The 1970s were a watershed in the history of lesbian and gay lives in New Zealand. Following international trends, women's liberation groups (which included lesbian women) organised from 1970. Gay liberation started in New Zealand in 1972 after protests by Auckland lesbians and gay men when Māori lesbian activist Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was refused a United States entry visa. Gay Liberation promoted homosexual visibility and radical social change.
As in other countries, lesbians founded separate activist organisations. They were disenchanted with the sexism of some gay men and the homophobia of some heterosexual feminists.
The first national lesbian organisation was SHE (Sisters for Homophile Equality), which began in Christchurch in 1973. Branches were founded in Wellington and some smaller centres. SHE Wellington published Circle (1973–86), the first national lesbian magazine. Overseas magazines were exchanged and articles reprinted, introducing readers to new ideas of lesbian feminism. SHE lesbians started a support service called Lesbian Aid and organised the first national lesbian conference in 1974. Another important organisation was the Lesbian Mothers' Defence Fund, started by Yoka Neuman in Dunedin. It provided support and information for women leaving heterosexual marriages for lesbian relationships who risked losing custody of their children. Some women did manage to retain custody and live together with their children and lesbian partner.
Lesbian political groups organised various activities, including publishing, summer camps, sports and social clubs, pickets and demonstrations. Some worked with feminist groups on a range of issues such as abortion rights, rape, women's centres, and peace and anti-racism actions.
In 1980 the Wellington City Council refused to display a Wellington Lesbian Centre banner on buses, although it simply read, ‘Lesbians, contact your local community’. The council said they were against the banner because ‘a small boy might see it and ask his mother what a lesbian was.’ 1
Lesbians worked with gay men to support the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts. Lesbians argued that while male homosexual acts remained illegal, all same-sex relationships had criminal associations. The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986. Lesbians also lobbied for prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This was achieved with the passage of the Human Rights Act 1993.
Important law reforms which improved the lives of lesbians included:
- changes to immigration policy from 1991, which allowed same-sex partners to gain residence
- the Civil Union Act 2004, which allowed same-sex legal partnerships
- the Relationships (Statutory References) Act 2005, which provided legal consistency for same-sex couples
- the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013, which allowed same-sex couples to marry.