Bygone Gays: A Queer History of Otago University

Bygone Gays: A Queer History of Otago University

CW: Homophobia.

Students were a “driving generation” in queer liberation, says Chris Brickell, Professor of Gender Studies and LGBT historian. Otago University was no exception. Here’s an abridged history of our forebears and foretwinks. 



There’s little information specifically about queer students before the 1960s, but there is information about Dunedin’s queer scene in general.

Interestingly, there were two instances of Australian ladies who dressed up as men, legally married women, and legally divorced in Dunedin during the 1900s. As early as 1920, Queens Gardens were known as a gay cruising site. 

Chris said that a Dunedin queer culture existed as early as 1940s. “It was based mostly around private friendship groups. House parties, going away for the weekend, hanging out with friends and sometimes travelling to other cities. Those groups grew in the 1950s and ’60s, and often those friendships would endure for the rest of their lives. The theatre in Dunedin was quite important [for gay men]. There were a couple of places by the 1950s and ’60s where gay people would meet. A few coffee places had queer clientele.”

Without access to education or equal employment, few lesbians had the economic independence to support themselves. Allowing women into universities, as Otago did in 1871, gave them a degree of self-sufficiency for the first time in Western history. It also curated a space for other like-minded women, many of whom were lesbians unwilling to rely on heterosexual marriages. 

Life was difficult for kiwi lesbians in the 1940s outside of varsity. In the ’50s, though, says Chris, “women too began hanging out in late night coffee bars; there was a kind of increasingly public lesbian and gay life at that point, but people were still pretty discrete. There weren’t many men arrested for consensual [gay] sex in the ’50s, but there were some.” 



In 1968, Critic printed an article about homosexuality. The author suggested avoiding words such as “disease” or “illness”, but he mused that homosexuality might instead be due to narcissism, daddy issues, fear of the opposite sex, or Freudian castration anxiety. He recommended 150-350 hours of psychoanalytic and behavioural therapy, which involves electric shocks and induced vomiting.



Chris described an “interesting polarisation in the ’70s between gay liberation, a new social movement on one hand, and a much more conservative view on the other. [That conservative view] took a long time to go away.” There were two attempts at Homosexual Law Reform in the ’70s, both unsuccessful. In 1973, Dunedin held its first Gay Pride March.

Other than a review calling a drag show “vacuous rubbish”, the first blatantly LGBT-produced content in Critic was a comic from 1977, in the midst of second-wave feminism. The comic depicted two women sitting under the clocktower. Di was revealed to be a lesbian. “But Di — you’re not like that — you’re really feminine!” said Sue. “Well, we are all different you know!!” Di responded. “Why don’t you come to the Dunedin Lesbian Group and find out?”

“Are there so many lesbians in Dunedin?” 

“Of course! Lesbians are everywhere!”

A week later, editor Al Duncan released an almost identical comic. Two men sat under the clocktower. One of them came out… as a necrophiliac. The bigots went wild with excitement. 

“Well, it certainly didn’t take you very long to show your true colours, Mr Editor. The second issue of Critic is out, and in it what you termed ‘a clever, witty reply to the Lesbian comic’. The fact you found this amusing leads me to suspect that you have no idea what Necrophilia really is…”

Angela of the Dunedin Lesbian Group fired back. “The existence of lesbianism is a reminder that society need not be based on heterosexuality and that the power relationships recently arising out of heterosexuality are not intrinsic to human existence — that the power of men over women is not in the natural order of things, but is artificially imposed. Obviously lesbianism is a threat to those with a vested interest in the heterosexual power structure and the extent of this threat can be measured by the degree of reaction to such statements as our comic.”

The barrage of furious responses lasted for weeks. “Lesbians must go,” said one. “All sexual deviants should be shot or at least burnt at the stake after the painful plucking of all their pubic hair,” said another. One 'liberal' student begs for separate toilet facilities for homosexuals, claiming that sharing toilet facilities with gay people was like rape. Hilary said Angela’s views were “precisely the sort expressed by racists in South Africa.”

Male students, enraged by “lesbian feminists” opening the Women’s Room, established a “Gentleman’s Club”. They released a manifesto of their “least favourite things”. Lesbian feminists were second on the list, and homosexuals were fourth.



Dunedin’s second Gay Pride week took place in 1980, as Dunedin hosted the eighth National Gay Rights Conference. Throughout the decade, weekly Gay Columns and Lesbian Columns were introduced to Critic. Grievances were aired out, from “where are our rights?” to “why do anti-gays think we fuck each other up the arse all day, when we’re most likely to wank each other off?” Clubs offered weekend excursions for gay men, separate Gay and Lesbian shows on Radio One, Gay Student/Staff Group, magazines, and AIDS helplines. The first Critic “Gay Pride” issues were released, containing events and stories about coming out on campus in the face of prejudice. 

By 1985, the Gay University Students Society (G.U.S.S.) was in full swing. Their column made reference to the political climate, notably the Homosexual Law Reform being submitted to Parliament. “You know the year has really begun when you can turn on your radio and hear the shouts and abuses of Parliament in session. The opening of Parliament last Wednesday signals the continuation of the battle for Homosexual Law Reform. 1986 will mean a continued struggle for our most basic human rights.” 

In conjunction with H.U.G. (Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays) and Lesbian Line, G.U.S.S. ran a letter writing stall to MPs concerning “the Bill”, which was “great success”. Another stall was run in the Union Building, accompanied by fundraising and a “blue jeans and shocking pink day”. One heterosexual letter writer was very angry about this, saying he’d worn blue jeans without realising. 

“THIS COULD BE THE MOST IMPORTANT LETTER YOU EVER WRITE,” blared Critic in support. “The Homosexual Reform Bill is before Parliament again. Part I passed its Committee stages last week: 41 votes to 36. It still has to pass its third reading. Part II, which includes the Human Rights Clause, still has to be considered. This most important law could yet fail. Homosexuality is a natural disposition. It is not something you choose to do, nor is it an illness or moral perversion. Extensive scientific and medical research continues to show it is as valid a part of anyone’s humanity as the colour of your skin, being left-handed, or merely an out-going personality.”

The Homosexual Law Reform Bill passed. However, discrimination could still legally occur. Students called on OUSA to instate Gay and Lesbian Rights Officers on the Exec, who would safeguard the interests of queers on campus. “Until last Wednesday, July 9th, all sexual activity between males was a crime. Even if both parties consented, they were both adults, and it was done in private, it was still a crime with penalties ranging from 5 to 14 years in jail. It is still legal to discriminate of gay people of both sexes in housing, employment, the provision of goods and services and any other way whatever. [This] still exists at Otago University.”

The following week’s letters indicate that the proposal didn’t go well. 170 students turned up to vote against it, “sneering, interrupting, and making offensive interjections”, according to one letter.

“Universities [...] have always been considered the bastion of liberalism,” lamented Andrew. “If the narrow-mindedness at Otago University is anything to go by, the obstacles that the Gay Community has to face in the general community must be insurmountable. The number of times I have been mentally and physically abused are innumerable. The war is not over yet.”

“Can I just ask ‘what the fuck happened’ at the meeting? Could it be (no, surely not) that the majority of people came to the meeting determined to further victimise 10% of the students on campus? Do you feel ‘safer’ now? I feel really threatened,” wrote Geraldine.

Peter Carrell, now Bishop of Christchurch, accused Andrew and Geraldine of “homosexual bigotry” towards heterosexuals. Another student sent in a list of why “all homosexuals should be shot by a Real Kiwi Joker,” including “because they all wear clothes that make them look like they’ve just fallen out of a garbage truck,” which many of us can’t argue with to this day. 



Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was still legal and The Gay Column in Critic urged students to lobby local members of Parliament in 1992, aiming to add a clause including these grounds into the Human Rights Commission Act.

“There is still much negative feeling towards the gay community,” said one student. “I for one would have thought that university students would be among the more open-minded of the community — how wrong could I have been?” He listed some of the insults he received during pride week. Another student said “being gay in Dunedin is challenging. It’s not very easy to be OUT here.”

One student demanded a “Homophobic Pride Week where my fellows and I can march to the Octagon wearing our best bush shirts and drinking Speights whilst pushing ugly women with short haircuts and men in tight jeans into the gutter.” Another said they were “sick to death of gay and lesbian priders,” pleading for rights for real minorities — “bestialic necrophiliacs” — which goes to show that homophobes have had exactly one joke since 1977. 

Dykes on Campus was formed to accompany Gay Boys on Campus. One student suggested changing the name to “Queer Boys on Campus”, to include bisexuals. People fought over whether to reclaim 'queer' or not. In 1993, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was outlawed in Aotearoa.

Hon Grant Robertson, who later became the world’s first openly gay Deputy Prime Minister, was president of OUSA in 1993. He shared his experience of attending Otago in the ’90s with Critic.

“I was still coming to terms with being gay when I started at Otago. There was no gay scene that I was really aware of as such,” said Grant. “I knew a handful of gay people, and I had been to a couple of ‘dances’ at the Southern Cross that were simultaneously boring and terrifying. Little by little I came out to my friends, and by the time I was OUSA President it was relatively well known, but I did not publicly campaign in that way. It was a strange halfway house. I do recall some of my campaign material being defaced with the word ‘faggot’. So, obviously some people knew! As time wore on post-Presidency, I flatted with another gay guy, and I found a whole community in Dunedin I had known nothing about.”

However, students continued fighting for their rights. In terms of achievements for the LGBT community in the ’90s, Grant is most proud of establishing UniQ. “In my time, as NZUSA Vice President and Co-President, we established a project to look at representation for LGBT students. A terrific guy named Matt Soeberg undertook the project, and out of that we created the UniQ network. It was very much needed, and continues today on campuses around New Zealand.”



It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come since even the 1990s. In 2004, Aotearoa instituted civil union for both same-sex and opposite sex couples. Gay marriage was legalised in 2013. This year, Otago opened its first queer space.

To quote a student in 1986, though, “the war is not over yet.” Gay and bisexual men can’t donate blood unless they’re abstinent for three months. It’s vague whether trans and intersex Kiwis are even protected under the Human Rights Act 1993. Parliament is currently debating whether to criminalise conversion therapy, as well as considering a law that would allow trans and intersex people to easily change their sex on birth certificate. Intolerance still permeates our society. Hopefully this will one day be history, too. 

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2021.
Posted 3:11pm Sunday 22nd August 2021 by Asia Martusia King.