly met in private, firstly in premises in Cornhill Street, then in Lambton Quay opposite the D.I.C department store (now the Harbour City Centre), and finally in the Willis Street Village. They also held an annual ball in the Brooklyn Community Hall.

While it was primarily a social group, the Dorian also established a legal sub-committee to begin laying the groundwork for homosexual law reform – something that would eventually occur in 1986.

Two men in glamorous drag holding microphones and singing
Johnny Croskery and Toni Rogét. Johnny Croskery and Frank Lund. From Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1980s–1990s photographer unknown, 1993. Te Papa (O.044246)

Never a Mrs Natural

One of the Dorian’s early members was Johnny Croskery (1941–2012) who is pictured on the left. Over a period of four decades, Johnny performed as a drag artiste around Wellington, including with Toni Rogét (pictured on the right) at Carmen Rupe’s Le Balcon nightclub in the 1970s.

Johnny described his look as “over the top…orange hair… long fingernails, always sequins and feathers… never a Mrs Natural.” After Johnny passed away in April 2012, his partner Peter Kooiman generously donated Johnny’s photograph albums and other taonga to Te Papa.

A black and white photo of two people looking at the camera
Peter Kooiman and Johnny Croskery. From Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1960–1980, photographer unknown, 1960–1980, Te Papa (O.044407)

I was fortunate to audio interview Johnny and Peter in 1999:

In the audio excerpt above, Johnny talks about meeting Peter when he was 16 while window-dressing at the D.I.C. “He used to walk by going to the post office. And I thought what a wonderful looking man, I’m going to live with him. And I did. And I have done for the last forty-one years.”

Peter reflects, “John always fascinated me more than anything else, because the way he use to do his hair and the way he was different…  and he still does… I really do love John and don’t know what I would do without him.”

By the time Johnny was 21, the couple had saved enough to put a deposit on a house in Newtown – the home they would share for the next fifty years.

A man dressed in glamorous drag with a bright orange large wig and a matching orange feather boa.
Johnny Croskery at home in Newtown, Wellington. From Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1960–1980, photographer unknown, 1960–1980, Te Papa (O.044439)

Safe harbour

Johnny’s photographs offer a glimpse into life in New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s that is rarely seen in mainstream imagery from the time. It is queer, unapologetic and fun.

Seven people dressed in various costumes posing for the camera
Dorian Society annual ball (1967) in the Brooklyn Community Hall, Wellington. Photographer unknown, Wellington, 1967. Te Papa (O.044386)

To me, the relaxed playfulness in the images also gives a sense of what it must have felt like entering into the safe harbour of the Dorian.

In a highly judgmental world in which even the accusation of homosexuality could cause people to lose their job, family and friends, the Dorian was a space in which its members could simply be themselves.

To maintain this safe space, the Dorian employed some robust vetting procedures: “Any prospective member shall be nominated by a member of the Society to whom he is personally known, and shall be seconded by a second member of the Society to who he is personally known.” Then the “full name of any prospective member shall be circularized by the Executive Committee among all members of the Society.” Finally, the “Committee shall interview all prospective members.”

Beer bottles and chiffon

The risk of infiltration or public ridicule was real. A former member recently recalled how a plain-clothed policeman would be “standing in the shadows” opposite the Lambton Quay building taking notes.

And in Johnny’s interview, he recalls how photographers from the New Zealand Truth tabloid infiltrated one of the Dorian’s fancy-dress balls at the Brooklyn Community Hall:

“There was a hell of a kerfuffle – drag queens running, chasing them outside, jumping on top of their cars. I remember seeing one… on top of the photographer’s car, clinging for dear life as it wheeled down the hill, bashing on the roof of this car with a beer bottle and chiffon flying everywhere behind – it was the most amazing sight to see.”

In the 1980s, Johnny began volunteering with the New Zealand AIDS Foundation – supporting those living with HIV and AIDS. By the early 1990s, New Zealand was experiencing the peak of this country’s deaths from AIDS-related conditions, with Johnny later reflecting, “So many people are dying at an early age it just makes you think, who will be left to be 80.”

But the 1990s also saw a large-scale public response to the epidemic with parades and festivals throughout the country that strengthened and galvanised communities. In Auckland, there was Hero, in Christchurch – Freedom, and in Wellington – Devotion.

A lot of people on a march through a city street with some people holding a banner saying 'Aids Foundation Awhina Centre' and some people on motorcycles
Devotion Festival parade with New Zealand AIDS Foundation banner. From Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1980s–1990s, Photographer unknown, Wellington, 1995. Te Papa (O.044303)

Johnny was often present at Devotion events with, as he puts it, his “very gay looking dogs.”

A man in full drag with a bright orange wig and a yellow dress on, holding a small white dog is sitting in a crowd of people
Johnny Croskery at Devotion Festival. From Johnny Croskery’s photograph album 1980s–1990s. Photographer unknown, Wellington, 1993. Te Papa (O.044273)

So on this 60th anniversary of the Dorian, I think of the tenacity of the group’s membership – how they thrived, loved and expressed themselves despite the prevailing conservative attitudes of the State and society. I think also of Johnny and how he is still an inspiration to me and many others – someone who lived a truly authentic, caring, non-judgemental, love-filled life.

And this is also a moment to acknowledge the Te Papa team – history curators Stephanie Gibson, Lynette Townsend, and Claire Regnault, and archivist Jennifer Twist who, along with the wider Te Papa whānau, have over the last decade been actively acquiring significant Takatāpui, LGBTI+ Rainbow collections. Included in this, taonga from Carmen Rupe, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, Will Hansen, the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt, Chrissy Witoko, Bella Simpson, Frank Lund, and Johnny Croskery.

Fittingly, the last words should go to Johnny. He was a regular collector for the annual World AIDS Day street appeal, often standing on the corner of Willis Street and Lambton Quay. You would often hear him, dressed in one of his amazing outfits, calling out to people “Have a Gay Day!”

Links and further reading:

3 Comments

  1. Thanks Gareth, really enjoyed this insight into the early days of homosexual law reform in Welly.

  2. What an incredibly engaging and revelatory post, Gareth.
    Many, many thanks,
    Ron

  3. This is a wonderful testament Gareth, full of admiration and love. Thank you.

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