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Wāhine Taharua

1960 – 1969

This essay written by Te Haa o Ngā Wāhine: He Rōpū Mahi. Te Whanganui-a-Tara was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

E kore e piri te uku ki te rino
(Aotea) [1]

This entry focuses on a specific group of kamp Māori women in Wellington in the 1960s. [2] The word 'lesbian' was not used then—these women were simply 'kamp'. In the 1960s, Māori lesbians came together for survival. In public they were often attacked or harassed. But these women were not victims, they fought back. They made room for themselves and their lovers, whether it was two tables at the Bistro Bar, or a street in Mt Victoria. The things they did then were part of a series of battles won by Māori lesbians, other Māori, and other lesbians, which made it possible for later wāhine taharua to live out their own stories.

Wellington in the late 1960s reflected the turmoil around the world. It was before the Springbok tour, and the second wave of the feminist movement. New Zealand had made a 'commitment' to participate in the Vietnam conflict, and Māori urban migration was at its peak. Six o'clock closing of the pubs was abolished, and unemployment was almost non-existent. Hairstyles and hemlines were on the way up, and Carmen was holding court at Carmen's International Coffee Lounge. [3]

A particular group of kamp Māori women came together in Wellington at that time for protection, and to socialise, to live, to work, and to be with others like themselves. Much of the socialising was at bars and clubs such as the Sorrento, Bistro Bar, Balcony, Sunset Strip or Powder Puff. There were other activities too, such as trips on the ferry or going to the zoo.

We did a lot of things that were impromptu. You would just get up in the morning and decide – 'let's do something', and you'd run down the street knocking on other kamps' doors calling 'we're going out – do you want to come?' One day we decided to go to the zoo, all the fairies were beautifully dressed and the butches looked smart. There were probably about three car loads of us. But when it was time to go home we didn't have enough money for all of us to go by taxi, so the butches walked and the fairies got the taxi.

The Twilight People were made up of prostitutes, queens, kamp men, and kamp women. They had their own language and codes of behaviour. A 'butch' was a lesbian who took on the more masculine way of dressing. Some strapped their breasts down as part of their 'butch' role. In part, this was the way they liked to be, but importantly it was also for their own and their partner's protection. A couple was less likely to get a hard time if they looked like a heterosexual couple. The 'fairies' wore beautiful feminine clothes, make-up, wigs, and false eyelashes. However, these women often did not behave like the 1960s 'dolls' they appeared to be. They had to fight just as hard as the butches, sometimes harder. Neither were they necessarily passive about choosing a partner!

'Darl' was a term often used by women who had been in prison, and 'square' was the name for heterosexuals. The H. brothers' gang (who terrorised queens and kamps) and 'squares' (heterosexuals) were all various faces of the enemy. Many of the Māori kamp women of that era were what would by the 1990s be called streetwise. Robbery, corruption and violence were their backdrop, and sometimes their source of income.

Sometimes we'd go back to a ship, I would sit there and distract them, and my friends would do the ship over. This would take ten minutes, then they'd come and get me and we'd go.

They also did paid work. Butches tended to be employed at the hospital laundry, at Lane's Hosiery, or as car groomers. Fairies were employed in the more stereotypical 'women's work' of the time, such as clerical work, and many were strippers in Wellington nightclubs. A fairy would do her show while her butch partner sat in the audience. Afterwards a group of them would get together and go out to parties or clubs. There was not a lot of mixing with kamp women from other cities, but everyone who came to Wellington knew to go to the Bistro: 'We knew as soon as they hit the door that they were kamp. The Bistro was well known as a meeting place.'

The boundaries of 'race' were not the issue so much as the camaraderie of belonging to a group of people like themselves:

[...] being Māori wasn't a big deal in those days. We weren't into all that yet, where you came from didn't really matter. Our families always supported us, and we supported each other's families.

Being Māori and being lesbian was never easy. We have always been marginalised. It was because of social pressures in the 1990s that some of us writing this, and some who lived these lives, could not sign our names to our contribution. In the 1960s those same pressures meant that a close-knit group, sometimes numbering over 100, could not be a formal 'organisation'. There was no chairperson, secretary or treasurer, no constitution, and no formally acceptable reason for coming together. But through their lives, loves, fights and friendships, the kamp Māori women of Wellington in the 1960s won not only respect from their enemies, but also a space for us all to breathe.

Te Haa o Ngā Wāhine: He Rōpū Mahi. Te Whanganui-a-Tara


[1] 'Clay will not stick to iron.' – P.M. Ryan, The Revised Dictionary of Modern Māori, Heinemann Education, Auckland, 1990.

[2] The title and information for this entry were decided at three Māori lesbian hui held in Wellington in 1992. The entry was based on the recollections of one woman in particular, with the advice of two others. We would like to acknowledge the Māori lesbians of the time who were part of different groups. For us, this was only the beginning of the collection and recording of women's stories like those told here.

[3] See Carmen, Carmen: My Life, as told to Paul Martin, Benton Ross, Auckland, 1988.